EDITOR'S NOTE: This article has been republished. It was originally published in The Sacramento Bee on Sept. 3, 2010.
A few hours before Israeli and Palestinian leaders met in Washington, D.C., Thursday in the latest movement toward peace in the Middle East, Omri Casspi placed himself on the fringes of the conversation.
At the Peres Center for Peace youth sports camp Wednesday in Jaffa, Israel, he supervised drills. He answered questions about Kobe Bryant. He scrimmaged with a girls team against a boys squad consisting of Israeli and Palestinian youngsters.
Sounding at times like a diplomat and on other occasions like a coach, the Kings' second-year forward spoke about unity and tolerance. He stressed the cultural, ethnic and political diversity of the Kings. He left the community center, he said, encouraged and better educated.
"It was really enlightening to see kids from behind the borders, playing basketball with Israeli kids, " Casspi said on his cell phone from his native Israel. "When you see something like this, you realize that it's true, that basketball can connect people from so many countries."
During the past 20 years in particular, the NBA has been a global playground and behind-scenes peace partner. Serbs and Croats maintained or rekindled friendships before war ended in the Balkans. Lithuanians and Russians remained business partners. The late Soviet coach Alexander Gomelsky became a charismatic figure and a friend. Yao Ming became a star and an ambassador who made the critical introductions for Americans and Chinese.
Casspi, whose boyhood home in Yavne is within missile range of Gaza, knows his history and understands his potential sphere of influence. He speaks often of contributing to "the cause."
Thus, when he was approached by the Peres Center for Peace in its joint venture with the NBA, his involvement at the basketball clinic was a given -- and not without its perks. His day began with a private meeting at the Jerusalem home of Israeli President Shimon Peres.
"It was just my brother (Eitan) and I, " said the forward, still awed by the experience. "Mr. Peres, who is an incredible man, told me that the most important thing for him is that athletes and sports can help bring peace.
"He told us the story of Hitler, and how many (German) athletes ignored him and competed. (Peres) said that it's important for me to be a role model, that he is following my career closely, and that he appreciates what I do."
After the visit with the president, Casspi drove to the gym and was swarmed by approximately 100 youngsters. The campers included children from the Israeli communities of Kiryat Gat, Kiryat Malachi, Be'er Tuvia and Sderot. There were Palestinian youngsters from Jericho, Bethlehem and Bayt Sahur, along with local Jewish and Arab children.
When the commotion subsided, Casspi, with an Arabic translator, addressed the gathering in Hebrew.
What does he think of Kobe? What is life like in America? How good is competition in the NBA? Will the Kings be improved this season?
"They know all about the NBA, but it was important that I stress how basketball encourages people to overcome their differences, " he said. "I told them that on our Kings team alone, Cisco (Francisco Garcia) is from the Dominican (Republic). Beno (Udrih) is from Slovenia. Samuel Dalembert from Haiti. ... We have Americans. ... "
After a 30-minute question-and-answer session, Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, conducted drills and organized teams for scrimmages.
"I played with the girls, " he added, laughing, "and it was pretty competitive."
In a more serious tone, Casspi said he followed the negotiations in Washington and was pleased to learn that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas agreed to future talks.
"Peace is something we all think about it, " he said. "We lose so many creative people ... people on both sides dying for no reason. We all want peace.
"Sooner is better. That's why when I talk to the kids ... that's the next generation, those little kids. It's very important for me to do everything I can."
Call The Bee's Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.