In first, Israeli NBA ballers Casspi, Mekel face off

Houston Rockets beat Dallas Mavericks 113-105 in first game between Israel’s two professional basketball players in US league

Israelis Omri Casspi, left, of the Houston Rockets and Gal Mekel of the Dallas Mavericks sharing a friendly moment at the Toyota Center in Houston before their teams squared off in a preseason game, Oct. 21, 2013. (Hillel Kuttler)
Israelis Omri Casspi, left, of the Houston Rockets and Gal Mekel of the Dallas Mavericks sharing a friendly moment at the Toyota Center in Houston before their teams squared off in a preseason game, Oct. 21, 2013. (Hillel Kuttler)

The NBA’s two Israeli basketball players, Omri Casspi and Gal Mekel, faced off for the first time on American soil Friday night as Casspi’s Houston Rockets beat Mekel’s Dallas Mavericks 113-105.

Both players had similar box scores, with Casspi contributing 12 points in 21 minutes, and Mekel putting up 11 points in 23 minutes on the court.

The Rockets took a 38-22 lead in the first quarter thanks to 12 points by Harden and eight by Casspi, ESPN reported, but Casspi racked up three fouls in the first period and didn’t play at all in the second.

“It was quite emotional,” Casspi was quoted by Haaretz saying after the game. “Gal played a great game, I am very happy for him. I think this game was a badge of respect for Israeli basketball, we both played many minutes.”

Speaking to JTA earlier this week, Mekel, an NBA rookie said, “It’s a big thing, I think, for such a small country to have two [NBA] players. It’s something unique.”

“I saw the excitement when Omri came into the league, and I’m really looking forward to experiencing that, so hopefully we’ll bring pride.”

Casspi acknowledged that he “got excited” upon seeing that Dallas was Houston’s second opponent this season.

Houston Rockets' Aaron Brooks (0) drives the ball around Dallas Mavericks' Gal Mekel (33) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, in Houston. The Rockets won 113-105. (photo credit: AP/Pat Sullivan)
Houston Rockets’ Aaron Brooks (0) drives the ball around Dallas Mavericks’ Gal Mekel (33) in the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 1, 2013, in Houston. The Rockets won 113-105. (photo credit: AP/Pat Sullivan)

At 6-9, Casspi towers six inches above Mekel, making them an unlikely matchup. Their coaches and teammates note similar characteristics in both players — primarily their competitiveness, commitment to improve, determination on defense and team-first mentality.

Like nearly every NBA player, they possess basketball pedigree — Casspi as a 2009 first-round draft choice of the Sacramento Kings, Mekel as the two-time Most Valuable Player in the Israel Basketball League. But Casspi’s output has declined steadily in his four NBA seasons and Mekel is a rookie, so they both have much to prove playing as reserves for talented teams in the strong Western Conference.

With Houston, Casspi is light years from his previous clubs, the lowly Kings and the rebuilding, post-LeBron James Cleveland Cavaliers. The Rockets are loaded, featuring new center Dwight Howard, forwards James Harden and Chandler Parsons, and point guard Jeremy Lin.

Mekel’s accomplished teammates include forward Dirk Nowitzki, who led Dallas to an NBA title three seasons ago, along with frontcourt partner Shawn Marion and guards Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis.

Helping the Israelis fit in is the extraordinary diversity of both clubs, with players hailing from Germany, Spain, the Dominican Republic, Lithuania, Haiti, Turkey and Brazil — to say nothing of Lin, the son of Taiwanese immigrants, who ignited “Linsanity” during his brief tenure with the New York Knicks two seasons ago.

Mavs center Samuel Dalembert, a Haitian, stands out even beyond his 6-11 frame. Having played with Casspi on the Kings, he is the only one to count both Israelis as teammates.

“I’m making history,” a laughing Dalembert said.

Casspi already has found a kindred spirit in Lin. On the team bus, on the road and at Sabbath dinner at Casspi’s apartment, the two have talked about their ethnic pressures and struggles in establishing themselves in the NBA.

Lin says he and Casspi have gone through “some of the same things.”

With the Rockets, coach Kevin McHale has shifted Casspi into the stretch-4 position: a power forward capable of rebounding and reliably draining shots while playing away from the basket. It’s a job McHale, an authority on forward play by virtue of his Hall of Fame career with the Boston Celtics, believes Casspi is equipped for because “he’s big and is not afraid to bang.”

In fact, McHale says he has eyed Casspi ever since the Israeli was an 18-year-old on his national team.

“He was aggressive, he moved, he had a good overall feel,” McHale said in his office. “I thought he had a really good rookie year, a really good start to his NBA career. For the last couple of years, I didn’t think it worked for him.”

When Casspi became a free agent, McHale said he and general manager Daryl Morey went after him.

“Omri fits in with our style and, hopefully, our style fits him. It has so far,” McHale said. “I really like him. I think he’s a guy who’ll help us.”

Rockets assistant coach Kelvin Sampson called Casspi “the surprise of our team” for whom the position change is making all the difference.

“When he plays the 4, he shows what he can do,” Sampson said. “When he plays the 3 [small forward], he shows what he can’t do.”

Mekel has adapted, too, following injuries to guards Shane Larkin, also a rookie, and Devin Harris that thrust opportunity upon him. His learning curve was steep early in training camp, said Dallas coach Rick Carlisle. He was mistake-prone on offense — going airborne before deciding whether to shoot or pass, trying to split defenders he couldn’t beat and turning over the ball often, a huge no-no for a point guard.

But in four starts, Carlisle said, Mekel “made progress each and every game.”

“He’s knowledgeable, rugged and a very good playmaker, and his shooting is improving every day,” the Mavs veteran coach said.

Entering the NBA, outside shooting was the area Mekel most needed to improve, said his Maccabi Haifa coach, Brad Greenberg. But he added that the team’s run to last year’s IBL championship really showcased Mekel’s solid skill set: penetrating to the basket, distributing the ball, playing tough defense and providing leadership.

A close State Cup championship loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv, which Haifa later defeated for the IBL title, “was when I realized he was pretty special,” Greenberg said.

“He scored, he made clutch plays,” he said. “He had a standout game in a high-pressure situation against a great team.”

Mekel and Casspi actually honed their skills as teammates on junior clubs, including Tel Aviv’s, before Mekel headed to Wichita State to play two years. Casspi would win an IBL championship with Tel Aviv in 2009; Mekel won it the following season with Hapoel Gilboa Galil.

They have remained friends. Casspi referred Mekel to his Florida-based trainer after Mekel signed with Dallas. And last summer in Israel, Mekel watched Casspi and the rest of the national team practice for the EuroBasket tournament.

Their chat with JTA was akin to a family reunion.

“Did my father tell you? He saw your aunt in Slovenia,” Casspi said of the early-September tournament.

Throughout the season, “we’ll watch each other, look up to each other,” Casspi said.

“For me, it’s great to have somebody to … get tips from,” Mekel said. “All the things rookies go through, I have a guy I can ask, and have a friend to speak the language with.”

Casspi and Mekel were ready to conclude the interview and head off to dinner. Perhaps down the line, they may even get to break bread with more Israelis in the NBA.

“If we do well and represent the country well,” Mekel said, “we could open the door for other guys, like Omri opened the door for me.”

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