For those of you who are unfamiliar with Noam Schiller, he’s an avid basketball fan and somewhat of a commenting star at ESPN.com’s Daily Dime Live chats that happen pretty much everyday. He’s by far the most knowledgeable commenter of anyone on there and that’s not meant to be a knock to the rest of the readers there. There are some extremely intelligent chatters. He’s just that good. I decided to reach out to him to see if he would write something about Omri Casspi and what it means for basketball fans in Israel. Seemed like a good idea since Noam is a resident and citizen of the country. What ended up happening is the definitive Omri Casspi article of this season. Enjoy:

When Zach offered me to write something about the Kings, I immediately had a pretty good idea what I would be writing about. After all, while I enjoy watching the Kings as a basketball fanatic, I can’t compete with a full-time Sacramento blogger as far as analysis. But if there is one thing that Zach can’t provide (Editor’s note: I’m pretty sure it’s well established there are MANY thing I can’t provide) and I can as far as Kings basketball coverage, it is my very different perspective. See, I share a unique trait with one of the newest members of Sacramento basketball – I was born, raised, and currently live in Israel, which makes Omri Casspi and me compatriots. Therefore, I can offer a different look at Omri, not just in his current role as a rookie in the NBA, but as a figure with a past, present and future in a very different sports world.

The people of Israel are and always have been sports fanatics. As with most of the non-American world, soccer gets the lion’s share of attention over here, but basketball is a very close second. In fact, if you take a stroll through a random Israeli neighborhood, you’re just as likely to come across kids playing basketball as you are soccer. While this is undoubtedly helped by Israel’s miserable track record in soccer (participated in only one World Cup in history, no European Championships) and it’s relative success in basketball (the Israeli national team are perennial participants in the biennial Eurobasket tournament, last missing the games in 1991, and even winning the silver medal in 1979 losing to the then-invincible Soviet Union), we just love the sport.

However, the success of Israeli basketball largely hinges on one team: Maccabi Tel-Aviv. (Side note: I am not a Maccabi fan. I hate Maccabi. I eat, drink, and bleed Hapoel Jerusalem. No Bill Simmons “levels of losing” column can describe the excruciating pain that this following paragraph brings to me.) This isn’t your “How do the Lakers always win lopsided trades?”, or, “Look at that, the Yankees won another championship!” sort of dominance, this is other-worldly. The numbers speak for themselves: 48 national titles in 55 years of league activity, including 23 consecutive titles between 1970-1992 and 38 of the past 40, and 36 Israeli cups (of 49 possible ones). In addition, Maccabi has an automatic Euroleague berth, and have won the European title 4 or 5 times, depending on how you count (don’t even get me started on why there are different ways to count. Since, again, I’m a Hapoel fan, let’s say 4). In a small country that faces enemies from every direction, Maccabi was “The Country’s team”, proof that we can match up with the big boys, and sometimes even win. For years, the streets of Israel were empty every Thursday night, which just happened to be European basketball nights, as Maccabi played whatever team from wherever in Europe, the team who played the part of “big bad wolf” for a week before fading back to obscurity.

While the larger-than-life legacy of Maccabi has taken a step back, as other teams in Israel grow in stature and Maccabi themselves become more of a Euroleague team and less of an Israeli one, it still casts a shadow over every pro basketball player in Israel.  Miki Berkovich. Tal Brody. Moti Aroesti. These names probably mean nothing to you. Try mentioning them to Casspi. These figures are much more than former sports heroes to the average Israeli fan. They symbolized a time when this small, troubled country, was even smaller and more troubled. Even more recent players, such as Nadav Henefeld, Doron Sheffer and Oded Katash are idolized just for donning the yellow-blue jerseys. And yet, all of them failed at one thing:

Nobody made it to the NBA.

