A Celebrity is Born

ImageSince Draft night, Omri Casspi reached a new status in Israel. The city of Yavne isn’t known as one of the most famous cities in Israel. Actually, its most well-known product is probably a hip-hop band which rocked Israel during the 90s. The city’s official Web site has a report on its homepage about school pupils who developed three robots. But in fact, Yavne developed three robots and a new celebrity: Omri Casspi.

There are different kinds of “sports celebrities” in Israel. The local stars, who are mainly known in their respective communities; the national team players and Olympic athletes; the players who star in international soccer teams; and the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball players, who tended to be above all, since the team is the most successful in Israeli sports history.

However, a special place is always secured for the “trailblazers”: The first Olympic medalist, and the first Olympic champion, and the first to advance to the highest levels of the European soccer Champions League, and now, the first NBA player. “It’s crazy,” he said in an interview a couple of days before the Draft, “The greatest possible feeling. Every moment in the street people talk to me, wish me luck, ask how I feel, say that they pray for God to help me.”

When the NBA games reached the Israel people, through cinemas during the 70s and on TV during the 80s and 90s, a loyal fan base was created – not an obvious thing, since the games are broadcasted in the middle of the night. 7 pm ET is 2 am in Israel, and most of the Finals games started at 4 am. And still, dozens of thousands of fans turned the alarm clocks on, and watched Magic and Bird, Hakeem, Barkley and Jordan.

As a young, ambitious country, Israel always dreamed of sticking a flag onto the NBA ground, but every time, something went wrong in the process. One time the Israeli team refused to let the player go, one time the 1999 NBA lockout broke out and some other times, the wrong NBA teams got in the player’s way. Israeli fans looked in frustration as countries with a very humble basketball tradition sent players to the USA, while we, the country that sent clubs and teams to the top of the European basketball, kept on waiting. Now we’ll have Omri.

During Draft night, many basketball fans stayed awake and waited with Omri for the big moment, hoping that this time, nothing goes wrong. When David Stern approached the podium with a smile, Casspi’s face, broadcasted from his house in Yanve, embodied the dream of a nation: in moments, the unbearable tension was replaced with a yell of happiness. Casspi’s pictures appeared in every Web site and newspaper’s headlines, while the general feeling was that this is a breakthrough, a giant step for Israeli sports.

Casspi has a new status. He will be the first to step into uncharted territory, while accompanied – from afar and in the ARCO Arena stands – by an enormous amount of eyes. Eyes of Israeli and Jewish communities which will cheer with every field goal, sigh with every turnover and shout with every dunk. Needless to say, Sacramento automatically became the favorite NBA team of many Israelis.

If Casspi will succeed, he can be a role model for Israelis who make their baby steps in basketball. He can be an inspiration, a living proof that the right combination of talent, determination and hard work can take you anywhere, even to the goals that once seemed impossible.

This Blog is in the Courtesy of the BSL – Israeli basketball league. The official site of the Israeli basketball league www.basket.co.il. Eran Soroka is the deputy editor and NBA Writer of Ma’ariv Sports Newspaper and its affiliate website, NRG.co.il