You might have heard that Omri Casspi—the first Israeli to play in the NBA and current forward for the Sacramento Kings—is now traveling around the Holy Land with teammates Demarcus “Boogie” Cousins and Caron Butler, as well as a few fellow professional cagers like Dallas’ Chandler Parsons, Cleveland’s Iman Shumpert, and New Orleans’ Tyreke Evans. You might also have heard, like many things Israel-related, that a number media outlets have caused a bit of a stir behind the political ramifications of the Casspi-led trip. This was sparked, in part, because casino tycoon Sheldon Adelson provided the private Boeing 747 that flew Casspi and Co. out to Israel.
Adelson, one of the most high-profile opponents of the boycott campaign against Israel, has pledged to throw millions of dollars behind anti-BDS measures on college campuses. Thus, publications like Mondoweiss and Politico interpreted the high-profile trip to Israel as Casspi’s contribution to the fight against the boycott movement.
Perhaps most dramatically, The Nation published an open letter to the eight NBA players traveling to Israel, urging them to take into consideration a number of political elements attached to their involvement in a trip—ones they might not have previously considered before boarding the plane.
The letter, penned by Nation sports editor, Dave Zirin, argues, among other things, that the NBA players’—many of whom are African American—involvement with the trip contradicts their support for the #BlackLivesMatter movement. In order to make this connection, Zirin highlights that Adelson is known for his hefty financial support of the “hard right wing of the Israeli government” and that he previously suggested America forego its negotiations with Iran in the nuclear arms deal and simply drop a bomb on the Islamic Republic. Zirin then draws a parallel between the aggression of the Israeli military under the Netanyahu administration towards Palestinians and America’s recent history of “police repression.” This, he argues, “has birthed a new solidarity between #BlackLivesMatter activists and those fighting for Palestinian rights.” Zirin also points out Casspi’s 2014 “public scolding” of fellow NBA player Dwight Howard for using the hashtag #FreePalestine, to which Casspi responded by tweeting: “600 missiles been fired from GAZA by Hamas in the last 4 days. NUMBERS DONT LIE. STOP LYING.”
“It’s kinda funny to me that people are trying to make this a political trip,” Casspi, from Israel, told me over the phone last week when I asked him about the media speculation. “I don’t have a message, [the trip’s] just about having fun.”
So far the journey has been action-packed, with both fun and even broadly-religious excursions.
Casspi’s crew have made stops in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where they visited the Western Wall. They were also given a walking tour of Golan Heights and took a trip the Dead Sea to bathe and slather themselves in the salty water and rich mud.
It seems, too, that Casspi’s intention is to foster a bit of cross-cultural understanding. Last Wednesday, Casspi told me that he had the day off, which had given him time to reflect. He said that the divisive political stigma the topic of Israel has in America was precisely why he wanted to make the trip in the first place. At a time when news related to Israel is primarily associated with war and injustice, Casspi wanted to show his teammates just “how beautiful the country is;” in other words, Israel from his perspective.
Whenever the Kings play in places like New York or Chicago, Casspi said his colleagues and best friends always take him to meet their friends and family. “This trip was the perfect opportunity to do the same thing for them,” said Casspi. He added that it was “amazing” to see his fellow players with “kids from the local Jewish communities,” and “to see Demarcus (Cousins) hanging out with my family,” who live Holon.
For the Christian players (like Cousin) among the Casspi crew, the trip has also been deeply moving. Visits to the Christian Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City and to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus is said to have been crucified have been very significant, Casspi explained. His foundation, which was apparently established in 2014, also reportedly received a “Defender of Zion” from the Friends of Zion Museum.
But, of course, they snuck in some time to ball: The group trained with the Israeli basketball team Maccabi Tel Aviv for a youth basketball clinic as part of the initiative NBA Cares.
Wherever they’ve gone, Casspi tells me they’ve been mobbed, much to his delight, by swarms of adoring young fans. Mavericks player Chandler Parsons uploaded one such scene to his Instagram, of Casspi’s visit to the Western Wall.
“It’s amazing how well known they are,” he said about the local reaction to his NBA colleagues. “They are rockstars here.”
And of course, they’ve been hanging out at hotel pools and exploring delicacies at local shops. Casspi assured he has made his boys keep to a strict diet of Israeli and other Mediterranean foods—a “cultural dining experience.”
Casspi laughed: “They really enjoyed the hummus.”
Jas Chana is a former intern at Tablet.