When Omri Casspi became the first Israeli to play in the National Basketball Association, he never imagined his Hebrew would come in handy.
Shaquille O'Neal asked Casspi, "Shalom, ma shlomcha (how are you?)" and even said in front of the TV cameras, "Baruch Hashem, Shana Tova."
The veteran superstar joined a long list of NBA players who have discovered Kabbalah, Judaism and Israel. Kobe Bryant of the Los Angeles Lakers recently said, "I want to visit Israel," and he is not the first to do so.
LeBron James, considered the best NBA player along with Bryant, sought the financial advice of Rabbi Yishayahu Yosef Pinto; former Knicks shooting guard Alan Houston has visited Israel twice in the past year; and Amare Stoudemire, who signed a $100 million deal with the Knicks over the summer, recently visited the Holy Land in search of his "Jewish roots."
During his stay, Stoudemire, who sports a Star of David tattoo on his arm, said he plans to keep Shabbat and fast on Yom Kippur.
Stoudemire's personal trainer, Idan Rabin, told Yedioth Ahronoth that the star center traveled to Israel "to become a more complete person."
Rabin, an Israeli who resides in the US, said Stoudemire was particularly moved by his visit to the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.
According to Rabbi Yaakov Gloiberman, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson) mentioned the link between sports and Judaism. "In life, like in basketball and soccer, the ball is sometimes here and sometimes there. Every person must discover his or her potential and find the strength to overcome and triumph," Rabbi Gloiberman says.
Stoudemire at Dead Sea (Photo: Ariel Besor)
Why is it that non-Jewish superstars somehow find a connection to the religion?
"Ever person has a Jewish spark. It is no coincidence that tourists who arrive in Israel immediately go to the Western Wall. We presented Stoudemire with a book in which businessman Yossi Shapira explains Judaism. He was very excited. The Americans wrote, 'In God We Trust' on their currency; only here people are sometimes ashamed of faith."
Sports analyst Arik Henig, who accompanied Stoudemire during his travels in Israel, says, "This trend is spreading across the entire United States. Ninety percent of Americans believe in G-d, so it's no surprise that some basketball players are (discovering Judaism). Some of them became supporters of Israel after reading the Bible, while others were drawn closer to Judaism.
"Jews are a big deal in America. They dominate Hollywood, media and sports. Half of the NBA teams are owned by Jews, and some of the league's top executives, including Commissioner David Stern, are Jews as well. Stern is so dominant; maybe he is one of the reasons some players are drawn to Judaism," says Henig, adding that Stoudemire had purchased a gold mezuzah as a gift to Stern.
When Stern announced that the Sacramento Kings selected Casspi in the first round of the 2009 NBA Draft, he found it hard to conceal his smile. Whenever the Kings visit a major American city, the local Jewish community holds a special event in Casspi's honor. Some of his teammates have said he has "an entire country behind him."
Asked whether these events disrupt his routine, Casspi says, "I've found the right balance, and these events have had a positive effect on me. The team is also enjoying the extra attention.
"It was fun to see the Israeli flag waved in every arena across the US. The high point was of course in New York's Madison Square Garden, where 'HaTikva' (Israeli national anthem) was played," he says.
Addressing the recent discovery of a swastika drawn on a California billboard bearing his image, Casspi told the Sacramento Bee, "It's hurtful to think that this is 2010, and there are still people like that out there.
"It's probably just some idiot who wants some publicity. But I know the people in Sacramento, and they have been wonderful to me. I know they must feel bad about this. Same thing with the Kings. I'll just let the police handle this and focus on having a great season," he said.
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