Israels new King: Omri Casspi makes NBA history

If you’re going to Sacramento to watch the Kings’ home opener against the Memphis Grizzlies on Monday, Nov. 2, you might want to bring more than just your purple and silver foam finger, T-shirt and hat.

Why? Because Omri Casspi will be looking for something in particular.

“At all of the games, I’ve seen a lot of Israeli flags,” said Casspi, who was set to become the first Israeli to play in the NBA when the Kings opened the season with a road game Oct. 28. “It’s a great feeling knowing that a lot of people are rooting for me and the Kings. It gives me a big smile and warms my heart.”

Omri Casspi goes in for a layup during a preseason game. photo/ap/ross d. franklin

Before the tip-off at the home opener, fans clutching group tickets will have an opportunity to see the 6-foot, 9-inch forward from Yavne, Israel, during a brief appearance inside Arco Arena’s west lounge.

Casspi is slated to greet the crowd, take their questions and sign autographs. By then, he likely will have a handful of NBA minutes under his belt, as the Kings’ will have played their first three regular-season games, all on the road.

Bay Area Jewish agencies such as Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael and the S.F.-based Israeli Consulate have been advertising for the get-together with Casspi before the home opener.

The consulate even held an online contest, “Experience Israel,” which invited participants to share their favorite memories, thoughts and pictures of Israel via Twitter for a chance to win two free tickets and a private reception with Casspi.

Other Jewish groups slated to attend pre-game festivities include: Hillel at Davis and Sacramento; Congregation B’nai Israel and Knesset Israel Torah Center in Sacramento; NextDor, a community of young Jewish professionals in Northern California; and the Jewish Federation of the Sacramento Region.

Mitch Germann, vice president of business communications for the Kings, said the franchise has been working closely with the federation and hopes Casspi’s pre-game events will continue throughout the season.

 “The best way to support Omri is to come out to the games,” Germann said. “He had two games back-to-back on the road where he played really well. That’s helping add to the excitement.”

Casspi scored 17 points in a preseason win Oct. 22 over the Oklahoma City Thunder (formerly the Seattle Sonics). That was a follow-up to the 22 points and seven rebounds he banked for the Kings when they faced the Phoenix Suns on Oct. 20.

The pair of high-scoring performances showed an improved and more relaxed Casspi, who had a rough introduction to the U.S. style of play in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas, where he averaged eight points on poor 29.5 percent shooting and a hefty 3.4 turnovers in five games.

“It took me a while to adjust,” said Casspi, 21. “It’s hard in the beginning. It’s a different atmosphere on the team, different food, different culture. Now I feel like I belong here. My coaches are getting more trust in me, and I feel comfortable.”

Casspi is expected to be one of the first two Kings’ players to come off the bench, especially when a jolt of offense is needed. In preseason games, he led all NBA rookies in 3-point shooting, (hitting 11 of 21 shots for 52.4 percent) and was ninth in scoring for rookies at 11.7 points per game.

“I’ll do everything my coach wants me to and keep working hard to get that respect from my team,” Casspi said.

Selected 23rd overall in the NBA draft June 25, Casspi signed a contract with the Kings shortly thereafter, becoming the first Israeli to secure a guaranteed contract in the NBA. He stands to make $3.26 million in his first three years.

Previously, three Israelis were drafted by NBA teams, but each got cut and never played in an NBA game.

Casspi’s arrival has energized fans in Israel — the Kings’ opener at Oklahoma City Oct. 28 was to be broadcast live in Israel starting at 2 a.m. local time — as well as Northern California Jews. Hundreds turned out for his welcome reception at the Kings’ practice facility two months ago. Members of the Sacramento Jewish community shuttled Casspi around city, helping him secure a house and a car.

“I don’t know where I’d be without them,” Casspi said. “They took me in as one of their own and made me feel at home. I’m very excited to have them cheer for us and to have a good season. That’s the most important thing.”