Some were very, very close. Berkovich had offers from the Nets and the Hawks after being named tournament MVP in the 1979 European Championships, but was not released from his Maccabi contract. Doron Sheffer was picked by the Clippers with the 36th pick in the 1996 draft, but after playing for 4 seasons at UConn, he preferred to go back home. Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin were both drafted in the 2006 draft (44th by Orlando and 53rd by Seattle, respectively), but as of today, are not and were never good enough to actually make the move. Oded Katash was the closest to make it, having verbally agreed to a contract with the Knicks in 1998. Unfortunately, the NBA was heading towards a lockout, and Katash, fearing the worst-case scenario of missing an entire season, stayed in Israel. He carried on to become one of the best basketball players in Europe in the following two seasons (one with Maccabi, one with Greek powerhouse Panathinaikos) before suffering a knee injury that ended his career despite multiple comeback attempts. You can’t make this stuff up.

Don’t be fooled by the bustling sports world in Israel and the lack (until now) of Israeli representation in the NBA – it’s absolutely huge in Israel. The time difference (7 hours later than Eastern time) just makes it more magical. Get into an NBA discussion with any Israeli sports fan, and you will very quickly hear of that special NBA player for whom that fan would wake up on a nightly basis, be it MJ, Bird, Magic or Kareem. But as enthusiastic as we are about the game of basketball, the lack of one of our own playing in the big boys’ league hurt us. The players considered the greatest Israeli soccer players of all time are Motale Shpigler, and Eyal Berkovic. Why? Because one of them is the only Israeli to score a goal in the World Cup, and the other one became a household name in the English Premier League. The others just don’t cut it. The local swamp is all good, but it’s not the best of the best, and that’s just not good enough.

And then came Casspi.

Well, in all fairness, that’s a pretty dumb sentence. It makes for a perfect transition in the story, and it accurately describes the huge void that Casspi has filled, but the truth is that Casspi didn’t come out of nowhere. He was a strong contributor in Israel for the past 3 seasons, the first while on loan at Hapoel Galil Elion (the concept of loaning doesn’t exist in the NBA, but in European sports it is extremely common for a team to loan a player to a lesser club to give him playing time), and the next two at Maccabi.

Now, I can’t stress this last point enough: at the age of 19 and 20, Casspi played an ever increasing role – he won the Israeli Sixth Man of the Year award for the 2007-2008 season, and started most of 2008-2009 – for one of the top clubs in Europe. THIS NEVER HAPPENS. Young players just don’t get that kind of burn in Europe – they are either loaned to bad clubs for a few years, or are treated as projects and are only given spot duty (which is why Brandon Jennings couldn’t get off the bench in Italy). And yet Casspi – again, at age 19 – played 12 minutes and scored nine points in a Euroleague Finals match. He may be a rookie in the NBA, but this is the third year he’s playing high-level basketball, and his fifth at any professional level. Add that to games with the Israeli national team, and you get with the confidence and experience to contribute right now, and at the same time, has ample room for improvement.

And there’s no reason to believe he won’t cash in on that room. After being chosen by Sacramento in the June draft (a media extravaganza of it’s own here in Israel, with camera crews in the Casspi household for the entire draft despite the fact that it started at 2 AM local time), Casspi had two main weaknesses: outside shooting – his 42% from 3 in his final season in Israel seems impressive before you remember that the 3 point line is much closer and that defenses play much more zone; in reality, his shooting was very streaky – and strength. So what did Casspi do? He withdrew from Israel’s squad for the 2009 Eurobasket tournament, choosing instead to hone his game. Again, this point should be emphasized: this isn’t US basketball, where any 12-man combination of the best 50 or so players make for an elite squad. The talent pool of Israeli basketball is a top-heavy group, and the absence of any player is crucial.

This decision went unnoticed in the US, with Casspi being virtually unknown at the time, but in Israel he was heavily criticized. He was called a traitor, a punk who has already forgotten where he came from. Nothing could be further from the truth: Casspi didn’t take the time off; he put it to good use. He developed a deadly outside shot, shooting 47% from behind the arc in his first 32 NBA games, put on some much needed muscle, and has since commented on numerous occasions that he will proudly represent Israel whenever he will be asked to from here on out. The true greats of the game have always separated themselves from the pack with relentless work ethics, and a never ending thirst to improve their game year after year. As far as work ethic is concerned, Casspi is good to go.

