Faster than you can say “Gal Gadot,” news broke in Israel yesterday that Omri Casspi, the first Landsmann to play in the NBA, has signed a one-year deal with the reigning champions, the mighty Golden State Warriors. As if on cue, the purveyors of national pride went into production mode, putting out stories celebrating Casspi’s resilience: after eight unremarkable years and five listless teams, he was finally where he belonged, shoulder to shoulder with Kevin Durant and Steph Curry.
And here’s the thing: for once, the hype is justified. It’s hard to imagine many other players persisting, as Casspi had, to endure so much time on the bench, so many trades, so many years of knowing that you’re better than that but having no chance to prove it. Even with fame and fortune guaranteed back home in Tel Aviv, Casspi never took the easy way out, and never took his talent for granted. He buckled down, focused on what he did really well—mainly his potent threes—struck meaningful relationships with his teammates, and never lost faith.
If you’ve been following Israeli basketball, you probably weren’t surprised. Casspi has been charting his own idiosyncratic course since he was a teenager, making decisions that often baffled his fans but almost always proved prescient. At 17, for example, he began his career with an invitation to join Maccabi Tel Aviv, Israeli basketball’s big, bad behemoth and the team that has won 51 championships in 64 years. Playing for Maccabi was virtually the only way a young Israeli player could secure a taste of the real game, complete with international tournaments and scores of screaming fans. But by the end of his first year, Casspi quit.
He did so because he understood the great paradox of his career, namely that if he thrived, it would be despite Israeli basketball culture and not because of it. Israel’s one-team reality meant little room for growth, as many of Maccabi’s stars were American imports who didn’t quite make it in the NBA but were more than enough for the local league. This, in part, is why Croatia, for example, a country much smaller and much poorer than Israel, can boast a number of past and current players who’ve found their spot on American teams, while Israel took decades to introduce a single athlete to the world’s greatest basketball association. Casspi must have intuited all that, because when he switched teams, he headed over to Hapoel Galil Elyon, a small club in the upper Galilee with a big heart and a team spirit that’s more than a bit reminiscent of Steve Kerr’s Warriors.
In 1993, Galil Elyon stunned its fans when it ended Maccabi’s magisterial 23-year championship streak, suggesting that it was the beginning of the end for the hoop overlords from Tel Aviv. The team continued to be competitive—and soulful—throughout the decade, and when Casspi joined, in 2006, it almost toppled Maccabi again. Casspi had a lot to do with the team’s stellar season, scoring 11.2 points per game on average, the fourth best record in the league.
When he returned to Maccabi the following year, then, it was no longer as the rookie. Audaciously, his father, serving as his manager, approached the team’s legendary boss, Shimon Mizrahi, and demanded a contract that guaranteed Casspi significant play time. Mizrahi acquiesced, but Casspi was already busy dreaming bigger: after two stellar years with Maccabi, he signed up for the NBA draft, and was picked 23rd in the first round, joining the Sacramento Kings.
His grit has served Casspi well. Like Israel, the NBA can be an unforgiving place, and it often rewards courage, camaraderie, and cunning just as much as it does raw skill. Like a true warrior, Casspi has all three, which means that soon enough he may rise from the Golden State bench to score from downtown in some critical game, becoming the first Israeli to wear an NBA championship ring.