By Guest Blogger Rob Yunich:
It’s not often that a visiting player is the reason for a special night at any NBA arena. But such is the case these days with Omri Casspi, the only Israeli-born player in league history. Since joining the league before last season, Casspi has been honored during many Jewish Heritage Nights around the country.
“It’s a great feeling and something I look forward to when I’m on the road,” he told me recently. “It’s great support, it’s unbelievable to go out there and have people cheer for you.”
The Wall Street Journal recently chronicled several heritage nights around the league, noting that Toronto, Boston and Atlanta have honored Casspi this season. Last year, New York — home to the second-largest Jewish population (by metropolitan area) in the world — honored Casspi in a celebration that included the playing of the Israeli national anthem.
“He’s done more than his share,” Kings’ spokesman Troy Hanson said in the WSJ article. “We just had to say no to some teams.”
But there’s more to life in the NBA for the six-foot-nine-inch forward from Yavne, located about 15 miles south of Tel Aviv. Casspi, like any young player, has been working to improve his game. So far, the 23rd pick of the 2009 draft hasn’t been able to improve upon last year’s modest 10.3 points per game average, but he’s shooting nearly 40-percent from the three-point line this season and about 72-percent from the free-throw line — both upgrades from his rookie campaign.
“I feel a lot more comfortable. Things are going well,” he said. “I would like a lot more wins, obviously, but besides that, I’m happy with my game.”
Growing up, Casspi only had the opportunity to watch Israelis play for American college teams. The two most famous men, Doron Sheffer (who was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers but never signed) and Nadav Henefeld, both starred for the University of Connecticut. (Shay Doron played at the University of Maryland and subsequently in the WNBA before going back to Israel.)
“I really wanted to make the NBA. I had the opportunity to go play college ball, but it never crossed my mind too much,” Casspi said. “I’m just happy that I had a chance to make the NBA and hope to be here for many years.”