History will be made in the Sacramento Kings 2009-10 NBA season opener on Wednesday when Omri Casspi steps onto the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder. The 21-year-old Kings rookie forward will become the first Israeli to play in the NBA.
Casspi – a 6-foot-9 forward – guided Israeli giants Maccabi Tel Aviv to the domestic league title last season and in 2006. He also helped Maccabi to the 2006 and 2008 Euroleague championship game. And Casspi has played for the Israeli senior national team since 2008.
Withdrew, then first round pick
Casspi registered for the NBA Draft in 2008 but withdrew his name when he could not receive a guarantee that he would be selected in the first round. Then Casspi made history in June 2009 when the Sacramento Kings selected him with the 23rd pick in the first round of the 2009 NBA Draft, making him the first ever Israeli to be drafted in the first round.
Past Israelis with NBA ties
Oded Katash nearly became the first Israeli to play in the NBA in 1999 when he signed a two-year contract with the New York Knicks. But he lost his patience during the player lockout of that season and moved back to Maccabi Tel Aviv before playing for the Knicks.
Doron Sheffer was selected with the 36th pick in the 1996 draft by the Los Angels Clippers, but never received a contract by the team. More recent Israeli prospects Lior Eliyahu and Yotam Halperin were chosen 44th and 53rd respectively in 2006 but have yet to reach the NBA.
Casspi, who has his 25-year-old brother Eitan with him in Sacramento, initially struggled with his adjustment to the United States but performed well during the pre-season for the Kings, finishing as the ninth leading scorer among rookies with 11.7 points per game. He also shot 55 percent from the field and 52 percent from three-point range.
Jewish Excitement About Casspi
Casspi has sprouted plenty of excitement in Jewish communities in the U.S. with Kings fans wearing jerseys with Casspi’s name spelled in Hebrew. In addition, the New York Knicks have already designated the Kings’ game in New York in February as Jewish Heritage Night.