When Omri Casspi entered the game for the woeful Sacramento Kings one night last December, a raucous cheer erupted from the Staples Center crowd.
“Casspi, Casspi, Casspi,” they chanted, jumping and waving Israeli flags amid a sea of white-jerseyed Clippers fans.
“He gets cheered on while we’re on the road,” teammate Jason Thompson said of the phenomenon.
Casspi is the first Israeli to play in the NBA and his fan base has no city limits.
The 22-year-old small forward has become something of a rock star since being selected by the Kings as the 23rd overall pick in the 2009 NBA draft, which added Israel’s name to the 39 countries and territories that have players on NBA rosters.
On draft day, there were parties in the streets of Tel Aviv and Casspi received a congratulatory phone call from Israeli President Shimon Peres.
When Casspi moved to Sacramento, the celebration continued. The local Jewish community helped him buy a car and a house. And when he greets his fans after games, some, he said, have tried to set him up with their Jewish daughters. One couple named their son after him.
“I’m just enjoying it,” he said, smiling.
His jersey is among the top 40 sold in the NBA store in New York even though the Kings, at 14-43, have one of the worst records in the league, and the 6-foot-9 Casspi has started only 25 of 55 games, averaging 9.4 points, 4.7 rebounds and 25.8 minutes.
Yet against the Clippers that night he scored a team-high 21 points on eight-for-11 shooting, and he faces them again Monday, though this time it is in Sacramento’s Arco Arena.
Kings Coach Paul Westphal said Casspi has become “a major cultural hero.”
“Without much exaggeration,” Westphal said, “he has the hopes of a nation riding on everything he does.”
In November of 2009, Casspi put that to the test when he and Hamed Haddadi — the only Iranian in the NBA — embraced before a game against the Memphis Grizzlies. It was a powerful moment because Iran doesn’t recognize the state of Israel and that can spill over to athletics.
In fact, in the days leading up to that Kings-Grizzlies game, Haddadi told reporters how in 2005 his Iranian team was not allowed to go to Argentina for the FIBA World Championships for Young Men because Israel was a potential opponent.
Casspi keeps a framed photo of that embrace in his living room to remind him of its healing potential and of the responsibility he said he feels.
At times, though, that responsibility can hurt.
Before the 2010-11 season, Casspi was in Israel celebrating Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, when he learned that a Sacramento mural prominently featuring his image had been defaced with a swastika. A little over a week later, the crime was repeated. Police investigated but no arrests have been made.
“Those people don’t deserve my attention or the people’s attention,” he said.
Casspi always wanted to be a trailblazer. A Nike commercial shows him, when he was a boy, outside Madison Square Garden. In Hebrew he says, “Mom and Dad, I promise you when I get to the NBA, this is where I’m going to play.”
He grew up idolizing Michael Jordan, eventually becoming a star for Maccabi Tel Aviv, the most successful basketball club in Israel.
At 18, he was drafted into the army — Israeli men must serve three years in the Israeli Defense Forces — but the IDF sports committee declared him an “outstanding athlete,” and, though he had to undergo basic military training, he was sheltered from combat.
When he arrived in America, he vowed to help his country in another way.
Bus rides to games have turned into mini cultural exchanges with Casspi teaching his teammates songs in Hebrew and they in turn singing R&B songs to him.
Westphal said he’s made a special point of staying well-informed on what’s going on in the Middle East, and Thompson said his opinion of Israel has changed since playing with Casspi.
Thompson went to Tel Aviv last summer to attend the wedding of Casspi’s brother, acknowledging that he was nervous before the trip, envisioning Israel to be a war-torn country rife with terrorists.
“It was the opposite,” Thompson said. “I’m going back next summer for fun.”
Casspi’s impact has extended beyond the NBA. Last summer he helped facilitate basketball games between Palestinian and Israeli youths at the Peres Center for Peace sports camp in Jaffa, Israel. While there, he played basketball with Jewish and Arab children and said he watched friendships form.
During a recent trip to L.A. he was invited to speak to children at a synagogue in Beverly Hills about his NBA experience. Soon, 150 children had surrounded him pleading for autographs.
Rabbi Uri Pilichowski stayed close by, ready to shoo them away as soon as Casspi showed any sign of fatigue. After 100 autographs, Casspi was still going strong.
“I’ve seen basketball players sign two or three things and then try to get away,” Pilichoswki said. “He wouldn’t budge.”
For Casspi, being a role model is much more than a mere responsibility.
“I love it,” he said.