Omri Casspi, Standing Taller Than Ever on and off the Court


Israeli native Omri Casspi said Sacramento — where he started his NBA career and has since returned after stints playing in Houston and Cleveland — is where he’s most at home.

Pregame warm-ups were over for the Sacramento Kings, and, along with the rest of his teammates, Omri Casspi started to walk off the Wells Fargo Center floor. As he did, a spontaneous round of applause and cheers went up from the stands behind the basket.
Within moments, the 27-year-old Casspi was surrounded by admirers — students from at least three local Jewish day schools who’d come out early to see the NBA’s only native Israeli in action. He shook hands, posed for selfies and signed a few autographs before retreating to the locker room to get ready for the game.
And the fact that he would later have one of his poorest games of what has been by most accounts his finest season — two points in 20 minutes while the rest of his teammates staged an improbable fourth quarter rally to pull out a 114-110 victory over the host 76ers — hardly mattered to his young fans.
“I’m just trying to be best role model I can be,” said Casspi, who added that Sacramento — where he started his NBA career and has since returned after stints playing in Houston and Cleveland — is where he’s most at home. “From an athletic standpoint, from outside, from working with the community and for my country — I love playing the game, but to me, more than the game is just what I can do for others; to be a great inspiration.”
As it turns out, those students aren’t the only ones he’s inspiring. This past summer, Casspi, through his eponymous nonprofit foundation and a number of donors, brought several of his teammates and their families over to Israel to see his homeland.
The result left a lasting impression on them. “It was last-minute,” said Caron Butler, an appreciative 14-year league veteran. “I just signed on with the organization and he invited not only me, but my family. My 11-year-old daughter, Mia, was able to come. She ended up doing a book report on the whole trip. Going to the Wailing Wall, visiting the Dead Sea, staying at the King David Hotel — the whole experience was unbelievable. I didn’t know what to expect. It was something on my bucket list — to visit the Holy Land, the land where Jesus walked. And he picked up the tab for everything.”
Casspi downplays his role, but concedes it was important to him for his on-court brothers to understand where he comes from and to clear up some of their misconceptions about Israel. During their visit, while protected by armed guards, they toured various parts of the country, did a couple of basketball clinics with Israeli children both of Jewish and Palestinian descent, and bonded in a unique way.
“I think they got a lot out of it,” said Casspi, who’s spending the current all-star break in Mexico with his fiancée, Shani Ruderman. “It felt like a good opportunity to have my teammates see my country and be a goodwill ambassador for my homeland. We had so much fun, which is what it’s all about. This is my first year doing it. I hope to do every year.”
DeMarcus Cousins, the Kings’ all-star center, says he can’t wait to go back. “I had an incredible time,” said the usually sullen Cousins, who sent out a picture of himself caked with mud from the Dead Sea. “Omri’s like a brother to me. I had a beautiful time there. I had no idea how beautiful it is. Absolutely, I’d go back.”
That won’t be until this summer, which for the 22-31 Kings — currently 4 ½ games out of the final playoff spot in the West — again figures to come early, barring a dramatic reversal over the final 29 games. In the interim, the 6-9 Casspi, the No. 23 pick in the 2009 NBA Draft, who shrugged off rumors he was on the verge of being traded to the Miami Heat before the Feb. 18 deadline, has finally emerged as an effective role player.
“He’s had a great year,” said Kings coach George Karl of Casspi, who is averaging career-best 12.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game while shooting at a 49 percent clip. “I never expected him to be as good a player and deliver the way he has. I expected him to be a good role player for us and I think he’s played above that. Everyone’s been happy with his shooting, but I think his defense is vastly improved, along with his commitment to the game.
“He’s a joy to have on the team.”
Casspi’s enjoying it, too, taking umbrage when it’s suggested he’s yet to make the playoffs by noting his 2014 Houston Rockets did get to the post-season, though he never participated. “I don’t look at it that way,” said Casspi, who spent the majority of the pregame warm-up working with Kings’ assistant Nancy Lieberman, whom he considers a friend, though they never attend services together. “The fact is, I’m here to play basketball at the highest level. I get to compete every night with the best in the world. It’s a privilege. I like Sacramento. The fans, the organization — this is a good fit for me.”
According to Kings general manager Vlade Divac, who can relate in many ways to Casspi, having come from a war-torn nation — Serbia — himself, the credit should all go to Casspi. “Omri is very talented guy,” said Divac, who played 16 seasons, including six in Sacramento back when European players were just starting to make their presence felt in the NBA. “He was searching for his game before, but this is the year he’s really gone to another level. He’s more comfortable, he knows his role, he worked on his game and is definitely a big part of this team.”
Not to mention the “team” back home. “That’s another thing similar to my experience,” continued Divac, whose country was at war during the first few years of his career. “It’s tough when you’re playing for yourself while at the same time playing for people there to make them proud. When you have a good game, people over there feel good, especially the young ones.”
Evidently the young ones over here, too, demonstrated by the outpouring of affection from the Philadelphia Jewish community for Casspi. Briefly, his countryman Gal Mekel kept him company, playing 35 games total for Dallas and New Orleans from 2013 to 2015. But now that Mekel is back home, Casspi carries the figurative Star of David banner on his own.
“When Gal came up, I didn’t really expect it,” admitted Casspi, who tries to get to synagogues around the league when he has a chance. “It was a different situation for him, which didn’t work out. We played against each other three times. It was fun, since we’d grown up together. Hopefully, we’ll have plenty more” Israelis ascend to the NBA ranks before long.
On this particular night, Casspi had essentially been a bystander, playing just 20 minutes and shooting just 1-for-3. While he was naturally pleased with a rare Kings win, he was already wondering what to do next time so it wouldn’t happen again.
And wondering what the daily phone call from home will bring. “I hear about what’s going on there every day,” said Casspi, who acknowledges that when he’s done playing — presumably years from now — he’ll return for good. “It’s reality. Random killings. It sucks.”
There’s little he can do about it now except continue to spread the word, letting his teammates and fellow pros know what’s happening. “He’s an icon over there,” said Butler. “A guy who embodies everything they stand for. He’s real mature for his age and has a great understanding of life. What I mean by life is, he understands it’s about people’s lives and legacy. The conversation we have is about life after basketball.
“He gets it.”
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