SACRAMENTO - Omri Casspi left his home yesterday morning at 9:30 with his kit bag, entered his car and made the 6.5-kilometer trip to the Sacramento Kings arena. This time it was no routine trip for another practice. This time, he didn't return home after finishing practice.
Casspi and his teammates boarded a bus taking them to the airport, where the team's private jet awaited them. Each player took his assigned seat for the 90-minute flight to Oklahoma. Tonight, Casspi will make his NBA regular-season debut - one among the 450 best players in the world.
Thus begins the long and arduous journey - which at times will involve one day on, one day off until the regular season ends in April - of the first Israeli in the NBA. Casspi will spend four days away from his new home in Sacramento. After tonight's contest against Oklahoma City, he and the Kings will take on New Orleans and San Antonio before returning home. When he returns, he not only plans to find his elder brother Eitan there, but also his father Shimon, who is scheduled to land Friday in California.
It's been quite a journey for Casspi, who has swapped the view from Yavne's water tower to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's office. Yet, what is most striking about the 21-year-old giant is that he has not lost touch with the ground. He may be making history, but he remains balanced, humble and modest. He reveals no signs of excessive pride or arrogance ("I won't tell you what car I drive").
He is aware of the accolades he has drawn from Kings head coach Paul Westphal, who recently said he was pleasantly surprised by the pace of Casspi's development, but he does not think he has a chance of making the starting five. "I still need to work hard and to improve," he says with an embarrassed smile. He says he considers himself to be the sixth man.
Casspi says he enjoys the States, but his soul remains with Yavne, his family and Israel. He spends time every day surfing Israeli sports Web sites, reading every word to keep abreast of the latest news. He also keeps on hand two cell phones - his American one and an Israeli one for friends and family to call him.
Eitan Casspi, his big brother, left his criminology studies to be with Omri and lend a supportive shoulder, keeping his younger sibling from feeling lonely and homesick. His mother, who visited him over Rosh Hashanah, and his father plan to rack up the frequent flyer miles on the Yavne-Sacramento line.
After playing for Maccabi Tel Aviv where every loss was an existential disaster, Casspi joins a team which has played well below .500 for the past three seasons. Last year, the Kings' 15-67 represented the worst record in the league and its worst winning percentage in franchise history since joining the NBA in 1949 as the Rochester Royals.
"The atmosphere here is calm," explains Casspi. "Losing is never nice, but neither is it a catastrophe here. We're in a rebuilding stage and will do better than last year. You learn from every loss without burning down the club house."
The youngster says he isn't worked up about meeting anyone in particular, because all the NBA players are great, and in any game he will face players with international reputations that precede them. "On the parquet we're all players - there are no stars," he says. The tough part, he says, is having to fight to establish his turf. "It's a real war to establish myself in the place I believe I can excel," he says.