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Welcome, The King Of Israel
LEE JENKINS
December 21, 2009
Sacramento rookie Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, is a dedicated collector of floor burns as well as a modern extension of the league's Jewish roots
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December 21, 2009

Welcome, The King Of Israel

Sacramento rookie Omri Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, is a dedicated collector of floor burns as well as a modern extension of the league's Jewish roots

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Meanwhile, Casspi was seeing Levien at predraft workouts, telling him, "If you pick me, I will fight for you. I will go to war for you." Coming from another athlete, the war reference might have been off-putting, but given Casspi's background, it had greater meaning. As a Kings executive, Levien appreciated Casspi not because he was a potential pioneer but because he could bring energy off the bench immediately; over time, under Sacramento's coaches, he could add strength and smooth out his jumpers. G.M. Geoff Petrie and other Kings scouts, who brought imports Hedo Turkoglu and Peja Stojakovic to Sacramento with great success, had tracked Casspi for years and were already intrigued with his abilities. When NBA commissioner David Stern announced that Sacramento was selecting Casspi, Stern cracked a smile, which Casspi maintains was a little wider than usual. "Because he's Jewish," Casspi reasons.

There is a scene in the movie Airplane in which a flight attendant asks a female passenger if she would like something to read. The passenger asks the flight attendant, "Do you have anything light?" Without hesitation, the attendant hands her a leaflet entitled Famous Jewish Sports Legends. The joke, which has dozens of derivatives, was a bit off-base, especially regarding hoops. The first basket ever in the Basketball Association of America—predecessor to the NBA—was scored in 1946 by Ossie Schechtman, a Jew from Brooklyn who played for the Knicks. The '46 Knicks had four Jewish starters in all. Three years later the Syracuse Nationals signed Dolph Schayes, who made 12 All-Star teams and the Hall of Fame. But since Schayes's son, journeyman center Danny Schayes, retired in 1999, the only Jewish player of repute has been Lakers guard Jordan Farmar.

David Vyorst, who produced and directed the 2008 documentary The First Basket, believes that Jewish migration to the suburbs after World War II is to blame for the falloff. If difficult and densely populated environments tend to yield the best basketball players, it only made sense that the next Jewish hope would come from Israel. When Tal Brody arrived in Israel in 1966—he was drafted 13th by the Baltimore Bullets out of Illinois but signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv instead—every game was played outside. Maccabi played in the rain, in the snow, on a kibbutz in the middle of a dust storm. When Saddam Hussein was in power in Iraq, Israeli high school players hauled gas masks to the court as if they were part of their uniform.

When Casspi was drafted, Brody called it "the completion of a circle." Mickey Berkowitz said it "made my dream." Dolph Schayes started checking Sacramento box scores every morning.

At first Casspi appeared overwhelmed by U.S. hoops, shooting a ghastly 29.5% in the Las Vegas Summer League. After a morning practice in late September, Francisco Garcia told Casspi to meet him in the gym at 10 p.m. "He showed up at 9:45," Garcia said. That night Garcia revealed his secret to life in the NBA: "Work when everyone else is asleep." Garcia underwent surgery on his right forearm and wrist in mid-October and will miss most of this season, but he is still traveling with the Kings, mainly to keep an eye on Casspi.

Casspi's combative approach could land him in some trouble. During a predraft group workout he accidentally hit Gonzaga's Austin Daye with an elbow, splitting his lip. During an early-season game against the Warriors, he went face-to-face with notorious brawler Stephen Jackson. Even in practice Casspi is constantly hand-checking teammates, bucking the image of the soft Euro. Among the Kings he is a source of admiration and irritation both. "He gets people riled up," center Spencer Hawes said. "He gets them to the brink." Casspi developed his style under Zvika Sherf, coach of the Israeli national team, who used to tell his players before big tournaments, "We are not going to be the tallest or the strongest or the most talented. But we have something different. We are Israel. We are going to play harder, and that's how we are going to win."

In recent years Hollywood has released films such as Munich, Defiance, American Gangster and Inglourious Basterds in which the main characters are aggressive, physical and Jewish. "It used to be that tough Jewish actors had to play Italians because nobody believed Jews could be that way," said Rich Cohen, author of Tough Jews. "James Caan played Sonny Corleone. Henry Winkler played Arthur Fonzarelli. Jewish characters always had to be the nebbish sidekick—the doctor, the lawyer, the banker, the accountant. There is a very different image of Jewish men in the world right now."

Omri Casspi plays a small role in the evolution, a seventh man in Sacramento trying to establish himself in the NBA, willing to throw a few elbows if that's what it takes. His physicality is part of his appeal, along with his sense of service. On Nov. 17 the Kings lost to the Bulls by 14 points, and Casspi scored only two baskets. But after the game he stood patiently on the court, posing for pictures with the Pollack and Gonzalez families, members of the Mosaic Law Congregation who that night had waved Shimon Casspi's flags. Being the first Israeli in the NBA comes with a responsibility to meet the local rabbis and hit the community Hanukkah parties. More important, though, it comes with the responsibility to keep fighting when everyone else is asleep.

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