Of course, Casspi is still far from being a true great, both on the international stage and in Israel. After a blistering start to his NBA career, he has struggled since Kevin Martin’s return to the rotation, tending to disappear on offense, and blow assignments on defense. His shooting has gone down drastically, and at times he has been nothing short of a defensive liability. This can be attributed to fatigue – in Israel, the busiest season possible is one that includes between 40 and 50 games over an 8 month period, with no back to backs or 4 games in 5 nights. In fact, no team plays more than 2 games a week. Of course, his recent slump can also be attributed to the proverbial “rookie wall”, along with all its side effects: being unable to surprise teams who are now ready for you, consistency, keeping up efforts despite playing for a bad team, etc.

Casspi’s minutes have also seemingly suffered his tussles with Paul Westphal over playing time. These should come as no surprise to long-time Casspi observers: as a youngster in Israel, Casspi’s attitude was considered a potential downfall. He clashed with his coaches in Israel on more than one occasion before eventually cementing his place in Maccabi’s rotation. In fact, this is probably new to most non-Israeli readers, but in December of 2007, Casspi’s father, Shimon Casspi openly criticized the aforementioned Oded Katash, Omri’s former coach at Hapoel Galil-Elion who was then coaching Maccabi Tel-Aviv. In an extensive interview, Shimon bashed the entire Maccabi organization, saying that “they haven’t developed a basketball player in 20 years, and won’t in the future”, adding that Katash was purposefully denying Omri of playing time, and that he “has intentions of ruining Omri” (Coincidently, Katash was fired as coach in the following weeks).

Casspi’s intense competitiveness and passion for the game, combined with his confidence and swagger, can sometimes be a detriment – Casspi was already ejected from a game this season, and was recently benched for the remainder of a game after seemingly fighting with teammate Donté Greene. Last but not least, to summarize any potential character issues, my father has always said that Casspi “looks like an idiot and plays like a punk”. Given his infuriating yet uncanny habit of watching 5 minutes of basketball, only to reach smarter conclusions than I do after watching for months, that should be the reddest red flag of them all.

But regardless of how Casspi’s career unravels from this point forward, he will always be the first one who made it. And all words and all the articles and all the TV pieces that have aired in the American media since that night late in June – and some of them are really really good – can’t even begin to describe the impact this has had in Israel. Kings games have become a matter of national importance – except nobody cares if they win or lose. David Thorpe’s rookie rankings are monitored on a weekly basis by every major sports website in the country. Tyreke Evans is on Casspi’s team, and is having one of the most impressive rookie seasons in recent memory, and yet if you watch a Kings game on an Israeli feed, the only thing you’ll hear the commentators saying is “WHY WON’T HE PASS?!”. Kevin Martin is public enemy number one, and this is for a country surrounded by people who want to kill us. New Casspi interviews and analysis pieces are published by the hour, and nobody is sick of it, because all they want is more and more information of how their promised son is doing in the scary outside world.

So the next time you watch a Kings game, and the camera glosses over an Israeli flag in the crowd, don’t think to yourself “boy, these people are really over doing it”. Because the truth of the matter is, you ain’t seen nothin’. That camera isn’t showing you the people back in Israel who wake up in the middle of the night to watch the Kings play the likes of the Pistons and the Knicks and the Bucks, despite having school or work the next day. It doesn’t show the “Omri Casspi scored 15 points!… and the Kings lost” headlines. It doesn’t show how all of a sudden, the Rookie-Sophomore game and the All-Star HORSE contest have, at least for one year, at least for one nation, stepped out of obscurity and into the spotlight. It doesn’t show how all these corny new headlines – such as the suddenly over used “Omri, King Of Israel” – are indeed corny, and sappy, and stupid, and true.