On Omri Casspi and the audacity of hate

I've been reading Ball Don't Lie since long before I got the opportunity to write here -- since nearly the beginning, since the Powers that Be decided to team America's greatest basketball writer with Canada's greatest (non-Greek) basketball podcaster to create a unique version of hoops TNT that had nothing to do with EJ, Kenny and Charles. One of the things that I've always loved about this space is its commitment to discussion of more than just what happens during 48 minutes of nightly exertion on a 94-by-50 rectangle.

At BDL, we get to write about the games, but we also get to write about history, about culture, about beliefs, about humor -- about how this game, its adherents and all the things related to it (however tangential) that appear ephemeral can become essential. About how it can lift our spirits and warm our hearts.

Because of that, though, we've also got a responsibility to write about the stuff that makes our hands hot and our heads shake.

You know the story by now: Police received a call Wednesday afternoon that a plywood mural at 16th and R streets in midtown Sacramento paying tribute to several members of the Sacramento Kings had been defaced, and that a backward swastika had been painted (or scratched) on the forehead of the image of Omri Casspi, the Kings' small forward who last year became the first native of Israel ever to play in an NBA game.

A "backward swastika." Color me stunned that the creep (or creeps) couldn't even get the direction right.

From his home in Israel, