Omri Casspi has been playing with a heavy heart of late. (Getty Images)To the extent that Omri Casspi's NBA career has been at all noteworthy, it's been due much more to his nationality than his on-court production. While he hasn't been much to write home about through three years with the Sacramento Kings and Cleveland Cavaliers, the 24-year-old forward still possesses a certain level of significance in the NBA's global narrative as the first native of Israel ever to play in the league.
Early in Casspi's tenure in Sacramento, that stature often evoked a unique sort of pride and fan energy in NBA arenas; at times, it also resulted in some truly ugly and ignorant responses. As his career has worn on, Casspi has continued to be a point of pride in Israel, serving as the inspiration for (and namesake of) a bill designed to allow Israeli citizens living abroad to vote in local elections. But after three seasons of declining play, the bloom's come off his rose a bit stateside; these days, NBA fans tend to think of Casspi less as a trailblazer than as another middling bench player, when they think of him at all.
Irrespective of whether Casspi's heritage remains at the forefront of our minds, though, it's likely never far from the forefront of his, especially at a time when airstrikes and rocket attacks between Israeli forces and Palestinian militants have rocked the Gaza Strip and led to heightened tensions in areas like Casspi's hometown of Yavne, which is about 40 miles north of Gaza and 15 miles south of Tel Aviv. And especially when Casspi's entire family still lives there, as he told Cavs beat writer Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal:
"Nobody is really safe right now from Tel Aviv and south," Casspi said. "People don't realize there are certain cities in southern Israel that have been under attack for the last 12 years. Now it's just crazy because they're throwing rockets all over the place. Their only purpose is to hit civilians and to kill." [...]
While Casspi certainly has the means to remove his family from the strife and bring them to safety here, it's not that simple. His sister, Aviv, is a member of the Israel Defense Forces. His brother, Eitan, could be recalled to IDF at anytime.
In Israel, it is custom for all healthy 18-year-olds to serve for three years in the military. Omri served his time, too, but he spent most of it with the Maccabi basketball team. He went through basic training, but was granted a rare "outstanding athlete" status that kept him out of conflict. It's also why he is in no danger of being recalled.
Casspi hasn't seen his mother or sister since the summer when he returned to Israel after the season. His father, Shimon, was in Cleveland for the Cavs' first two games. He returned just as tensions with Gaza were escalating.
Those tensions have, for the time being, abated a bit. Representatives from both sides of the conflict met Monday to discuss the details of a truce brought on by a cease-fire agreed to last week. Casspi, though, told Lloyd he "doesn't believe [the truce] will last simply because there is too much hatred and history on both sides," so while his family members are safe for the moment, he's unlikely to stop worrying.
Strangely enough, with his thoughts at least partially elsewhere, Casspi's played perhaps his best ball in a wine-and-gold uniform over the past five games, hitting better than 56 percent of his shots and earning his way back into a Cleveland rotation sorely in need of increased contributions from unlikely sources as they work without injured star point guard Kyrie Irving. His two best outings of the season came in the Cavs' last two games, a Friday/Saturday back-to-back against the Orlando Magic and Miami Heat in which Cleveland lost both games but Casspi scored 26 points on 13 shots and hit 6 of 7 3-point tries in the pair.
[Y! News Slideshow: Israel-Gaza conflict]
Cavs coach Byron Scott couldn't help wondering if Casspi's recent surge was related to his external concerns. More from Lloyd:
"[...] I see what's going on and I'm sure it's on his mind pretty heavily, but you wouldn't know it by [Friday] night. Maybe that's his salvation is being able to get out on the floor and play because you don't think about it at that time. You can get away from it for a little while."
Whether you subscribe to Casspi's understandably shaded take on the genesis behind the recent escalation in the Israel-Palestine conflict ("You're dealing with a terrorist organization that doesn't really care about its own people. They hate us more than they love their kids") or take a different view, it would seem reasonable on a basic human level to hope that he can continue to find some on-court shelter from the storm roiling in his homeland. The Cavs could certainly use it, and given how many near and dear to him may still be in danger, and how powerless he is to do anything about it from 6,000 miles away, he probably could, too.
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