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Sunday, April 10, 2011

From Israel to the N.B.A., Missing the Hummus

Omri Casspi, playing in Israel in 2008, has been adopted by Jews in Sacramento. Many wear jerseys with his name in Hebrew.

The first Israeli in the N.B.A., Omri Casspi, is busily trying to adapt to life in the United States.

in basketball in Israel, are focused on me now,” he said, sitting behind a desk in his hotel room in Las Vegas. “There is big expectations, and all the Jewish community in the States is really excited about it. So I think there’s a big responsibility with it.”

As a child, Casspi said, he would wake up early in the morning to watch N.B.A. games, particularly the Chicago Bulls. He was a huge Michael Jordan fan. But Casspi’s dream then, he said, was to play for Maccabi “because I had nobody to look up to in the N.B.A., no Israeli.”

He added, “I think the young kids right now, they have somebody to look up to.”

There was no egotism in his tone, just a statement of fact. Casspi hastened to add: “I’m just trying to focus on basketball. I’m not trying to think about all that.”

There is much work to do on the court. The Kings had the N.B.A.’s worst record last season, 17-65, and they have not made the playoffs since 2006.

A 6-foot-9, 225-pound forward, Casspi is part of a promising but raw core that also includes the fourth pick in the draft, guard Tyreke Evans. They are joining a youthful roster featuring guard Kevin Martin and center Spencer Hawes.

Casspi, too, is a work in progress. He is a capable shooter, rebounder and ball handler, but he does not excel in any one area and is not considered particularly athletic. He said his goal was to become another Hedo Turkoglu, the playmaking forward from Turkey who helped guide Orlando to the N.B.A. finals.

Jason Levien, the Kings’ assistant general manager, said the franchise was drawn to Casspi for his passion, toughness and tenacity. The word energy comes up often.

“That’s his specialty,” said David Thorpe, a coach at IMG Academies and an analyst for ESPN, who watched Casspi during the summer league. “Energy in the N.B.A. is a real talent.”

Casspi shot 33 percent in his first four summer league games, averaging 7.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 4 turnovers. He is still trying to regain his rhythm after the whirlwind draft process and a brief holdup in paperwork that kept him from practicing with the team.

Even with Maccabi, Casspi’s value was never evident in the raw statistics but in the results.

“He’s fearless,” Shamir said. “When he was on the floor, things happened for them.”

Before Casspi was drafted, The Jerusalem Post documented the many Israeli players who just missed making it to the N.B.A. In 1979, Miki Berkowitz was set to join the Atlanta Hawks, but Maccabi would not release him from his contract. Twenty years later, Oded Katash appeared close to joining the Knicks, but the N.B.A. lockout and contractual issues killed the deal.

The Israelis Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin were taken in the 2006 draft. But as second-round picks, they did not have guaranteed contracts and thus had little incentive to make the move.

More than 60 other nations have been represented in the N.B.A., including Belize, Estonia and Denmark. The Middle East has produced players from Egypt and Lebanon. The first Iranian, Hamed Haddadi, arrived last season.

Casspi’s arrival has energized Jews in Sacramento. A large contingent — many wearing jerseys with Casspi’s name spelled in Hebrew — turned out for a postdraft rally. They have taken Casspi on tours of the city and offered assistance in finding a house, a car and, naturally, some good restaurants.

“I feel blessed, really, to be in this situation,” Casspi said.

He is, however, still searching for a good Israeli restaurant and a worthy tub of hummus.

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