NEW YORK – Although Omri Casspi began the night by saying, “the main focus is on the team” and “we win together,” it was clear that this was no ordinary night for the rookie small forward.
Casspi finished with 18 points and nine rebounds as his Sacramento Kings overcame a 15-point fourth quarter deficit, en route to an overtime road victory against the New York Knicks on Tuesday.
On any other night rookie sensation Tyreke Evans, who had 27 points, 10 rebounds and six assists, would have grabbed the headlines.
Donte Green also had a standout game at Madison Square Garden, finishing with 24 points and 11 rebounds, while Kevin Martin scored nine of his 17 points in the extra period.
But this was Jewish Heritage Night and the overwhelming majority of fans had turned out to support the Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA.
During his pre-game interview, Casspi spoke of the Bar Mitzvah trip he and his family took to New York nearly 10 years ago. “One day I’ll play here,” he said during that memorable trip.
Although he came with Maccabi Tel Aviv for a preseason exhibition game six years later, Tuesday night was the night he had been waiting for.
“It is a dream come true, getting to come to New York, to the top of the basketball world. Madison Square Garden is the Mecca of basketball. I am so happy to be here,” he told The Jerusalem Post.
And boy, were they happy to have him.
Fans lined up hours before the game and were rooted in their seats as soon as the doors opened, ready to catch a glimpse of the budding star – the first Israeli to play in the NBA.
Numerous Israeli flags were waved visibly, the Hatikvah was recited and Casspi was the first player introduced as an already rowdy crowd cheered and chanted his name.
During the first quarter, Casspi was on fire, converting four of his six field goal attempts for a game-high nine points.
Every time he was near the ball, the crowd called for it to go to him and nearly every time he touched it the crowd seemed to will it into the basket.
At the start it was the Knicks who came out strong, and the game continued that way.
Although the Kings had runs to close the gap in the first, second and third quarters, it seemed like the home side was just too strong, and the Kings fell behind by 15 points with just over seven and a half minutes remaining in the game.
Sacramento coach Paul Westphal took a timeout to regroup his team, but it appeared as if this Jewish Heritage Night was going to be a disappointing one for the fans, despite Casspi’s tremendous 16-point first half.
And then it happened. With chants of “Omri” and verses of Hatikvah roaring through the crowd, the Kings found a way to overcome their adversary, stealing momentum before stealing the game.
Casspi spoke before the game about the fans, how New York is the center of the Jewish world. He explained that his father and other Israelis had flown in for the game, how this was their night.
What more fitting way for the team to win on Jewish Heritage Night, than in comeback fashion after being down and out.
Embroiled in a David vs Goliath battle, the Kings scored nine points in 30 seconds to trim the deficit to six points, and never looked back.
With the Knicks on the free throw line, a chant of “Omri Casspi” begun by Israeli fans in the uppermost section of the building drowned out the Knicks fans.
The atmosphere was electric, with hundreds of home fans clearly torn between rooting for their team and supporting their new idol.
All around the Garden New York fans in Knicks jerseys openly applauded the opposing team on nearly every possession – there were the chants and there was mayhem.
The fans wanted Casspi on the floor and Coach Paul Westphal obliged as much as possible.
Although the Knicks made adjustments on defense to limit Casspi’s scoring, his sparse output in the second half only inspired the fans more, as they cheered him on.
Down and out, the Kings found a way to succeed, on a night established to honor a people that has been through so much and still perseveres to this day.
The triumph snapped the Kings’ six-game losing streak and equaled their
win total (17) from last season in the team’s second-to-last game
before the All-Star break.
Casspi will be back in the limelight during this weekend’s All-Star
festivities in Dallas, playing in Friday’s rookies vs sophomores game
and then competing in the H.O.R.S.E competition on Saturday.