Casspi, Israeli basketball king, goes home

  • omri casspi
Maccabi Tel Aviv, the current holder of the Israel Super League, laid down a bold pre-season marker last week with the recruitment of Omri Casspi (31) from the Sacramento Kings.
by LUKE ALFRED | Aug 22, 2019

A forward, occasional power forward, and captain of the Israeli national team since 2015, Casspi was the first Israeli basketballer to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA) when the Kings named him their first pick in the 2009 draft.

Casspi, whose middle name is Moshe in honour of his grandfather, is of Moroccan-Jewish descent. He was 21 when he was snapped up by the Kings ten years ago.

When asked by Arutz Sheva television last week why he and his family had returned to Israel, Casspi said, “There were many reasons. My family wanted continuity, and we wanted to be in the best position to give the best we can to our daughters and our family.

“Maccabi [which he joined as a 13-year-old player years before turning professional] basically ticked all the boxes.”

Reflecting on his ten-years in the United States, where he played not only for the Kings but teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Memphis Grizzlies, and the Houston Rockets, Casspi called it “an amazing ride, an amazing journey”.

On a lighter note, the 2.06m (6 foot 9 inch) forward also took time to thank the Jewish-American community stateside and all the Chabad houses who brought him kosher food and welcomed him into their synagogues wherever he found himself on the road.

The Casspi move is widely seen to be a statement of intent from Maccabi Tel Aviv, Super League champions in consecutive seasons – 2017/18 and 2018/19 – as they embark on their much-awaited bid for three in a row.

His recruitment earlier this month gives Maccabi coach Giannis Sfairopoulos ample time to bed the player down ahead of the season opening games in October. “In bringing Omri back from the Kings we’ve bought back Israel’s best player,” Sfairopoulos told JTA. “That’s a statement in itself.”

While there has been justifiable pride in Casspi and his return (for example, he was one of seven athletes to light the flame at the 2017 Maccabiah), his American adventure became increasingly disjointed as he approached his 30s.

He was at Golden State on only a one-year contract and, truth be told, became a bit of an itinerant in the latter years of his career. He moved between the New Orleans Pelicans, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the Memphis Grizzlies in the space of two seasons. He has implicitly admitted as much by saying of his return to Maccabi Tel Aviv that it probably happened “sooner than expected”.

Sfairopoulos and Casspi’s paths almost crossed at the Houston Rockets, where Sfairopoulos had a brief assistant coaching position in 2012, but they missed each other by a year.

Now, however, they are on the same team, a team Sfairopoulos has rejuvenated since he came on board in November 2018, replacing former head coach, Croatian Neven Spahija.

The widely-travelled Thessaloniki-born coach (he even had a brief spell with CSKA Moscow) has traditionally been bullish about Maccabi Tel Aviv, on more than one occasion referring to them as the best team in Israel.

Indeed, with Omri’s transfer, there has emerged the distinct possibility of Sfairopoulos creating a dream-team who could take an impressive three consecutive titles.

While he’s always talked-up Maccabi Tel Aviv’s prospects, as you’d expect him to do, the experienced Sfairopoulos is also a hardened pragmatist. He’s said on more than one occasion that Israeli professional basketball is intensely competitive, with the bottom-placed side in the 12-team league capable of beating the log-leaders on their day.

Casspi’s return to the land he loves brings his American career to an end. Casspi was never content to simply sit on his laurels as a basketballer. For many years, he ran a successful foundation that brought American celebrities including actors, basketballers – even poker players – to the holy land.

Such high-profile trips back home didn’t find universal favour. Dave Zirin, the influential sports editor of The Nation, wrote in 2015 that the presence of NBA players like DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins and Iman Shumpert in Israel was too contradictory not to be called out.

Zirin published an open letter in his paper in July 2015 highlighting that the eight NBA players’ presence in Israel with Casspi acting as tour guide didn’t quite square with their role in the #BlackLivesMatter movement He drew attention to some of the behind-the-scenes hardliners who were financing the trip that Zirin believed the eight were unaware of.

Casspi, however, had his own thoughts on the matter, saying, “It’s kinda funny to me that people are trying to make this a political trip.”

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