At NBA Duel of Israelis, the Mideast Was All Around, Minus the Strife

A rabbi, a Palestinian, two Israelis and a Turk. Such was the roster on and off the court when the Houston Rockets' Omri Casspi battled the Dallas Mavericks' Gal Mekel.

HOUSTON - Texas is well known for its oil and beef. And then there are the two Israeli basketball players. The Dallas Mavericks have made it a point to bring in foreign players and have signed Gal Mekel. The Houston Rockets have saved Omri Casspi from his ordeal in the Cleveland cold, providing him with a new home for his fifth season in the NBA.

When the Rockets and Mavericks clash it's a sort of derby. Sort of because nobody gets too excited. Texas loves its football; basketball counts, but for the derby you can still buy tickets an hour before the game, once prices have gone down.

"It doesn't even resemble Maccabi against Hapoel," said Casspi, referring to two Tel Aviv teams. And Mekel noticed the difference, too. "There's no special rivalry between the two teams," he said. "We have a more loaded rivalry with San Antonio, but Houston has a great team this season, and Dallas has had its years at the top."

Still, the meeting between Mekel and Casspi (Houston 113, Dallas 105) drew interest, and even local journalists asked the two about the league's first-ever encounter between two Israelis. The coaches of course knew what was going on, and since the NBA is also about PR, Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle promised before the game that he would make sure both players were on court at the same time.

There's something provincial about waiting for Mekel and Casspi when most of the other journalists stomp toward the big stars like Dwight Howard, James Harden and Dirk Nowitzki. At least I wasn't alone. Turkish journalists waited for Omer Asik, and the Taiwanese looked out for Jeremy Lin (who actually was born in Los Angeles).

Taking provinciality to the extreme, I asked Asik, whose locker is next to Casspi's, about Turkish-Israeli relations. "We really don't care about it, we simply play basketball," Asik said. "I sort of half played with Omri before, but now we play a lot together and it's working fine; he's a great player and adds a lot to our team."

Tales from Acre

Provinciality proved hard to escape. I ran into Samer Faris, who introduced himself as Casspi's Palestinian double. They actually resemble each other a bit. Faris was born in Houston to proud Palestinian parents. "Where in Palestine? Somewhere in the north. I believe the town is called Acre," he said, referring to the Israeli coastal city with a long history and a large Israeli Arab minority.

Faris takes part in special events - "meetings with players, taking fans down to the court. I make sure fans enjoy their experience here." Faris loves his job. "I watch all the games from the first row," he said. "These tickets cost thousands of dollars. I really can't complain."

In that same first row, behind the Houston bench, I ran into a father and son wearing kippot. The father was Brian Strauss, a Houston Reform rabbi. "These aren't my seats," he noted. "They belong to a friend who couldn't make it tonight. These are expensive tickets."

According to Strauss, there are around 15,000 Jews in Houston, including 5,000 ex-Israelis. "This is a great community - very united and involved in local politics. Ex-Israelis do well in the car-trade business," Strauss said, adding that he hoped to meet Casspi. "Can you ask him to talk to me? I want him to come over to our synagogue; we have a lot of girls I want him to meet."

Casspi's reaction: "Tell him I'm conservative, I don't attend Reform synagogues."

Mekel still has to get used to the NBA. "Everything is different here," he said. "You're given a tablet with all the stats and scouting reports of the players you're about to play against, and after every final practice we have a written exam on our routines. And everything happens so fast - all the flights, which hardly leave time for practice; I'm still not used to it. But it's fun to have so many games, and all the action - I hope I don't get sick of it."

Casspi, with all his experience, notes that it takes time to get used to it all. "In your rookie year it's difficult, and in the second and third years, too," he said. "I'm sure Gal is having a hard time adapting, but after five years you're already the one who explains it all to the younger players. Once you get used to it, it's fun."