Basketball / Kings pick Maccabi TA player in first round / Casspi set to become first Israeli in NBA
Madison Square Garden has hosted many magical moments in sports history, including NBA and NHL championships, boxing matches involving Ali and Frazier and even an exhibition game featuring Maccabi Tel Aviv. On Thursday night, the Garden was again the backdrop to history when Omri Casspi, a Rehovot native and Maccabi Tel Aviv player, was picked by the Sacramento Kings with the 23rd pick in the 2009 NBA draft, becoming the first ever Israeli to be selected in the opening round.
"I'm still in a state of disbelief," Casspi, who turned 21 last week, reacted yesterday as he arrived at Ben Gurion International Airport to catch a flight to the U.S. "I haven't slept in two days. Maybe I'll get some sleep on the flight."
Many had predicted that Casspi would be taken by Sacramento, Chicago or Portland, and when the Trailblazers moved one spot ahead of the Kings in an earlier trade, some felt it would be to get Casspi before the Kings could. Instead, the Blazers picked another European prospect, Victor Claver of Spain, who will undoubtedly stay another year or two in Europe. Casspi, however, had no such intentions, and was looking for a place to play right away, while the Kings' GM Geoff Petrie said that "going into it we talked about adding another small forward, and I think Casspi can play there. As time goes on, he's going to be pretty versatile in terms of how he's out there."
With the following pick, Sacramento officially became the next home of Israel's top young player.
When NBA Commissioner David Stern read "Omri Casspi of Israel" over the loudspeaker, the decidedly New York crowd erupted in celebration. Israeli flags could be seen throughout the room as fans of several teams cheered together for Casspi. Some of them described Casspi being drafted as "the greatest thing to happen to Jewish sports in a long time," and welcomed him to the NBA, even if he wasn't playing for their hometown Knicks.
"I'm a diehard Knicks fan, but I'll be buying a Kings' Casspi jersey right away and they're now my second favorite team. This is just awesome," said one fan. The sentiment was shared by all the Casspi fans in attendance, who came out to support a player they had only recently heard of. "I saw him play once, when Maccabi came to New York [in 2007], but other than that, I don't know much about him. I've heard he's tough and can dunk, which for a Jew is amazing," said another fan.
A third fan added that "Casspi completely breaks the mold because he's so tall and athletic, unlike most other Jewish or Israeli athletes."
The NBA also appreciated the historical significance of the moment. Vice President of International Basketball Operations Kim Bohuny proclaimed "on behalf of the NBA, we're thrilled to have him because we know how important basketball is to Israel. So many talented players have come through the Israeli system and of course we know about Maccabi Tel Aviv, so to have our first Israeli player in the NBA to be from Maccabi is very special."
Sacramento, the capital of California and home to one of the NBA's loudest and most passionate fan bases, has just suffered a difficult season, winning only 17 games and finishing with the NBA's worst record. The Kings failed to win the draft lottery, however, which awards teams draft picks based on their previous season's record using a complicated mathematical system, and ended up with the fourth overall pick. Sacramento also had the 23rd selection, thanks to last year's trade of troubled star Ron Artest to the Houston Rockets.