Ailene Voisin

Ailene Voisin: Former King Omri Casspi tries to make sense of Gaza conflict

Omri Casspi arrived in Sacramento with his ego bursting, his prospects for a long-term career with the Kings promising, and his tiny country of Israel riding on his shoulders, along for the ride.

Five years later, he barely recognizes his life.

Casspi, the first Israeli to play in the NBA, has been traded twice. He expects to be waived by the New Orleans Pelicans by Aug. 1. He recently engaged in a brief, but controversial Twitter tussle about the Israel-Gaza conflict with his friend and former Houston Rockets teammate, Dwight Howard.

But the worst of it? Casspi, 26, is standing on the corner of the latest Middle East conflagration, running to bomb shelters when sirens sound and incoming rockets shake his boyhood home in Yavne, a Tel Aviv suburb about 45 miles from the border with Gaza.

“Everyone is scared and on edge,” Casspi said in a lengthy phone conversation. “My dog (Butch) follows me everywhere, even into the bathroom. I tried to sleep last night, but then the sirens go off, and you can hear when the Iron Dome missiles connect with an incoming rocket. The whole house trembles. My sister and my parents, we just run to the nearest bomb shelter. Believe me, this is just terrible.”

Casspi, a lanky, athletic 6-foot-9 forward, returned to Israel last weekend to represent his national team in a qualifying tournament for the European Championships. In an almost perverse coincidence, the Israelis traveled to Moscow later in the day for a pre-tournament scrimmage. Not so far away in Kiev, Ukraine, of course, former Atlanta Hawks forward Alexander Volkov is a member of Parliament in another part of the world that is increasingly dangerous and unstable.

The last 35 years, in particular, the NBA has replayed similar scenes in international trouble spots, often working quietly as subtle, behind-the-scenes peace brokers. After the Balkans split, Serbs and Croats played for their countries and against each other in the NBA, and they weren’t always on speaking terms. In their later years, Vlade Divac, Toni Kukoc, Dino Radja, among others, rekindled friendships that traced back to childhood.

Stars on the former Soviet Union’s 1988 Olympic gold medal team switched allegiances and countries when the walls came down. But theirs was an uncommonly amiable split; Sarunas Marciulionis and Arvydas Sabonis returned to their previously occupied homeland of Lithuania but maintained strong bonds with Volkov, who remained in Russia before ultimately returning to Ukraine. The late Russian coach Alexander Gomelsky, a legendary figure within international basketball, retained a fatherly influence over the players he fondly called “my boys.”

Casspi’s situation in many respects is even more fragile, complicated by 24/7 television exposure and the expanding tentacles of social media.

While Israel attempts to eliminate the tunnels that give Hamas entry beneath its borders and tries to stop the shelling that is encroaching into the center of the country, the images out of Gaza – a 25-mile strip of 1.8 million residents – of civilians in blood-spattered clothing desperately fleeing the carnage are beyond horrific. Another lingering image: A visibly disturbed Secretary of State John Kerry, so eager to push for some resolution, rushing down the steps of his aircraft after it landed in Cairo.

The historical context and complexity of the issues suggests caution when using Twitter. Yet within the past several days, several NBA veterans reduced a daunting geopolitical matter to exchanges of 140 characters or less. Howard, who has the same agent as Casspi, appeared to start the mini-controversy with a #FreePalestine tweet.

Casspi quickly responded with his own tweets, including one that read, “600 missiles been fired from GAZA by Hamas in last 4 days. NUMBERS DON’T LIE. STOP LYING.”

Howard quickly retracted his remarks and called his former teammate to apologize. Casspi, who has received his own share of criticism for venting, regrets sharing his thoughts so publicly and acknowledged that his emotions are raw and unfiltered, increasingly so since his return to Israel.

His parents and two siblings still live in a middle-class enclave of familiar tract homes, with fenced yards, fruit trees and lawns, and the occasional basketball hoop. Though bomb shelters were not noticeable during a visit five years ago to Yavne, the southern Tel Aviv’s proximity to Gaza was a frequent topic of conversation.

“We were talking again today about (how) much different it felt back then,” Casspi said. “Dwight (Howard) all the time talked about coming to visit me in Israel. J.T. (Jason Thompson) came over and had a great time. Then, two years ago, Yavne started getting hit a lot. Now we are in the middle of this, and it’s so hard to see, it’s heartbreaking. Kids dying in their parents’ arms? I think of the people in Gaza … they think Jewish people are monsters with three heads. But Hamas is using humans as shields and building tunnels under people’s houses. What do we do?”

Casspi, interestingly, has always envisioned himself as something of a peacenik. In a joint venture four years ago with the NBA, he supervised a sports camp for Israeli and Palestinian youngsters at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa. With an Arabic translator at his side, he conducted basketball drills and preached conditioning, but also spoke about unity and tolerance, or what he still refers to as “the cause.”

Before the conversation ended, Casspi talked again about his early NBA career and expressed a desire to return to the city where it began. Once he is waived by the Pelicans, he added, he can sign with any other club.

“My agent (Dan Fegan) is talking with a number of teams,” he said, “and the Kings are one of them. Couldn’t they use a stretch forward who can hit a three and loves to run? I think I could help, and it would be fun to play with Rudy (Gay), DeMarcus (Cousins), J.T. I still have a lot of friends there. I would love to come back and fulfill my path. But now I have to concentrate on the national team, and maybe, I can get some of this pressure off my chest.”

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