While the Israeli delegation was marching in opening night ceremonies in the Vancouver Olympics, waving the blue and white national flag, some 1500 miles away another Israeli was representing his country as surely as if he, too, was waving the same flag.

After being selected with the 23rd pick in the 2009 NBA draft (the first Israeli to be drafted in the first round, which guarantees a contract with a club), Omri Casspi has gone on to have what to date has been a memorable rookie year with the Sacramento Kings – capped by his being named to the Rookie All-Star team that played in the NBA All Star Weekend Rookie-Sophomore Challenge. And just like they have been doing ever since October 28, 2009, when Casspi marked his debut in the NBA as the first Israeli ever to play in the league, Israeli diehards were up at 4 AM to watch him play.

Long after the All-Star game had ended, Casspi still had a grin a mile wide.

“It’s bigger than I thought, just being around all those players and being at All-Star Weekend,” Casspi told his local paper, the Sacramento Bee. Casspi scored 13 points and snagged 5 boards in the rookies’ 140-128 win over the sophomores, in a series which the sophomores have won each of the past seven years.

As if all that weren’t enough, Casspi really gets a kick from the fact that the biggest stars in the league, the Kobe Bryants and Lebron Jameses, already know who he is. “When I play against these players, I really try to show them how good a player I am – and it doesn’t always go the way I hope. But so far, I’m not doing too badly, and I hope that is the way it will continue for the remainder of the season.”

Casspi’s success does come as something of a surprise to many. Even the Israeli daily HaAretz called him a “surprise sensation.” On draft night, talk was that the Kings would most likely keep the 21 year old Casspi in Israel or elsewhere in Europe for one or two more years as he matured as a player. The fact that he made the roster on opening night didn’t surprise Omri however. “This was my goal from the beginning, and I worked hard to make it happen.”

Sacramento Bee Kings beat writer Ailine Voisin, writing some weeks after the current NBA season got underway, noted: “This is not the same player who last July stumbled through the Las Vegas Summer League. Then, he sucked win after a few laps. Then, he lacked strength. Then, he committed so many ball handling mistakes Westphal labeled him ‘a turnover machine.’ ”

Seeing what had to be done if he was to make his dream come true – not just being drafted by an NBA team but actually earning a spot on the roster - Casspi took matters in hand. He worked hard. He got in shape. He weathered the possible pre-season roster cuts. He was on the team roster for the start of the 2009-10 season. (“To be in opening game at OKC – I was very excited. It was a dream come true. The first NBA game of my career – I guess I will remember it for the rest of my life.”). He earned a spot in the starting rotation.

Then there was the game at New Jersey back in November when Nets players were told to go out and foul Casspi, given his paltry 50% free throw shooting at the time. Casspi has worked on that, too.

Teammate Beno Udrih, the Slovenian veteran who himself spent two years with Maccabi Tel Aviv, commented, “I don’t think that people expected him to come here, being drafted late in the first round, that he would be playing this much, getting as many rebounds and shooting the ball as well as it has turned out. I think he surprised everybody. Sometimes he has had to defend much shorter guys at the 2-3 spot, who are quicker than Omri, and you play much more one-on-one here than in Europe and what he is used to, but overall he is doing a great job.”

Like Udrih and others before him, the 6’9” Casspi has had to adjust from European play – both the game itself and the organizational aspects – to life in the NBA.

Apart from the demands of the more physical style of play on this side of the Atlantic, and going up against the best players in the world, Casspi noted that “There are a lot of games in a short period of time and it took me a while to adjust. I knew it would be demanding but it’s another thing altogether to experience it. You start the hit the “rookie wall” and you start to get a little tired. I try to rest as much as I can and sleep as much as I can – and try to prepare myself mentally for the games ahead.”

