The Sports Rabbi Josh Halickman had the privilege of interviewing Omri Casspi just a day after signing with Maccabi Tel Aviv making his return to Israel. Watch the interview below!
Omri Casspi is the first Israeli to play in the “Greatest League in the World”, the National Basketball Association and he is also arguably the greatest basketball player that this country has produced. The Holon born and Yavne bred superstar always looked to be the best he could be and to help make those around him reach their potential as well. Whether it was when he was on his Bar Mitzvah trip to New York and stood outside of Madison Square Garden where he proudly declared to his parents, “When I get to the NBA, this is where I’m going to play” or if it was off the court representing Israel and the Jewish people, Casspi’s impact has been significant in a myriad of fashions.
This week, at the age of 31, Casspi decided to return home to Israel where he will now play professional basketball for Maccabi Tel Aviv, the club for which he played as a youth and then as a prodigy before being selected by the Sacramento Kings with the 23rd pick of the 2009 NBA Draft. After playing with seven NBA teams, the 6”9 forward arrived back to Israel with much fanfare, The Jerusalem Post’s Joshua Halickman who has covered Casspi since his early career in Israel and then in the NBA, had the chance to sit down with him to reflect on his time overseas, the legacy he was able to create and his future ahead.
“It’s an amazing feeling to come back home for many reasons,” Casspi began. “There are many aspects that come into play when you make a decision like this. One of the main reasons, of course, is my family and what I expect myself to provide for my family. That includes the manner in which we want to raise and teach our daughters to become the women that they can become. This makes everything a lot easier for us from our perspective in making such a decision.”
“Playing in the NBA was a privilege and a gratifying one at that” explained Casspi who earned a Championship ring with the 2017/2018 Golden State Warriors, “It was very satisfying to play for a decade in the NBA. I was privileged to be in this position, to be able to play basketball in the best league in the world and to represent Israel in some capacity.”
Casspi never shied away from his role in advocating for Israel as an ambassador of sorts, “I always felt very comfortable in my position of being Israeli and being Jewish as well. I never hid that fact from anyone at any time, in a sense that I am very proud of who we are as a people and who we are as a country and what we are really about. That of course raised many questions over the years as to what Israel is all about. What is the story with the conflict? Is Israel at fault? What’s the situation over there?”
“One of the things I felt that I had to do was to start a foundation, a non-profit so I could do my part in helping improve Israel’s image around the communities in the United States. By bringing celebrities and NBA players to Israel and by using social media to our benefit, we are able to create a good narrative about Israel across America and most importantly help children see Israel in a brighter light. I’m very proud of being in that position and I’m very thankful for the Jewish communities that embraced me as one of their own. It doesn’t matter if they were Orthodox or Reform, everyone welcomed me into the family and it was amazing to be a part of it.”
Those Jewish communities around America, whether it was Cleveland, Houston, Sacramento or San Francisco also influenced Casspi himself and helped him connect to his Jewish roots, “One of the strongest things as a people that we have is being part of a community which gives us a backbone. When I arrived in a new city, I knew that I was already part of something and that I wasn’t by myself. That fact put a lot of thoughts into my mind because when I grew up as an Israeli, I never really saw Judaism as part of my daily routine. I felt Jewish and almost everyone around me was Jewish and then suddenly I get to another country and Yom Kippur is just another day. If you don’t emphasize Judaism in your private life you can lose that focus. In that regard, it made me think of what I want to emphasize to my daughters and to my wife and what are some of the values that we as Jewish people have and have had over the years. These things always brought me back to a full family life in Judaism.”
Attitudes about basketball have changed since Casspi left Israel for the NBA in 2009 as he reflected on how he has influenced a generation while being away in North America for a decade, “The thing I have been really excited about and where I feel that I have played a small role is helping kids dream of playing basketball at the highest level. I now see 18-year old young men coming out of high school saying publicly that they want to go to the NBA and be a star. This was not very common 15 year ago when I was growing up. As a child when I played with my junior team, the emphasis was on trying to make it to the first division and maybe get to Maccabi where you might be a player on the team. Now I am seeing players who are dreaming to compete at the highest level and I love having a small part in that.”
A couple of those young players are Deni Avdija who is projected to be an NBA Lottery Pick as well as Yovel Zoosman who played in the NBA Summer League this past July. Casspi will now be their teammate and has what to offer to them as they are just beginning their careers, “These guys are the future of Israeli basketball, perhaps they are already the present from a National Team perspective. I can give them a sense of the whole experience and there is nothing that can make me prouder than to be a small part of their evolution as basketball players.”
“One of the things that I still remember when I got to the NBA ten years ago was how Francisco Garcia welcomed me and said, ‘Omri I’m going to take you under my wing, I’ll show you the ins and outs of the NBA.’ The more you learn earlier on, the more you’ll be prepared for the NBA game and the better you’ll be. The first two or three years of an NBA career can define your future and the more prepared you’ll be, the better.”
Maccabi Tel Aviv is unquestionably one of the marquee franchises not only in Israel but in Europe and beyond, “It has to always be taken into consideration that when one plays for Maccabi they are playing for one of the most respected clubs in the Euroleague and in the world; that alone is a responsibility in itself.”
As Casspi returns to his roots, he also understands the responsibility that he has as a leader both on and off of the court and how he will be looked at as a role model, “Obviously being one of the Jewish and Israeli leaders of this team puts another set of responsibilities on how I can impact the younger generation. I will have to teach the new players and the younger generation what Maccabi is all about. From the values to the winning mentality, the hard work and dedication of competing at the highest level while always being humble and staying true to whatever life journey one is on. I feel that this is part of what being a role model as an athlete is all about and it’s something that I am really excited to take on.”