Omri Casspi is not a politician, lobbyist or expert on the Middle East. He earns a living as a professional basketball player. Occasionally, he even dabbles as an unofficial Israeli tour guide, introducing teammates to his homeland with the robust enthusiasm of a chamber of commerce official.
But the dance is delicate and fraught with nettlesome political considerations. Relations between Israel and the United States are uncharacteristically strained. Prospects for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians are discouraging. Iran is nearby and threatening.
With Kings teammates DeMarcus Cousins and Caron Butler, former teammates Tyreke Evans and Chandler Parsons and 30 others nearing the end of a Casspi-arranged visit to the tiny nation bordered by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt, security concerns remain paramount.
A security detail has accompanied the group throughout their travels to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea, a restaurant near the northern border with Syria and Lebanon, the Holocaust Museum, and a basketball clinic for Israeli and Palestinian youngsters. The itinerary includes another youth clinic and a breakfast meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“We were a little nervous about going to Jerusalem,” Casspi said by phone early Tuesday morning, “but we had a great time. Thousands of people followed us when we walked around the Wall and the shops. DeMarcus was like a rock star. Everybody wanted to be around him.”
Casspi, who became the first Israeli to play in the NBA when he was drafted by the Kings in 2009, has talked about arranging this sort of undertaking since he arrived in Sacramento. Former teammate Jason Thompson visited four years ago. Several teammates are expected to attend Casspi’s wedding next summer.
Yet this current venture is not without controversy; though Casspi said he incurred most of the financial costs, the charter flight (a Boeing 747) was provided by casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, a generous Republican donor and Israeli philanthropist who, among other things, has suggested the United States drop an atomic bomb in an empty Iranian desert as a show of force.
This week, columnist Dave Zirin of The Nation wrote an open letter to the players who accompanied Casspi, urging them to investigate Adelson’s background. Zirin further alleges that Casspi organized the delegation in response to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement, a Palestinian-founded campaign designed to isolate and financially cripple Israel.
We were a little nervous about going to Jerusalem, but we had a great time. Thousands of people followed us when we walked around the Wall and the shops. DeMarcus (Cousins) was a rock star. Everybody wanted to be around him.
– Kings forward Omri Casspi
Though reluctant to talk about politicians or controversial political donors, Casspi vehemently denied he was motivated by the boycott campaign. Instead, he said, his intentions are consistent with an ongoing desire to promote his country and use influential NBA stars to nudge young Israelis and Palestinians toward peace and away from conflict.
“You sit around a locker room, and you talk about your home,” Casspi said. “I always tell my teammates, ‘Come see my side of the world. I go to your house when we go to Washington. Come meet my parents, my brother, my sister.’ It’s literally as simple as that. On CNN, all you see is war. My thought is, ‘Come see for yourself.’ Sheldon … is a Republican; our president (Barack Obama) is a Democrat. Good, bad, whatever. It doesn’t matter. We have to work on our relationship.”
While the NBA’s involvement is limited to providing a clinician and T-shirts for the campers, league officials have long encouraged coaches and players to conduct clinics – usually in conjunction with the U.S. State Department – in war-torn countries such as Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. During the Cold War, the Atlanta Hawks toured the former Soviet Union and fostered lifelong friendships among the players, coaches and members of the respective basketball federations.
Casspi, 27, believes that while adults can be intransigent and co-opted by political agendas, children are malleable and receptive to positive change. Accordingly, he has supervised several clinics at the Peres Center for Peace, a sports youth camp for Israelis and Palestinians that preaches tolerance, applauds cultural, ethnic and religious diversity, and stresses the value of education.
The sixth-year NBA pro said former Israeli President Shimon Peres told him personally “that the most important thing 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, said that he is following my career closely and that he appreciates what I do.”
Casspi’s duties as a tour guide appear to be earning impressive reviews. Photos on the Kings’ website included bare-chested Cousins and Casspi covered with mud at the Dead Sea, Evans floating on his back, Cousins trailed by dozens of children as he strolls near the Western Wall and the narrow nearby shopping districts. Another clinic is scheduled Wednesday in Tel Aviv.
“We’ll have DeMarcus play with a kid from Jerusalem, a kid from Gaza,” Casspi said. “That’s something that’s never been done before. These guys being here, seeing how beautiful it is, and nothing about politics. We live in a country where every day you wake up, you watch the news and something bad is going on. I hope this helps. We want peace. That’s why we’re here.”