As only Israeli in NBA, Omri Casspi tries to be ‘best ambassador’ he can
Israeli athletes'I know a lot of people back home are following us'

As only Israeli in NBA, Omri Casspi tries to be ‘best ambassador’ he can

In conversation with The Times of Israel, the hulking Hebrew talks about country, team, and his growing family

Omri Casspi signs a basketball for a Golden State Warriors fan. (Courtesy Golden State Warriors;NBAE/Getty Images)
Omri Casspi signs a basketball for a Golden State Warriors fan. (Courtesy Golden State Warriors;NBAE/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA — A new team, new city, new culture — and best of all, a new baby. Life couldn’t be much better these days for Omri Casspi, the only native Israeli currently playing in the National Basketball Association.

His time on the court may be limited, but that happens when you’re a nine-year veteran playing for your sixth team.

His value certainly hasn’t gone unappreciated — though as a member of the world champion Golden State Warriors with teammates including all-stars Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, it’s not easy to stick out very often.

Which is just fine with the 29-year-old Casspi, who’s spent the bulk of his career playing for NBA also-rans. In fact, Casspi has never even appeared in a playoff game (he was injured when his 2014 Houston Rockets made it).

While geographically Oakland is only 82 miles (132 km) from Sacramento, where Casspi played a combined four-and-a-half seasons in two separate stints, basketball-wise and culture-wise they’re light years away.

Omri Casspi #18 of the Golden State Warriors shoots the ball against the Denver Nuggets on November 4, 2017 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, Colorado. (Courtesy Golden State Warriors; Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images)

“It’s been an easy adjustment and it’s not even about basketball,” the 6’9″ Casspi told The Times of Israel before the Warriors took on the Philadelphia 76ers November 18.

The champs would go on to erase a 24-point third-period deficit to win the game 124-116.

“It’s about everything around it — the atmosphere the culture. Whether you play or not you always feel like you’re a part of it. I didn’t know what to expect, because I’ve been in so many different positions before. But here somehow they make you feel engaged,” he said. “This team is just different. The vibe, the energy around is different.”

Wearing lucky number 18 (“chai” or “life” in Hebrew,” Casspi however, remains the same. Steady, quiet, the consummate team player and professional, he fits in seamlessly with the champs — even though he’s only averaging 4.6 points and 3.3 rebounds in 10.1 minutes.

That average got a bump upwards in his November 19 start against the Brooklyn Nets, in which he scored 12 points, captured eight rebounds, and blocked two shots over 23 minutes during his team’s 118-111 victory.

“He plays our style of basketball,” explained the 13-4 Warriors’ coach Steve Kerr, himself a deadly shooter and role player in the same Casspi mold. “He’s a great cutter, a good passer and he feels the game.

“He’s like some of our other support players, where the common theme is basketball intelligence; make the right play and be in the right spot. That’s a huge part of our success,” Kerr told The Times of Israel after the win over Philadelphia.

He’s a high IQ guy who knows where to be at the right place, right time

“When we got him I knew we had one of the best cutters in the league. What I didn’t know — because I didn’t know him — was what a great teammate and person he was. How professional he was,” he said.

Casspi’s new teammates quickly learned that, too. “I knew he could shoot, but I didn’t know he was that cerebral,” admitted Green. “He’s just a high IQ guy who knows where to be at the right place, right time. He really knows how to play the game.”

Not to mention a guy who knows he’s constantly under watch back home.

Israel NBA star Omri Casspi in pre-game warmups against the Philadelphia 76ers, November 18, 2017. (Jon Marks/Times of Israel)

“You don’t think about it on a day to day basis,” said the Yavne native, who once took his Sacramento teammates on a summer tour of his homeland — a move he still hasn’t decided if he’ll do with Curry, Durant & Co. whenever this season ends. “Obviously it’s a big deal to play in the NBA and I never take it for granted.

“It’s not a duty, it’s a privilege. Being the only Israeli, I know a lot of people back home are following us. I don’t take that lightly, either,” he said. “So I always think about how I carry myself on and off the court. I’m trying to be the rest role model I can be for the young generation and be the best ambassador for Israel and for Jewish people here in the US.”

In addition to being a teammate, role model and ambassador, Omri has one other key position in life: father. His wife Shani gave birth to their daughter Sarai in Israel July 7, right around the same time Casspi agreed to terms on a one-year reported $1.47 million contract with the Warriors.

“It’s been fun,” Casspi, who flashed a wide grin when it was suggested Sarai might get some “company” before her father finishes up his career. “Seeing her grow from day one, the whole part of giving birth and that whole process, your life changes… I think I’ll play at least 5-6 more years, so she might get to see me play.”

Where that might be is pure conjecture. But for now it’s Golden State, where the Warriors remain the team to beat. And after so many years waiting to be in this position, what would a championship mean to the former No. 23 pick in the 2009 NBA draft?

“It means a lot to everybody who’s gone through struggles in their career,” said Casspi, a career 8.2 scorer and 4.1 rebounder with Sacramento (306 games), Cleveland (108), Houston (71), New Orleans (1) and Minnesota (22) before coming to the Warriors.

Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi drives to the basket between Minnesota Timberwolves players during the second half of an NBA game in Sacramento, California, on April 7, 2015. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

“Any championship is the ultimate goal of any player, no matter at what age he starts playing,” said Casspi. “That’s the goal when you start playing basketball.”

Except while Casspi won’t let on, in his case there’s probably more to it.

“It was just a great fit,” said his longtime Philadelphia-based agent, Leon Rose. “The way he plays just what they wanted. I don’t know what he says, but he’s so into it. He’s contributing to a world championship team.”

“He comes off the bench and does his thing,” said an appreciative Brett Brown, who coaches the 76ers. “Every great team has some type of lightning bolt off the bench. Casspi is just a veteran who’s been around. One of those versatile players who can play multiple positions, who can make a shot, rebound and get to the rim.”

“With what he brings to the table he’s been good for them,” said Brown.

On this particular night, though, Casspi was pretty much strictly an onlooker, playing five minutes late in the first half and scoring two points.

Omri Casspi posing for photos with kids at Amare Stoudemire’s basketball camp in Jerusalem, August 8, 2016. (Andrew Tobin)

Then, while the Warriors were turning a 76-52 deficit into a lead by a margin as wide as 113-97, he sat back and enjoyed the view from the best seat in the house.

“That’s who we are,” he said simply afterwards. “We have the ability to make stops, and then as soon as we started making shots we turned it around. It was just team camaraderie and Coach trusting our guys. I’m happy to be a part of it.”

They’re happy to have him too, as the only Israeli in the NBA continues to live out a dream season in a life that’s turned pretty dreamy as well.

After waiting so long for this moment Omri Casspi can only hope for one thing: That he never wakes up.

read more: