From Josh Sayles in the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix:
Israeli rookie makes immediate impact in Sacramento, NBA
On June 25, 2009, the Sacramento Kings selected 21-year-old Omri Casspi with the 23rd pick in the 2009 NBA Draft.
The occasion was significant in Jewish basketball history — it was the first time an Israeli had ever been taken in the first round of the draft.
On Oct. 28, 2009, Casspi reached another milestone: He became the first Israeli to play in a regular-season NBA game, scoring 15 points in 19 minutes in a 102-89 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
From game one, Casspi has been a valuable contributor to the Kings. As of Jan. 31, in 44 games (16 starts), the 6’9″ forward, who hails from Yavne, Israel — a 20-minute drive from Tel Aviv — is averaging 12.2 points, 4.8 rebounds and 27.6 minutes per game.
Jewish News recently caught up with Casspi, who was kind enough to answer some of our questions by e-mail.
Q: How old were you when you first picked up a basketball? When did you first realize you were any good?
Omri Casspi: I started playing basketball when I was 7. My mother used to play basketball professionally in Israel. My older brother started pushing me to play with him because he played basketball, too.
When I was a legit starter and team leader on Maccabi (Electra Tel Aviv and) we won the (Israeli) championship last summer, it was then I knew I was ready for the next step and I went for it.
Q: Tell us about your draft-day experience. Did you expect to be a first-round pick?
OC: It was a lot of emotions put together — I was excited, I was nervous, I was happy, I was sad. I thought I might go in the first round, but I wasn’t exactly sure where. I am happy about the situation in Sacramento. The Kings didn’t tell me they were going to take me beforehand. I worked out with them before the draft, but I didn’t know where I was going to go.
Q: Tell us about your life growing up in Israel.
OC: I grew up in a small town (Yavne) about 20-25 minutes away from Tel Aviv. My mother and father are married and I have an older brother who is 25 and is living here in Sacramento with me. I also have a younger sister who is 16 — she also plays basketball. She is great. I (started playing) for Maccabi when I was 14.
Q: Technically you were in the Israel Defense Forces, but you didn’t do a whole lot of training or fighting because you were considered an elite athlete. Do you feel like you missed out in any way?
OC: I did the basic training and my brother was a paratrooper. I just contributed to my country in different ways. I am happy about the situation that I am in. I don’t think about it too much. I know that if I wasn’t a basketball player that I would go and do something special in the army.
Q: What has been the biggest adjustment for you living in the U.S.?
OC: There are a lot of differences. The food is different, the culture is different, obviously the language. It’s hard being away from home, from my family and friends. It’s different going to a new team and the NBA. It is a whole new level of basketball.
Q: What do you do for Jewish holidays during the season? You don’t have a game scheduled for the first night of Passover, but you’re going to be in the middle of a nine-game, 18-day road trip.
OC: I didn’t go to practice on Yom Kippur. Unfortunately, on the other holiday I am going to have to play. It is an important part of the season for us. First and foremost, I am a basketball player. I am here for a reason, and that is to play basketball.
Q: Do you think there is any added responsibility to being the first Israeli in the NBA?
OC: There is a lot of responsibility to being the first. I am not only representing myself, but I am representing basketball in Israel. I am also representing my country and the Jewish people in the (United) States. That is a lot of responsibility. It feels great, though. I try to just focus on basketball and try to play as best I can on the court.
Omri Casspi will be in Phoenix on Feb. 21, when the Suns host the Kings. The Suns’ front office has put together “Jewish Community Night,” which is co-sponsored by Jewish News.
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