Imagine having to shoulder the weight of an entire country. A country where basketball is the second most popular sport, trailing only soccer. A country where you are the first citizen to ever lace up a pair of shoes in the NBA. A country where for the first time, NBA fans finally have a hero to look up to. A King in fact. This is the reality for Israeli born player Omri Casspi.
In this year's NBA draft, Casspi was drafted 23rd overall by the Sacramento Kings. Playing at the Small Forward position, Casspi has so far had a remarkable rookie season in a league where foreign players usually need a couple of years to adjust. Averaging 12.2 points per game and 4.8 rebounds, Casspi has become an instant fan favorite on the young and exciting Kings and alongside fellow team mate and rookie, Tyreke Evans, will represent the Kings at this year’s All Star Weekend in the Rookie Challenge.
Casspi's season might come as a surprise to many. Coming from Israel’s most successful basketball club, Maccabi Tel Aviv, Casspi has the credentials to back up the selection, which include being a key player on a championship team in 2009 and being awarded the Israeli League Sixth Man of the Year trophy for the 2008-2009 season. However, even with his background, talent and desire to succeed in the NBA the results have been remarkable. As of December, Casspi has been ranked 3rd in the Rookie of the Year discussion by ESPN.com behind teammate Evens and Milwaukee Bucks Brandon Jennings, both of which were drafted in the top 10.
Shalom Life had a chance to speak to Casspi before the Kings game versus the Toronto Raptors on February 7th:
SL: How has your adjustment been to the NBA?
OC: It's been pretty good, you know. I had to make an adjustment on the court and off the court, obviously coming from a different country to a new city, new town, new house. Leaving all my family and friends in Israel and on the court, obviously this is the best league in the world with the best players, so I had to make quick adjustments to be able to play here.
SL: How does it feel knowing that you're the first Israeli playing in the NBA?
Casspi with fellow Kings' rookie Tyreke Evans (Photo: AP)
OC: It's a good feeling. It was never a goal to be the first Israeli player. Since I was young I dream about the NBA and it was a big dream for me and I'm just happy that I accomplished it and to represent me and my family and Israel.
SL: Is there any added pressure from all the attention you get from Israel?
OC: All the best athletes want to be in this position, you know. If I want to be a good player in the league then I have to live with it. And it's a good feeling. Israel is very important and I'm very proud of it.
SL: Which other Israeli players have the best chance of making it to the NBA?
OC: Yotam Halperin and Lior Eliyahu. They are the two best Israelis that play in all Europe. They obviously have a good chance to make it and they both got drafted, so you never know. Hopefully in the future.
SL: Was it important knowing that you'll be drafted by a team with a large Jewish fan base?
OC: No, I never thought about it. I just wanted to make it to the NBA. To be able to justify it, me being here, as a basketball player. At the end of the day I'm here to play basketball and that's what I need to focus on.
SL: Before the Grizzlies game you went over to shake Iran's Hamed Haddadi's hand. Was this something that you consciously decided before the game or was it just a friendly player gesture?
OC: This is something we decided before the game. We talked about it with our media guys and their media guys. If we can make anything small, a shake of a hand and we can be friends and give a hand for peace then we do it.
SL: The kings have surprised a lot of people this year with their play. What are the pieces you're missing to take you to the playoff level?
OC: I think we have a lot of players in the position of forward position. 2-3 position, and when we are going to have a (larger) base of center and power forwards we are going to be better. We are going to have some more inside force and it will help us make a big jump. The fact that we are young guys and have a lot of young players, more experience will make a big difference.
SL: Who has been the toughest player to guard so far?
OC: Ha ha. Every night there is someone else. I think LeBron and Kobe and Carmelo, Joe Johnson, those guys are tough.
SL: Did you find good hummus in Sacramento?
OC: Yeah yeah, very good. Not like in Israel but good.
Reprinted with permission from Shalom Life