Omri Casspi may the first Israeli to become an everyday NBA player, but he now owns a second claim to fame, one that may even outshine and outlive his earlier accomplishment: trade bait.
Over the weekend, the Sacramento Kings traded three-time All-Star and the NBA’s fourth-leading scorer DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins, for a trio of comparatively unremarkable players from the New Orleans Pelicans. The Kings also shipped Casspi to The Big Easy, likely because of his expiring contact. Regardless of the underlying logic, Casspi was still shipped out of Sacramento as a sweetener in one of the most lopsided and baffling trades in NBA history.
This is a dubious source of basketball immortality. Casspi’s supporting role in the Cousins trade is punchline-like, conjuring the absurd mental image of Pelicans general manager Dell Demps threatening to spike a can’t-lose mega-fleecing unless the Holon-born 6′ 9″ small forward were thrown into the mix. But it’s immortality nonetheless: Casspi, whose greatest on-the court moment was posting nine three-pointers in a losing regular-season effort against Golden State last year, now gets two separate mentions in the Annals of Basketball. Most career journeyman small forwards don’t even get a single one.
Casspi’s inclusion in this trade will go down as a strange and slightly amusing footnote, but the absurdity of the swap shouldn’t distract from the deeper, even cosmic layers of meaning in the Casspi-Cousins pairing. Casspi and Cousins aren’t going to New Orleans simply because the Kings needed to dump salary or were overly desperate to get rid of their malcontent superstar center. In a larger sense, the two front-courters are meant to be together, their fates and careers intrinsically and even Judaically connected to one another’s. Cousins is the far greater and more famous player—the Cyrus to Casspi’s Ezra. In New Orleans, on a potentially playoff-bound team led by the sublime swingman Anthony Davis, they may even have the chance to play in some meaningful games together.
Casspi and Cousins have spent most of their time in the NBA playing together. Casspi and Cousins entered the league a year apart, as Sacramento’s first-round draft picks in 2009 and 2010, respectively. As the first NBA player from a hoops-mad country, Casspi was bound to carry a special weight on his lofty shoulders. But he was also the first NBA player from the only majority-Jewish country. Israel’s success in producing an NBA player who can eat minutes and grab a half-dozen rebounds a night is a major accomplishment. Israeli basketball is at a high enough level to be able to produce an NBA player. On the other hand, this is true of numerous other countries (see: Giannis “The Greek Freak” Antetokounmpo). In a sense, Casspi’s career is a realization of a dream of a normal Jewish national existence.
Because Casspi never became a superstar, he turned into a simultaneous symbol of the unique and the mundane, emblematic of the paradoxical and ever fraught status of his homeland and his people. Casspi is beloved among Israelis and American Jews because he never shied away from this role. Through eight seasons on three different teams—a remarkable run of longevity for any player considering that the NBA is the most exclusive sports league on earth—Casspi didn’t apologize for his national or ethnic origins, or duck the responsibilities of being a Jewish and Israeli trail-blazer: Casspi led a tour of NBA players visiting the country in 2015, and puts on teffilin every day.
During an interview over this past all-star weekend with an Israeli reporter, Cousins said that he might return to Israel with Caspi at some future point, and might even help his teammate run a basketball camp there. The reporter asked if Cousins could say a “shalom” for his fans in Israel; Boogie obliged. Importantly, Cousins was right there beside him in Israel—here they are caking themselves in Dead Sea mud during that 2015 trip.
Kings owner Vivek Ranadive pulled the trigger on the Cousins trade because of his superstar’s allegedly hot temper, with Ranadive apparenetly working off of the dubious addition-by-subtraction-type reasoning that makes owners purge otherwise-talented locker-room cancers. The Kings never made it over the 33-win mark during his seven years in Sacramento, but Cousins was still genuinely saddened at leaving town over the course of an emotional farewell press conference earlier this week. Nevertheless, the Pelicans offer a shot at redemption for both Cousins and Casspi, two players who suffered through half a decade of awful basketball together, but found a way to make it count anyway.
Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet magazine.