This article was submitted to me by Eran Soroka from the Ma’ariv Newspaper. Eran was nice enough to provide me with some quotes and pictures from Omri Casspi’s press conference overseas earlier and submitted this great piece about who Omri is and what he brings as a player. Thanks, Eran for such a great submission.

Founded in 1948, started with a bang, has undergone some impressive leaders and inspirational figures during the sixties, never stood on a stable ground, and suffered from depression in recent years, in part because of some painful failures. This description is adequate not only for the Sacramento Kings franchise, but for the state of Israel as well.

The Israeli people gathered into the state from all over the world – North Africa and South America, Eastern Europe and Western Asia – but generally found the common denominator in successes in international arenas. Events such as the first European basketball trophy in 1977 or the first Olympic gold medal in 2004, winning the European song contest several times or some magnificent military operations were able to arouse waves of optimism, support and pride along the country.

Up to this day, sports achievements raise the nation’s morale. But sticking an Israeli flag onto the NBA ground seemed like one desired but improbable mission, while even Iran and Lebanon, Scandinavian countries and tiny Caribbean islands did it before us. It seemed like this quest will never end.

It seems so appropriate for the Israeli people that Omri Casspi is going to be the one. He incorporates the Israeli spirit with some other ingredients. On the one hand, he’s the typical Israeli: Fights for everything without hesitation, energetic, want to be felt everywhere he goes (on the court), acts aggressively and fearlessly, in a way that can be seen even as arrogance and disrespect.

And, in the very same breath, he still expresses some kind of charming naivety, based on a feeling of self-confidence that cannot be shaken. “The message I want to convey to those who are watching now is this one”, the 21-years old man said today, “Do not let anybody, ever, tell you that you can’t achieve something”. It sounds almost like kitsch. But Casspi truly believes that.

On the other hand, when you’re searching for the worst aspects of the ‘typical Israeli’, some of them cannot be found in Casspi’s case. He didn’t leave anything to happen for itself, but impacted the situation so everybody would see his point. He insisted not to count on luck. He put a target on his wall and never took his eyes off it. This target included three letters: N, B, A, and Thursday was a giant step in that direction. And all of this comes even before we mentioned the athletic body or the wide shoulders, so far from generations of Israeli ballers who had to be super-smart, in order to compensate for physical inferiority.

Casspi wants to give every Israeli fan something to aspire to. In the same time, everybody can identify with him.

Aside from that, some more facts about Casspi:
* His team, Maccabi Tel Aviv, is a rare phenomenon in world sports. In 40 years, they took 38 state championships, claiming the title “The nation’s team”. For years, most of the time they had bigger budgets than anybody else, better management than anybody else, played in the highest European levels, and to sum all that, they simply refused to lose, even if they have to do some dirty tricks in the process. Casspi was “educated” in this spirit.
* Because of the last paragraph, the common assumption is that every Israeli promising basketballer wishes to play in Maccabi. But for years, although Maccabi had most of the outstanding Israeli players, nobody of them went to the NBA. Some of them were offered big contracts by Maccabi, and preferred the sure thing – being a local star – on trying to conquer the NBA.
* But Casspi had the NBA as a goal in mind, and when he came back to Maccabi, in the summer of 2007, after a season of progress in Hapoel Galil Eliyon (a team which enables many young talents to develop), his guys signed an unprecedented contract with Maccabi: If he’s not in the top-8 of the team minutes-wise, he’s free to go the next summer. Oded Kattache, his first coach at Maccabi, buried Casspi on the bench, and was fired after three bad months. His successor, national team coach Tzvika Sherf, tried to give him more minutes. His talent was the clear reason. The other one, which wasn’t admitted of course, was Casspi’s contract. This year, he was a part of the rotation from day one.
* This was one of the games that helped Casspi discover himself to the world. Another one happened in 2004, in a youth tournament prior to the Euroleague final four in Tel Aviv, when he amazingly blocked a dunk attempt by Nemanja Aleksandrov, at that time a potential top-5 draft pick.
* A typical good Israeli basketballer in a couple of words: Fighter, Smart, Restless, Gutty, Sophisticated, Unathletic. Casspi adds the natural talent and athleticism into that equation. Technically, his shooting mechanics isn’t classic, he needs to bulk up and the passing still needs work. But he learns quickly, and does whatever needed to help himself and the team. After being told he needs to improve his outside shooting to become more of a complete player, he jumped from 28.6% on three pointers in the 2007/8 euroleague season to 45% this season, and from 30.2% on the local league in 2007/8 to 42.6% this year.