Kings' Casspi is a national hero in Israel

Published November 7, 2009 5:40 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2009, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Omri Casspi is a 21-year-old who lives and works a long way from his home in the Tel Aviv suburb of Yavne, Israel.

But lonely?

Casspi's boss, Sacramento Kings coach Paul Westphal, laughs at the suggestion.

"If anything," he says, "Omri has too many people trying to help him. It's hard for him to get enough rest."

That happens when a young man becomes the first player from Israel to reach the NBA.

For the sports fans among the country's 7.5 million inhabitants, Casspi is a combination of Jackie Robinson and Kobe Bryant.

He is a pioneer.

He is the country's greatest player.

"Everybody in Israeli is following me," he said after the Kings' shoot-around Saturday morning. "They are showing the games over there. So it's great."

Isn't carrying the hoop dreams of an entire country a bit of a burden?

"Nah, it's OK," Casspi said. "Everybody is really supporting me. I'm enjoying it. I'm just happy that everybody is happy for me."

The Kings are -- well -- happy.

A franchise that has struggled since falling from the NBA's upper crust a few years ago, Sacramento used the No. 23 pick in last summer's draft on Casspi.

Although he looked lost and overmatched during the summer league, his rapid improvement has been evident during the first weeks of the regular season.

In the Kings' first five games, Casspi averaged 9.2 points while shooting 54 percent from the floor.

Given Sacramento's acute injury situation -- top scorer Kevin Martin could be out until Christmas with a fractured wrist -- Casspi will almost certainly get the chance to keep improving.

"He's a rookie," Westphal said. "He's got his ups and downs and a lot to learn like every rookie. But we really like him. He attacks the game with a passion. He works hard to get better. He's going to make it in this league. He's going to have a long career."

Casspi started playing basketball when he was "8 or 9" years old.

He turned professional when he was 17.

Last season, Casspi finished fourth the 2008-09 Young Men's Player of the Year balloting behind Spainish star Ricky Rubio, Danilo Gallinari of the New York Knicks and Kosta Koufos of the Jazz.

After averaging 12.8 points and 4.6 rebounds for Maccabi Tel Aviv, he turned his attention to the United States.

"That is the biggest team in Israel," Casspi said. "As soon as I reached my goals there -- I was a starter and one of the main players -- I decided to give the NBA a shot. ... I was fortunate to be drafted and I'm fortunate to be here."

When he was drafted, the New York Times reported an outbreak of celebrations throughout Israel turned the event into a "huge festival."

Even Kobe Bryant can't say an entire country partied for him.

luhm@sltrib.com" Target="_BLANK">luhm@sltrib.com

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