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Israeli In Kings’ Court

Israeli In Kings’ Court

Omri Casspi, member of Israeli championship basketball teams and winner of several individual awards, can easily cite the highlight of his athletic career.

It happened at 4:44 a.m., Israeli time, last Friday.

That’s when National Basketball Association Commissioner David Stern announced that Casspi was the Sacramento Kings’ first-round choice in the league’s 2009 draft.

That’s when Casspi, a star on Israel’s Maccabi Tel Aviv dynasty, made Israeli history, as the country’s first-ever first-round NBA draft choice. First round means a guaranteed, multimillion-dollar contract and a virtually guaranteed spot on the King’s 2009-10 roster.

More than 100 friends crowded around him in the living room of his parents’ home in Yavne, near Tel Aviv, for the live middle-of-the-night cable-TV broadcast of the draft.

Casspi got increasingly nervous as team after team announced other players’ names. Then his turn came — Sacramento had the 23rd pick. “Everyone started jumping and screaming,” he tells The Jewish Week in a telephone interview from Sacramento. “We cried. We prayed.

“It’s a dream come true,” Casspi says. “This is huge for me, for my parents, my country,” a dream that began in Yavne 13 years ago, when he started playing at 8. “It’s a big responsibility.”
Basketball now rivals soccer as Israel’s favorite sport.

Casspi’s selection is symbolic in broader terms. The King’s co-owners, Joe and Gavin Maloof, popular Sacramento businessmen and philanthropists, come from a Lebanese Arab family. No Arab sports team owners in the U.S., as far as is known, have previously signed a Jewish athlete.

The brothers’ ethnic background never surfaced in preliminary discussions, Casspi says. “They’re great guys,” he simply says.

Was he disappointed to go 23rd.? No. “Twenty-three is a great number. (Michael Jordan’s original number with the Chicago Bulls was 23.)

Other Israeli basketball players were rumored to be headed for the NBA in the last several years, a few have had tryouts with NBA teams, and two (Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin) were chosen in the 2006 draft in the second round but opted to continue playing in pro ball in Israel.

In the upcoming season, Casspi will be wearing a Kings’ uniform — No. 18. “I’m going to have chai,” he said. “For sure. I’m ready.”

At 6-91⁄4 (he stresses the “quarter”) and 215 pounds, Casspi plays small forward, a rebounding, ball-handling, three-point-shooting position. “I play hard,” he says.

Next season he will join the Los Angeles Lakers’ Jordan Farmar as the only Jewish players in the league. Today’s NBA, mostly African American, also has a growing number of foreign players.

Casspi — OC to his teammates — will be a natural draw for Sacramento’s small Jewish community and for larger Jewish fan-bases on the road. “I think Sacramento’s a good place for me,” Casspi says. The franchise has had limited success since moving from Kansas City in 1985; this season it posted an NBA-worst 17-65 record. With Casspi’s selection, it’s rebuilding its roster. “We can only go up,” he says.

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