On another night of firsts at Golden 1 Center – first concert, first professional wrestling match, first NBA preseason game Monday featuring the Kings and Maccabi Haifa – the first Israeli to play in the league met up with his old rivals.
Omri Casspi played for more prestigious Maccabi Tel Aviv before he was drafted by the Kings in 2009, and as he noted before the game, a lot has changed. He has changed.
The lean 6-foot-9 forward spent most of that first summer trying and often failing to find a trainer, gain access to his homeland’s limited training facilities and work out whenever possible, which was not very often.
“I had no clue,” Casspi admits, with a grin, “but I learned. The training facilities back home are still lacking, but we have smart coaches, and some of the teams are building new arenas. Jerusalem has a new state-of-the-art court. So I think we’re making strides, going in the right direction. I think with me playing in the NBA, it’s introduced people back home to a different way of doing things.”
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Monday’s nationally televised 7:30 p.m. tipoff translated to a 5:30 a.m. start in his homeland. But interest in the eight-year veteran remains intense. Though a few other Israelis have been invited to NBA training camps, and point guard Gal Mekel spent part of the 2013-14 season with the Dallas Mavericks, only Casspi has emerged as a legitimate NBA player. (Israeli icon Mickey Berkowitz, who played one season for UNLV, tried to get out of his contract with Maccabi Tel Aviv and sign with the Atlanta Hawks in 1979, but his request was denied by team officials).
That leaves Casspi, the personable, intensely competitive veteran who led the Kings onto the court for their first ovation in the new building, to tell the NBA stories and spread the word back home. And what will he say about this beauty of an arena? Just a guess here, but the locker room is spacious and comfortable, the overhead scoreboard is huge and has excellent clarity, the lower level is a bit of a maze – “We’re all still getting lost,” Kings coach Dave Joerger wisecracked as he wandered down a hallway – but the concession stands are varied enough to satisfy the meat eaters, the vegans (see Paul McCartney) and a very picky eater who goes by “OC.”
Casspi, in fact, has become almost fanatical about his diet. His weight consistently hovers around 220 pounds, and his body fat is a stingy 8 percent. He doesn’t eat bread, limits his intake of carbohydrates, avoids soda and drinks alcohol only on rare occasions, say, his wedding last June to Shani Ruderman.
“I had some champagne,” he says, “but a few weeks after the wedding, I got back into my routine. I go to Florida every July, August and September and work with my coach, David Thorpe. I become totally focused, and shut everything down. No phones. Just me and him, working for hours every day, working on my jump shot, my ballhandling, dribbling, dribbling, dribbling. I feel like so much of my game is predicated on quickness, and I never want to lose that. I want to be faster, stronger, going to the rim and keep the pressure off my knees.”
In something of a surprise, on a team that includes speedsters Darren Collison and Ty Lawson, the Kings’ analytics reveal that he is the quickest player transitioning from defense to offense.
“It looks like he’s leaking out,” Joerger noted, “but he really isn’t. He just has great anticipation and the ability to read the play.”
As his game and his NBA profile raised, Casspi has become more involved with charity and community functions both here and abroad. He has long admired the late Shimon Peres, the late Israeli president and prime minister, and plans to become more actively involved with the Peres Center for Peace. The nonprofit was founded by Peres in 1996 to promote peace and tolerance in the Middle East and enlists the help of professionals from numerous fields.
Casspi, 28, has participated in the sports component and supervised basketball camps that group young Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians. He has organized goodwill trips these past two offseasons and served as informal tour guide to teammates and opponents, among them Rudy Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, Beno Udrih, Chandler Parsons, Iman Shumpert, Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire, as well as actor Jeremy Piven.
“The trips are just the beginning,” Casspi continued. “Shani, who was a lawyer in Israel, is going to be the executive director. We’re going to be doing a lot more stuff.”
One of Casspi’s more recent tasks was convincing his parents to move out of his boyhood home in a suburb south of Tel Aviv and closer to the city center for safety reasons. When tensions between Israelis and residents of the Gaza Strip escalated two summers ago, missiles and rocket shells began reaching his Yavne neighborhood, forcing Casspi and his family members to retreat to the nearby bomb shelter.
“Yavne is only 25 miles from Gaza,” he said, “and every few summers, there is something going on. Now they’re in a bigger house in Tel Aviv and when we go back to visit, there’s a lot more to do, we are close to the beach, and we have plenty of room to stay.
His parents plan to visit in the upcoming weeks, and Casspi, who experienced those cold showers and cramped surroundings in the visitor’s locker room at Sleep Train Arena during his seasons in Cleveland and Houston, is eager to show off his new surroundings.
“I love (Golden 1 Center),” he said. “I’m so excited for the city. I look around and see the construction going on for the new restaurants and hotels, and it’s just amazing. Tonight will be fun, just to be part of it. And with the game televised live back home, this is a big deal.”