Although he hails from Yavne, in the center of Israel, Omri Casspi is going to have a lot of American basketball fans offering to treat him like family this season.
Casspi, a 6-foot-9 forward, is set to become the first Israeli player in the NBA, having been taken in the first round of the draft last June and signing a three-year, $3.5 million contract with the Sacramento Kings. He’ll play his first regular season game on Oct. 28 against the Thunder in Oklahoma City.
“I’m very excited,” he said. “But I’ve got to show that I belong in this league.”
Whether the Kings are playing home or away, Casspi is counting on having plenty of fans on his side. He figures all he’ll have to do is look up and see fans waving Israeli flags.
“I know it’s going to happen,” Casspi said. “A lot of young kids are going to come. Families are going to come to see me. I think it’s great. I’m having big support. There’s pressure, a little bit, but I’ll find my way.”
It’s still preseason, but the excitement surrounding Casspi has already started. When Sacramento opened play earlier this month at Portland, fans were waving Israeli flags and holding signs written in Hebrew.
After the game, Casspi stopped to greet a group of them. Later, some teammates asked him to translate the signs, which had his name and his new team on them.
“That warmed my heart,” Casspi said. “That was just really special for me.”
Just wait, though, until Casspi plays in cities with large Jewish populations, such as New York, Chicago, Miami and Los Angeles, where the Kings this season face the Lakers twice and the Clippers twice with his first appearance New Year’s Day against the Lakers.
“I think it will be crazy,” Sacramento’s player personnel director Jerry Reynolds said of Casspi going on the road. “It will be good for us because we haven’t been getting a lot of attention lately. It will be fun. I think Omri will help us there a little [drawing fans]. We’ll take them anywhere.”
Reynolds said the Kings are looking into playing a preseason game in Israel, perhaps as soon as October 2010.
Basketball is very popular in Israel, and home games for Maccabi Tel Aviv, his previous team, always had sellout crowds of 12,000, Casspi said. This season, he expects those fans to stay up until the wee hours of the morning following Sacramento games.
“It means a lot to my country,” Casspi said of being taken with the No. 23 pick in the draft. “We’re on the map right now. When I was young, I dreamed to play with Maccabi, the biggest club in Israel. Now the kids can dream about playing in the NBA.”
Casspi, 21, first was noticed by the Kings when he played for the World Select Team at the 2007 Nike Hoop Summit in Memphis, Tenn. They were impressed by his athleticism and smarts.
But Casspi wasn’t ready to enter the NBA then, primarily because he was busy serving his required three years in the Israeli army. He was discharged shortly before last June’s draft.
“He was a sniper in the Israeli army, so how much pressure can be on him now?” said Scotty Sterling, the Kings’ scouting director. “He wasn’t in combat, but he said they taught him to shoot a rifle. But he said he’d rather shoot a basketball than a rifle.”
Casspi quickly corrects the record, saying he wasn’t a sniper. Still, the story has been making the rounds.
“I don’t know where that rumor started,” Casspi said. “I wasn’t a sniper. It’s not true. I was in basic training. But I did hold a gun, and I shot a lot.”
Casspi said basketball players aren’t generally sent into combat. But he had friends who went to war.
Sacramento’s Jewish community, which Sterling said numbers about 30,000, has done much to help Casspi’s off-the-court transition.
“They took me out to see the city and they arranged me a house to rent,” said Casspi, who lives in Sacramento with his brother Eitan.
Casspi isn’t the first Israeli player drafted by the NBA. Doron Sheffer, a Connecticut star, was taken in the second round by the L.A. Clippers in 1996, but elected instead to sign with Maccabi.
So that leaves Casspi to be a pioneer in this country. But he has a ways to go to earn Sacramento coach Paul Westphal’s full confidence.
In Sacramento’s first two preseason games, Casspi shot an impressive 7-of-8 from the field while averaging eight points and 13 minutes. But Westphal said Casspi is a bit mechanical at times.
“Sometimes he is trying to do everything so correctly that he becomes paralyzed,” Westphal said. “He loses some of his aggressiveness, and he’s a naturally aggressive, attacking player…. He’s got some skill. He just needs some experience.”
The Kings lost 98-92 to the Lakers during their third preseason game in Las Vegas on Oct. 15, but Westphal told The Sacramento Bee, “[Casspi] did a respectable job making Kobe take some shots that were tougher than they should have, so it was good.”
With so many expectations being heaped upon him, Casspi said he was “very nervous” heading into training camp. But he’s starting to feel better as the days go by.
“I am getting more comfortable,” Casspi said. “I just need to get experience, but I want us to win. Rather than play 40 minutes in a game and we lose, I would rather play two minutes and we win.”
Chris Tomasson covers the NBA for AOL FanHouse.