“When I played with Maccabi we played 75-80 games (between Israeli league games and Euroleague games against other top clubs in Europe) but they were stretched out over a longer period of time. Here, every other day you are going against another NBA star. You have to really prepare for how you’re going to play each guy differently. And you have to prepare yourself for back-to-back games.” With Maccabi games were less frequent, typically no more than two games a week. And road trips in Euroleague were a matter of flying to play one team and then returning home – not extended trips with 6 games in 9 days. Additionally, one night Maccabi might face a tough rival but the next game might be against a low-ranking team in the Israeli league that only a year ago was in a lower league. Not so in the NBA, where each night is against a potentially tough team (even the Sixers, struggling this season, beat the Kings in Philly 98-86).

“It’s been hard. In my free time I’m trying to rest as much as I can and get ready for the next game. It doesn’t really leave time to do much sightseeing when I’m on the road. I have even changed the way I eat – I try to eat within 30 minutes after each game, just to keep going.
But, with all the work and the patience that it has required, gradually you adjust. And, of course, there are some things (private team planes, more staff to help you out), that make it easier. In the end, I know that if I want to prove that I belong here I have to do the work and make the adjustments.”

Being the first Israeli to play in the NBA has meant a lot, not just to Omri, and not just to the many Jewish and Israeli fans who come to see him play, but to an entire nation back home. “It makes me happy that my games are televised (live) in Israel.”

At the beginning I felt a lot of pressure because of the idea that in some way I “represented” Israel or that I carried the hopes of the whole country. I still think about this but I just try to go out and play as well as I can and as hard as I can and just not to think about it too much. There is pressure, but each game I try to just focus on the game itself as much as possible.”

At first Casspi would have some 100 text messages from friends and family after a game… now it’s a lot less. Still, there area fans waiting to meet him, and friends waiting to meet up with him, after most games. In Philadelphia, he had a chance to catch up with one-time Maccabi veteran Yoav Saffar, now studying at Penn’s Wharton School of Business, and Maccabi youth player Carmel Bouchman, now a freshman member of the Temple basketball team.
  ‘I’m grateful to see everyone coming to our games and everyone supporting me. Sometimes when I’m on the free throw line and I see the Israeli flags, it’s amazing - it really warms my heart. My teammates keep saying it’s like I’ve got family everywhere. When we played in Philadelphia, which is where (fellow rookie) Tyreke (Evans) is from, and it was his first trip home to play, he said to me, ‘You might have more friends here than me!’”

The much-touted Evans spoke highly of his teammate: “He’s been learning a lot and you can see that he has a lot of heart. He is going to keep improving.”

Added Andres Nocioni, “I think he is going to do well in the NBA. There are things he needs to improve but that is normal considering that he is a rookie. But right now he is playing at a pretty high level and is definitely helping us. He’s a very talented player so it’s no surprise that he is getting as many minutes as he has. He has had to make some adjustments, just as I had to. The rhythm of the game here is faster, the players here are more athletic, so there are always things you need to keep working on.”

Udrih, who himself made the transition from European basketball to the NBA, noted, “I had a great time during my years with Maccabi and I knew that he was coming from this “family” so I was glad to take him under my wing and help in any way I could. I still remember a little Hebrew, like mah shlomcha? (How are you?). It’s a new situation for him. But I’m not surprised that Omri made it so quickly. He had a couple of problems in training camp, but he made the adjustments he needed to and he is doing very well now. He’s gotten a chance – he’s proven himself – and hopefully he can just keep doing it.”

For his part, Casspi mentioned, “I knew Beno Udrih from his time with Maccabi. We have a lot of common friends from back home. He took me under his wing and helped me adjust – both on the court and also to get acclimated to Sacramento. He’s really helped me to learn what I need to play in this league. We talk a lot and he has really been a big help”

Current Miami Heat guard and NBA veteran Carlos Arroyo, was Casspi’s teammate on Maccabi during the 2008-2009 season. “I am friendly with Carlos and his wife,” commented Casspi. “He is another person whom I have been in touch with, and who has helped me in the transition to the NBA game as far as knowing some of the things to expect.”

