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It’s Not Easy Being Casspi

My brief encounter with Israel’s first NBA player

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Casspi after Wednesday’s game(Andrew Russeth.)

Wednesday at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, New Jersey, the Nets pulled out a victory—a convincing one, in fact—over the Sacramento Kings, bringing their record to 8-63. They have 11 more games this year; if they win none of them, then I will have witnessed the final victory of the worst team in the history of the National Basketball Association.

But I wasn’t there to see history happen. I was there to see Omri Casspi, the Kings’ rookie forward, who is the first Israeli ever to play in the NBA. Casspi (CASS-pee), not yet 22, is already a mini-juggernaut: private meeting with NBA Commissioner David Stern; Sports Illustrated profile; Nike ad. The whole megillah, as we like to say.

I don’t buy the theory that Jews (and really Jewish men) are especially obsessed with Jewish athletes to compensate for deep-seated insecurities: Jews know they can play sports (Hank Greenberg, Mark Spitz); and win a war in spectacular fashion (1967); and even, failing those, succeed without any trace of virility (Woody Allen). I think it’s more just the old-fashioned hobby of Jew-spotting. And that’s why I was there: following the New York Knicks’ successful Jewish Heritage Night, which they held when the Kings came to Madison Square Garden, Wednesday night at the Izod Center was Jewish Family Night. I would get to meet Casspi, as well as featured guests Dmitriy Salita (boxer—and Tablet Magazine contributor!) and Dolph Schayes, the legendary (and actually really good!) American Jewish NBA player in the 1960s.

But Casspi’s more than Jewish: He’s Israeli. The Israeli Tourism Ministry was the event’s sponsor. The flags that the conspicuous number of observant Jews in the stands flew bore Stars of David, not and Stripes. Wednesday night was about a more specific brand of Jewish pride. A brand I’m not sure I understand.

A friend and I spent much of the game in a comfortable suite just above the lower level of the arena. The kosher food was trucked in from the Supersol in Lawrence, New York. According to a concessioner, there were three Glatt kosher hot dog stands spread out throughout the place, instead of the usual single one; at half-time, we were regaled by the Hazamir Choir of Manhattan. But mostly, it was a typical game. Except, y’know, for the fact that the Nets didn’t get crushed.

It was a typical day for Casspi, too; actually, a less than typical one. The kid is averaging over 10 points a game this year, but Wednesday managed only 2 (he didn’t get his usual minutes, but then again, he hasn’t been lately). Toward the end of the third quarter, he got the ball on the wing and drove in for a dunk, only to be totally stuffed by a Nets big man against the backboard—one of those blocks where it doesn’t even occur to you to complain that the refs should’ve blown the whistle. The groans from the crowd, which had momentarily gotten so excited, was a unified chorus of disappointment, and was the loudest it got all night.

By the fourth quarter, the game was clearly over—the Nets wound up winning 93-79, which is roughly like seeing that some team won a football game 12-6—and the players were playing as though no one was watching. (The arena could not have been at more than one-third capacity.) We were escorted down to a room adjacent to the locker rooms, along with a lot of kids and their parents—almost uniformly, their fathers—most of whom were clad in the totems of Jewish observance: yarmulkes, tallit, payis in some cases; long skirts on the girls.

About 10 minutes after the game was over—“Well at least the parking lot will be cleared out” I heard one father mention to another—Casspi came in. Let me tell you: 6’9” is even taller in person. Casspi is also quite good-looking, and possesses a totally intangible, magnetic aura that only the word “charisma” could define. I was not glad that he was beat-up and sad, as he clearly was, but at the same time, I was glad he was: there are surely plenty of NBA rookies who could lose an inconsequential late-season road game to an atrocious team and really not give a damn.

“It was a really rough night for me and for our team,” he said. We had been told no autographs or interviews—he had a bus to catch; the Kings are playing in Boston tonight (a bloodbath, no doubt)—but a few kids shouted out questions anyway, in English and Hebrew. Bedraggled, he managed brief responses in between impromptu autographing. Finally, it was time to leave, and he moved out of the room, slowly, the kids and adults surrounding him semi-attached to him, like looser egg white around a sturdy yolk.

A representative of his country, a screen onto which his fellow-people project their ethnic excitement, a professional athlete: and not yet 22. It can’t be easy being Omri Casspi.

I want to say that I simply don’t understand why these kids are so enamored with Casspi. Israel has that pull; I think it probably always will, so long as it sticks around. But I don’t fully understand it, and particularly as far as yeshiva kids go. Casspi isn’t especially religious; he doesn’t wear a kippah, for example, and he plays on Saturdays. Culturally, he probably has more in common with secular American Jews, or even secular American Gentiles, than he does with these kids, who in turn have upbringings probably more like those of religious American Christians.

Moreover, these kids are not Israeli: they’re American Jews. Why are they shouting, “OM-RI CASS-PI” at Kings games, but not, “JOR-DAN FAR-MAR” when the Los Angeles Lakers come to town and Farmar, the Jewish guard who is just as decent as Casspi, gets his workmanlike seven points and two assists? Jewish Family Night had become Israeli Celebration Night, and while I certainly don’t begrudge the Israeli Tourism Ministry’s marketing, I wondered just how much this night had to do with Jewish families. Then, I remembered that Dolph Schayes was supposed to appear, but I asked around, and he wasn’t there.

Related: Omri Casspi Is Ready For Primetime [Tablet Magazine]

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Kevin says:

This is a thoughtful article, but I think the writer is (unfortunately) correct when he says that he doesn’t understand why observant American Jews are interested in Casspi. Mr. Tracy writes: “Culturally, [Casspi] probably has more in common with secular American Jews, or even secular American Gentiles, than he does with these kids, who in turn have upbringings probably more like those of religious American Christians.”

This is simply inaccurate. Casspi and his observant fans share a common vocabulary; no matter how secular he (like many Israelis) may be, he knows what shabbat is, he knows what Pesach is — just like his fans. Secular Israeli culture is still Jewish culture in innumerable ways. And the kids present don’t have a ‘religious’ identity — they don’t see themselves as sharing common ground with American Christian families. They have a Jewish identity, front and center. That’s what they see in Casspi.

I agree with the comment above but would go further. I have no doubt that kids at the game were Modern Orthodox kids who probably go to a Modern Orthodox high school. Having gone to one myself, I can tell you those kids are in a very strange position when it comes to engaging with popular secular culture.

On one hand being Jewish constitutes a, if not the, major facet of their identity. Their education involves a strong dose of Jewish particularism, chosen-people-ness and separation from the world through community and ritual. On the other hand, they are engaged wholly with American culture with all the attendant sports, television, movies, music and other popular culture that goes with it.

Sports, unlike other forms of culture, is participated in as a group. You root for a team that belongs to a City, state or country. And these kids unlike their secular counterparts and because of their predominantly Orthodox identity are never wholly of the group- be it identification with players or the locale.

When the rare player comes along with whom they can say “he’s one of ours,” it is an opportunity to relate to an athlete the way they think everyone else does.

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It’s Not Easy Being Casspi

My brief encounter with Israel’s first NBA player

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