Omri Casspi on the court in an Israel jersey
Basketball player Omri Casspi playing for Israel against Finland (Photo/Wikimedia Commons)

Q&A: An NBA player who’s on team Israel

Name: Omri Casspi
Age: 28
City: Sacramento
Position: Forward, Sacramento Kings

J.: Your Omri Casspi Foundation has hosted trips to Israel the past two summers that included Sacramento Kings teammates Rudy Gay and DeMarcus Cousins. What was your goal in bringing them to your homeland?

Omri Casspi: What I wanted to accomplish was to create a better awareness by bringing big celebrities with a lot of following on social media, creating goodwill ambassadors for Israel. Unfortunately, Israel gets a bad rep sometimes in the media. These guys are from places like Baltimore [Gay] and Alabama [Cousins]. And there are kids down there who follow them really closely, and they see that they’ve been to Israel, and that creates good energy.

You’re the first Israeli to play a full season in the NBA (the 6-foot-9 Casspi is now in his eighth season — five in Sacramento, two in Cleveland and one in Houston). What does your success mean for other potential Israeli NBA players?

One of the things I’ve seen through the years is that Israeli kids are starting to dream about it. They watch so many NBA games and it’s televised so much in Israel. Kids see we have one of our own there, and he came from the same basketball clubs we played at, and he made it. Also, when [former Israeli player and coach] David Blatt was in Cleveland, that helped a lot.

Have you ever felt isolated as the sole Israeli in the league? Is there anyone you were able to speak Hebrew to, other than former Cavaliers coach Blatt?

Nobody else really speaks Hebrew, but I’ve never felt isolated. Every team I played for, my teammates, they always showed me great respect and they cared a lot about me and my traditions.

This past summer, you set a goal of raising $200,000 for four Israeli charities. Did you reach the goal, and how did you pick the charities?

We got close to that goal. I work with different charities through my foundation and I try to do stuff in the community. It’s just a little thing of appreciation. When we can, we help kids and hospitals in Israel, whatever we can do to help.

You played for Maccabi Tel Aviv before being drafted by the Kings in the first round (23rd pick) in 2009. How different was the level of play when you moved to the NBA?

There were different adjustments I had to make — the level of play was not the biggest. When you play at EuroLeague level, the talent is not close to the NBA, but there’s a lot of talent. I believe there’s 10 to 15 percent a year [of EuroLeague players] who could play in the NBA. The amount of games was the biggest adjustment for me, you had to prepare yourself for a game night in and night out — physically and mentally to bring it every night.

How has your marriage this past summer to fellow Israeli Shani Ruderman changed you as a basketball player?

I think only for the good, in a sense, because you finally have family of your own and you’re looking for something aside from basketball. When you go through ups and downs throughout the season, there’s someone who you can talk to. It’s really calmed me down.

You have expressed admiration for former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Do you foresee a future for yourself in Israeli politics?

I don’t know about getting into politics. But I read a lot and there’s things that I am passionate about, and politics is one of them. Peres to me was someone to admire. I’ve done basketball camps at the Peres Center for Peace, working with Palestinian and Israeli kids in Jaffa [in 2010]. I went to the president’s house in Jerusalem, and we talked a lot about how sports can connect people from all over. It can really create friendships in more than basketball. Now that he’s gone, we have to carry on with his ideals.

How would you describe your relationship with the Israeli community and the American Jewish community in Sacramento?

Sacramento has just been tremendous to me — when I got here I was a 21-year-old kid who had just finished the army. That stuff goes a long way to making you feel comfortable. I always felt loved in Sacramento. And the support from the Jewish and Israeli communities around the country has always been amazing to me. There’s always people and always flags, it makes you feel loved in a way. I feel very comfortable going to High Holy Day services in Sacramento. Our religion and our tradition is very important to me.

“Talking with …” focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting. Send suggestions to sueb@jweekly.com.

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Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.