Casspi followed the route to the Kings of his own basketball role model, Hidayet (Hedo) Turkoglu. “He came from Turkey to Sacramento and I really like his game. He is a small forward. He’s a great passer, a great shooter, and he’s had a really great career (in the NBA), and last year he led the Magic to the NBA finals. I try to learn from everyone I can, but in the end, I try to have my own style.”

Casspi comes to the Kings at a time when they have been in transition, bringing in a new coach this year (Paul Westphal). “Everything is new – especially for me, but we have many veterans and I’m happy to be part of this team, especially in a time of rebuilding.”

Casspi likes both the camaraderie on the team, and the help he has gotten from the coaching staff. “They gave me confidence from day one. They’ve showed me that they believe in me and that they trust me. The fact is that they have let me play a lot – in some games as much as 35 or 40 minutes”

Regarding his own role on the team, Casspi commented, “You do fight for minutes and it can be frustrating to not get in more, but at the same time you want to do your best to help your team and you try to play your very best when you are out on the floor. Either way, I have a very competitive spirit – this is part of who I am. But it doesn’t really matter to me if I start or if I come off the bench. I’m just trying to play hard, rebound well, make my shots and help the team as much as I can.”

Kings head coach Paul Westphal told “Omri is such a delight – we love him. He has produced far more than anybody had a right to expect of him at this stage of his career. His timetable is way ahead and I put that on his hard work and his professionalism. He couldn’t be a more delightful young man or a harder worker. He still has a lot of things to work on and to improve, but we think he is going to have a phenomenal career in this league.

We wanted him on our team… we didn’t know what kind of role he would be able to carve out for himself. It was really all up to him. It wouldn’t have been fair to project the kind of playing time that he has gotten. But he has always had confidence… and the will of an entire nation behind him has also meant something. He carries a lot of the Israeli spirit with him and I think that is very special, and I am very happy for the country and for Omri. He’s had an outstanding rookie year. He is a hard worker, and he’s always improved everything we’ve challenged him to improve. He’s going to have a real fine year.”

Then there is the relationship Omri has had with the Jewish community of Sacramento. “The Jewish community in Sacramento has been great – they have helped me from day one – to find a place to live, to find a car, to get to know the city… and that has made it a lot easier for me in my adjustment into the NBA. I’ve been to different Jewish community events and met with the rabbis.”

Omri has found that many of his teammates have a good number of misperceptions regarding Israel. “They think there is war in the streets and people shooting each other – I tell them it is a safe and beautiful country it is and how welcoming we are to tourists. I just try to be an ambassador on behalf of Israel.”

When the Kings defeated the Knicks in Madison Square 118-114 in overtime just before the All-Star break, it wasn’t Casspi’s first time playing in Madison Square. Casspi was a member of the Maccabi Tel Aviv team which played the Knicks at MSG in pre-season exhibition play back in 2008. At the time, the arena was a Maccabi-cheering crowd. But this time, the focus was all on Number 18. Casspi got the biggest applause, the fans sang his name, and then they cheered him when it was all over. “It was like a home game for him,” said teammate Tyreke Evans. “There were so many Jewish people there. I know how much it meant to him.”

“When I’m on the court, I try not to think about all the attention. When the crowd in MSG starting chanting my name, it really gets to you. But I try to erase everything from my mind, and keep my focus only on what I need to do out there, on scoring and getting rebounds. But without a doubt, it’s huge, definitely huge.”

“When I left the court,” Casspi noted, “it was one of the most exciting moments of my life.”

Afterwards, he told the Sacramento Bee, “I’m getting a lot of attention – no doubt about it – but it’s a lot of fun. I don’t want it to stop. I’m living my dream. There’s no time to get tired of it. When I get tired of it, I just keep thinking to myself, ‘This is where I wanted to be all the time.’”

Photo from NBA Sacramento Kings