The Last Word: Looking forward to a bright sporting future for Israel

The Last Word Looking f

If 2009 was the year of Israeli sporting surprises, then Omri Casspi's transformation from an average Maccabi Tel Aviv player to a budding NBA star most certainly trumped them all. Maccabi Haifa's sudden renaissance under Elisha Levy, the national tennis team making it to the semifinals of the Davis Cup and Hapoel Holon winning basketball's State Cup were all momentous achievements. But it was Casspi's stunning impact on the best basketball league in the world, where he has risen to fourth in the rookie rankings, which most delighted the nation and gives hope for the future of Israeli sports as we enter a new decade. A year ago it was difficult to find anyone in the local sports world who truly felt that this was Casspi's time. He was not the first Israeli planning to try and break into the NBA, and few believed he was the most suited. The most recent attempts came from Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin in 2006. The pair may have impressed back home but didn't have what it takes to make a lasting impression on the executives running the franchises. Witnessing his former teammates' lack of success could have put Casspi off, made him think it was too difficult to even try. But as we now know, the 22-year-old has a level of steel, depth and determination to go with that baby face. Instead of exhibiting tiredness due to the grueling schedule, Casspi has simply got better and better as the weeks go on. He has become a shoe-in for the rookie team to play the NBA sophomores during February's All-Star weekend in Phoenix after averaging 12.1 points per game. Watching Casspi mature right before our eyes over the last two months has been a revelation. He simply has no fear and no interest in losing or giving up. Even the best hoopsters might find themselves a little nervous when facing up against the likes of LeBron James and Kobe Bryant. Not our Omri. The 22-year-old has a self-belief and work ethic which is inspirational and could well change the face of Israeli sports if it is internalized by the local community. The past few years have shown that all it takes for Israelis to do well abroad is to put in a lot of hard work to go with their God-given skills. One of the main reasons many Israelis have failed to make it internationally, from Yaniv Katan to Barak Itzhaki, is that they are arrogant and don't understand the need for graft. But now, with Casspi making such inroads and Yossi Benayoun and Tal Ben Haim finding success in the English Premier League, the merits of extra effort, an unassuming attitude and a willingless to learn may start to be understood. The past 10 years have seen numerous watershed moments for Israeli sports. Gal Fridman won the country its first Olympic gold medal, Benayoun signed for Liverpool, Maccabi Haifa competed twice in the Champions League, and Maccabi Tel Aviv won the Euroleague two years in a row. However, there is so much more to come. This year promises to be the first of a great decade where Israelis stamp their mark on world sports in a way that has never been seen before. The build up to the 2012 Olympics in London is particularly exciting; with gymnast Alex Shatilov leading the Israeli charge. Add a glut of promising young soccer players such as Eyal Golasa and Gai Assulin, and the prospect of more Israelis in the NBA, and we have much to look forward to.