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He Followed the Ball, All the Way to California

January 21, 2010 By:
Jon Marks, JE Feature
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The NBA's only Israeli -- Omri Casspi -- came to town the same week that the Sixers' Jewish Heritage Night had folks out in droves and not just for the kosher hot dogs. NBA Photos

Omri Casspi knew it was time to put the "agony of defeat" aside and head out to meet his adoring public. Even though it was Erev Shabbat, a large contingent inside the Wachovia Center had stayed behind after his Sacramento Kings lost to the 76ers on Jan. 15.

Once he left the Kings locker room and headed up the tunnel, Casspi was met by a group of fans waving an Israeli flag. The crowd draped it over his shoulders and posed for pictures with him. From there, Casspi took to the stands to meet and greet more fans -- speaking to some in Hebrew, some in English.

Such is life when you're the first native-born Israeli to play in the NBA. No time to see the sights when you come to a city for the first time. Not in Philadelphia, where he and the Kings began a grueling six-games-in-nine-nights Eastern trip, losing to the Sixers 98-86 last Friday evening. No trips to the White House or the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., where they lost to the Wizards the next night.

Just play. Pose. Smile. Rest.

If this pace is a burden on the soft-spoken 21-year-old, who has become an icon back home, then he's been hiding it well. In fact, the 6-foot-9-inch, 218-pound Casspi is shining far brighter than anyone had a right to expect, himself included.

"I'm happy about the way it's been so smooth for me,'' said Casspi, whose 12.5 scoring average ranks fifth among all rookies this season, even though he was only the No. 23 pick in the draft last year. "I just want to keep it up."

"I've worked hard to get to this position," he said. "I'm trying to be recognized as a good player, and I'm happy to be part of team that has a great future."

The feeling, apparently, is mutual. "I expected it some day from him, but not so soon," acknowledged Kings' coach Paul Westphal, who once guided Charles Barkley and the 1993 Phoenix Suns to the NBA Finals. "He's a hard worker. He's conscientious. And he's got something in him that drives him that you really can't measure."

Casspi says that he quickly learned that observing the Sabbath and keeping kosher, part of his upbringing, weren't feasible if he wanted to play pro ball.

But he takes his role as an ambassador for Israel seriously. Besides embracing fans, he's wearing No. 18 for the first time, since, he said, Israeli sports figures don't wear that number -- which in Hebrew means chai ("life").

For Casspi, Sacramento is a far cry from home, but he's finding it a welcoming place.

"It's different, but the fact my brother is there with me and there's a great Jewish community in Sacramento, that's helped me from day one," said Casspi, who started playing for Israel's Maccabi Junior team when he was 16, then quickly advanced to the best team, Maccabi Tel Aviv.

Casspi Fever's Everywhere

The Sacramento community has embraced Casspi, inviting him to Chanukah parties and Shabbat dinners, and making sure to have a contingent of fans present at each home game.

But unlike the rest of his teammates when the Kings play out of town, Casspi has found large rooting sections waiting for him at most major stops.

Casspi said that Tyreke Evans, who hails from Chester, Pa., and is another Kings rookie, told him before the Sixers game: "You might have more fans than me."

Back home in Israel -- Casspi is from Yavne -- nearly everyone seems to be a fan. So what does he tell the folks back home about life in America?

"Most people in Israel have been in the States before," he replied, saying that he gets a lot more questions here about Israel.

"People think there's war in the streets, and everybody's shooting at each other. But it's safe and a beautiful country," he said. "I invite everybody to come and see it."

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