The game last month featured a pair of teams with losing records and sorry recent histories, but the seats behind one of the baskets at Madison Square Garden was crowded with scores of flag-waving, photo-snapping fans nearly two hours before tip-off between the New York Knicks and the visiting Sacramento Kings.
The center of their attraction was a forward. For the opposing team, no less.
For 10 hurried minutes, before the teams took the court for their pre-game warm-ups, Omri Casspi, the Kings’ rookie who last year made Jewish history by becoming the only Israeli drafted in the first round by a National Basketball Association team, virtually guaranteeing him a spot on the roster, schmoozed with Jewish fans as part of what the Knicks declared “Jewish Community Night.”
He answered questions in English and Hebrew, posed for pictures, signed posters and accepted a gift of a jar of hummus — Casspi had lamented in a New York Times interview earlier in the season that he couldn’t find decent hummus in the capital of California.
“I feel blessed to be here,” he told the crowd that looked up — literally — at the 6-9, 225-pound small forward who wears uniform No. 18 (chai). Symbolically, he scored 18 points against the Knicks.
“I love the NBA,” Casspi told the fans. “It’s a great experience for me. There’s a lot of pride and responsibility [in being] Jewish and Israeli.”
The fans at the meet-and-greet were a mix of old and young, men and women. Many of the men — probably a majority — wore kipot. It’s the same everywhere the 21-year-old native of Holon goes during his initial visit to NBA cities.
Most of the visiting arenas make a pitch for local Jewish spectators with an appeal like the Knicks did. For the Kings’ game March 24 against the New Jersey Nets in the Meadowlands — Sacramento’s last game in the New York area this year — the Nets are calling next week’s game “Jewish Family Night.”
Casspi, whom Sports Illustrated dubbed “The King of Israel,” struggled in training camp and scored 15 points in his first game. He made the Kings’ starting lineup two months into the season and was named one of the steals of the 2009 draft by several basketball Web sites. Casspi played in the recent Rookie Challenge game during All-Star game weekend, but he has seen his playing time and scoring average go down in recent weeks (he’s averaging 11 points per game as of this week).
The rangy forward is, of course, a major celebrity in Israel.
He was named the Jerusalem Post’s Sports Personality of the Year in 2009, the Kings are now nearly as popular as Maccabi Tel Aviv, Casspi’s former team, and NBA broadcasts air early in the morning.
“Only diehard Maccabi Tel Aviv fans in the States had known his name before this season,” says David Kufeld, a star basketball player at Yeshiva University 30 years ago and the only athlete from the school to be drafted by an NBA team. “Omri was not a particularly dominant player for Maccabi yet — otherwise I don’t think they would have let him [out of his contract]. Unlike Doron Sheffer [who played at the University of Connecticut], he didn’t play here in college so his name recognition was minimal. The first step this year was for fans to hear that there was an Israeli who is playing, and then to learn his name.”
Here, he’s become an instant hit at home and on the road.
“The Sacramento Jewish community is delighted to have Omri, and the feeling is mutual,” says Chris Clark, Kings’ spokesman. “He has already cultivated many relationships with Jewish leaders and fans here, and these relationships should grow as he becomes assimilated into life as an NBA player.”
The Kings, San Francisco’s Jewish newspaper reported, have “hitched their marketing wagon to Casspi and teammate Tyreke Evans. Casspi is featured in a TV commercial, speaking flawless English. And fans recently could get a free Casspi bobblehead doll by buying tickets.”
“Since we drafted Omri, we’ve acquired 7.4 million new fans” — the population of Israel — Kings’ owner Gavin Maloof said at a welcoming ceremony for Casspi that included many leaders of Sacramento’s 25,000-member Jewish community.
“Omri has attracted similar attention on the road,” Clark says. In the stands at each game you can see Israeli flags and hear Hebrew cheering.
“They chant his name — Om-ri Cass-pi,” Kings’ rookie Evans, a favorite to win the league’s rookie-of-the-year award, told CBS Sports. “He has the most fans — even more than me. It’s crazy.”
“He’s Israeli, I’m Israeli,” one fan told the Denver Post last month. “This is our homeboy.”
In Houston last week, in what was billed again as “Jewish Community Night,” several Israeli fans showed up, and the Rockets offered a one-night-only kosher concession stand.
Again, a disproportionate number of the Jews fans were part of the Orthodox community, a surprising allegiance for an athlete who, like most Israelis, comes from a secular background.
“I’m not a religious person. But I love to pray to God and celebrate all the holidays,” Casspi told the Sacramento Press.
Orthodox sports fans don’t use an athlete’s personal religiosity as “a litmus test,” says Jeffrey Gurock, a professor of American Jewish history at Yeshiva University and an expert on the interaction of Judaism and sports. Casspi’s following in the Orthodox community “is an expression of excitement when an Israeli is successful in an American sport.”
The Kings have scaled back Casspi’s outside appearances and media interviews, to allow him to concentrate on basketball; he apparently has become fatigued by the NBA schedule, which is more intensive than in Israel’s professional league.
Casspi attended a Friday night Shabbat dinner sponsored by Bnei Akiva of Los Angeles and the city’s Beth Jacob Congregation before the Kings played the L.A. Clippers the next day earlier this season. “He was gracious and sincere in answering the questions, especially from the kid who asked, ‘Does he wear his tzitzit while he plays?’” says Alissa Rimmon, a board member of Bnei Akiva. (Casspi doesn’t wear the ritual fringes.)
“He was warm with the kids — especially boys who swarmed,” Rimmon says. “He encourage everyone to have dreams and work hard.”
His parents visit occasionally; his older brother Eitan, a former Israeli paratrooper, has taken a leave from his criminology studies this season to serve as Casspi’s companion and personal manager.
On the road, Casspi is frequently is invited to receptions and meetings with Jewish youth.
“I want to say a huge thank the [sic] American Jewish community,” Casspi wrote on his Web site (www.casspi18.com). “It’s hard to explain in words how important it is for me and exciting for me. The support and love I receive strengthens me … To play at Madison Square Garden, to see the flags of Israel in the stands … to be invited to all the community events — these warm my heart.”
Though not religiously observant, he took off from practice on Yom Kippur, attended a community-wide Chanukah party hosted by Sacramento’s Jewish Federation, lit a menorah in his locker room, and stocks his refrigerator with kosher meals prepared by a Sacramento caterer.
“He’s a traditional Jew. He has a strong connection with Judaism,” says Rabbi Mendy Cohen, the Chabad emissary in Sacramento. “He tries to keep kosher.”
“From what I saw at the Garden recently,” says Kufeld, who attended the Knicks-Kings game, “he was a significant draw for Jewish fans. A Satmar-looking guy actually was sitting near me.”
In the increasingly international NBA, Casspi is among players who come from more than 60 countries. When the Kings played the Memphis Grizzlies, he posed for a widely circulated photograph with Memphis center Hamed Haddadi, the league’s first Iranian player.
What is Casspi’s basketball future?
“Due to his skinny frame he probably won’t be a superstar in the NBA,” Kufeld says, “but he plays within himself and makes the most of his ability.
“I don’t think he will start a ‘basketball revolution’ here among Jews — due to socioeconomic conditions we are not going to revert back to the golden age of Jewish basketball,” when urban Jewish athletes played a disproportionate role in the early NBA, Kufeld says. “But the NBA will definitely look at Israeli players more carefully.” n