The Last Word: Casspi paints Israel in much better light

The Last Word Casspi pa

By JEREMY LAST
October 30, 2009 00:45
3 minute read.

 
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Omri Casspi's superb performance in his NBA regular season debut on Wednesday night couldn't have come at a better time, both for the up-and-coming star from Yavne, as well as for his embattled homeland. The Jewish State's international image has taken a significant bashing in recent weeks, with the reaction to the Goldstone Report on Operation Cast Lead not exactly painting a favorable picture, despite Israel's protests over the military offensive's validity. There are few purer international ambassadors for Israel than its sporting stars, and Casspi put his country on the map with this week with a display which showcased not only his precocious talent but also his never-say-die attitude. Knowing that the eyes of hundreds of thousands of Israeli and Jewish sports fans around the world would be focused on him, Casspi got off to a shaky start in his first meaningful game wearing a Sacramento Kings jersey. But he suddenly burst into life in the second and third quarters against the Oklahoma City Thunder, throwing off the pressure of being the first Israeli in the NBA and wearing his heart on his sleeve. With each of his 15 points, the former Maccabi Tel Aviv small forward visibly grew in confidence, apparently doing his utmost to prove his critics wrong while showing the world that Israel is more than a military state. Ever since June 25, when he was drafted at number 23, there has been massive international media attention aimed at Casspi. Few analysts gave him a chance of making any more than a minor impact in the greatest basketball league in the world, but Casspi has already shown a tiny glimpse of his massive potential. It is that capacity for excellence on the world stage which should delight Israel's image makers. For Casspi's strong-willed approach is the driving force that will catapult him into the hearts and minds of millions. Capitalizing on the unfortunate injuries to other members of the Kings, Casspi has grabbed the opportunity with both hands and doesn't look like he wants to let go. With every game he plays, the world will understand all the more that Israel is a country which produces quality performers in the sporting arena. Of course, Casspi is far from the first Israeli sportsman to find success abroad. There have been a number of high profile Israeli soccer players, from Eli Ohana who won 1988 UEFA Cup Winners Cup with Belgian side Mechelen, to Yossi Benayoun who has cemented himself as one of the top players on the current Liverpool side, if not in the entire English Premier League. Avi Cohen and Ronnie Rosenthal were also admirable soccer representatives for Israel when they played in England in the 1980s and '90s. And for the fairer sex, female hoopster Shay Doron was the first athlete from Israel to play professional basketball in America when she spent a season at the WNBA's New York Liberty in 2007, although she only played 35 minutes during the entire season. Never before, however, has an Israeli reached such sporting heights in the United States. NBA basketball is followed by a nearly completely separate group of sports fans than soccer. Therefore, Casspi's feats will open the eyes of an enormous number of people to a completely different aspect of Israeli society than the one they see on the television. NBA fans will soon learn that Israel isn't just a country which is forced to fight for its very existence. It is a thriving, cultured state which encourages its youngsters to develop their skills into a career. We must also hope that those government bodies which distribute a feeble level of funds into sports training will realize just how important it is to give every Israeli the chance to do the best they can. Undoubtedly, much more money can, and should, be funnelled into sports development. If it is, then we can only hope for more sportsmen and women to reach Casspi's level and show the world what Israel is all about. jeremy@jpost.com

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