Living the NBA dream

Casspi Im living the N

The Sacramento Kings' defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night was Omri Casspi's 29th game of an NBA season that is barely two months old. But despite the grueling schedule of three or four games a week, the 22-year-old Israeli showed no signs of fatigue. He battled for his side throughout his 36 minutes on court, scoring a team-leading 21 points while grabbing nine rebounds in the process. It hasn't been easy for Casspi to adjust to the rigors of the NBA, but his grit and resolve have seen him through a nine-week period in which he has missed only one game due to injury and is now averaging an impressive 12.1 points per contest. Speaking to The Jerusalem Post after being voted the Post's Israeli Sports Personality of the Year this week, Casspi admitted that the contrasts between his time at Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he played once or twice a week, and his new home in the world's top basketball league, have been vast. "It's really, really tough playing a lot of games with very short timing between them," the 2.06 meter small forward said in a telephone conversation from Sacramento. "Sometimes you play night after night against the best players in the world in the best league in the world. That's tough." But Casspi has done his utmost to condition his body in order to have the best possible chance of making an impact in the NBA. When he talks about his battle with the schedule, Casspi sounds as if he is in a special zone of focus, aimed at converting himself into a truly successful athlete. "I try to make adjustments all the time and I try to rest as best as I can, to control my body and prepare myself for the game," he said in a mantra-like manner. "It's really, really tough, but there's a way. There's got to be a way. There are a lot of great players who do it, and on a consistent basis. Like LeBron [James] and Kobe [Bryant], and you see them playing great every night. "I'm trying to work as much as I can, trying to eat healthy food. Clear my head all the time, just focus on the game. That's about it. That's what I'm trying to do. It's really tough to play a lot of games and you can feel the tiredness and the challenge." Undoubtedly, Casspi has risen to the challenge. Few analysts gave him a chance of becoming more than an average bench player when he was taken by the Sacramento Kings in the first round of June's NBA draft. Casspi wasn't considered the standout Israeli basketball player of his generation, let alone one of the best ever. However, in becoming the first Israeli in the NBA, he has shown he has that special ingredient needed to make an impact on the world stage. His effort has been second to none, and with each passing week the Yavne native has won an increasing number of plaudits for his aggressive play and accurate shooting. One example of Casspi's mental toughness has been the way he has begun to beat an early free-throw bug. In his first six games Casspi had a terrible free-throw percentage, hitting only two of 12 attempts even though he was shooting well from beyond the arc. But he has continued to work on his game, is now at 61% from the line, and hopes to get even better. "There's no explanation, to be honest," Casspi said when asked what has changed. "I wasn't focusing and I missed the free throws. Sometimes something gets into your head and when you get to the line you miss it, you just lose your confidence. It's a wide open shot from two or three meters so there's no reason for me to miss it if I make three-point shots. "I'm around 60% now and I hope at the end of the season I'll get to around 80%. It's my goal." It may be hard for Casspi to play so many games, but that isn't to say he isn't enjoying pitting himself against the best players in the world. His confidence is sky high and he is ready to try his skills against anyone, from Bryant and James to Dwyane Wade. "It's something I wanted to be, that was always my dream," he said about being an NBA player. "I just try and focus during the game. At the end of the day we're all human beings. I'll respect all of [my opponents] as much as I do Dwyane and LeBron. I'm just trying to go out there and do the best I can." The makeup of Kings coach Paul Westphal's young roster has also helped Casspi settle. Fellow rookie Tyreke Evans has been one of the surprise hits of the season and the play of sophomores Jason Thompson and Donte Greene has seen the Kings move to a 14-17 record. "[I have] a lot of great teammates," he said. "I'm really happy with the way they have treated me. They welcome me into their family very easy. It's been really fun and it's great to be part of such a great organization like the Kings. I'm really happy." Casspi's humble attitude has won him legions of fans around the world, and of course back home in Israel, where many of his games are broadcast live on local television. "There's a lot of feedback. Every game there's a lot of interest. For me the most important thing is my family, that they are watching the game," Casspi said. "I'm really happy they are showing the games there in Israel and there are a lot of people watching." With all the media attention Casspi has become a sporting ambassador for his country, a role he knew he would have to take on the minute he was drafted by the Kings in June. He understands the significance, but makes sure he doesn't get carried away with his new position. "It might be something that comes with it but I'm really not trying to think about it," he said about representing Israel. "I'm trying to play basketball and focus on that because at the end of the day I have to give the best I can on the court." As the team has travelled all over the United States, Casspi has experienced a swell of support, especially from Jews and Israelis. "There are great people, not only in Sacramento. The support is unbelievable," he said. "There is support everywhere I go, every arena, every place where we play. And it really warms my heart. I see a lot of Israelis and Jewish people coming to our games and supporting us. It's unbelievable." One show of support came from readers of The Jerusalem Post, who this week voted Casspi the Israeli Sports Personality of the Year ahead of Liverpool midfielder Yossi Benayoun and tennis player Andy Ram. "It's been an incredible year. I really appreciate it," Casspi said in reaction to winning the annual award. "It's a great honor for me and I really appreciate it. It's great to know and to see people appreciate what I do and the way I play." Casspi's was one of five end-of-year sports awards announced by the Post on Thursday, as chosen by a sports department panel. Also celebrating were Maccabi Haifa coach Elisha Levy who was named Coach of the Year, gymnast Alex Shatilov the Young Sports Personality of the Year, Israel's Davis Cup tennis squad which has been named Team of the Year, and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt named the Foreign Sports Personality of the Year So will Casspi's talent and success open the NBA door for more Israelis? Casspi hopes so, starting with his former Maccabi Tel Aviv teammates Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu. Both were second round picks in the 2006 draft but were not offered a contract. They are now playing in Europe - Halperin at Olympiakos and Eliyahu at Caja Laboral. "I know that people appreciate us. Israel has a lot of great talent. They are both good players and can become great players. Obviously it will be tough. "Hopefully they are going to make it because it's the best league in the world," Casspi concluded.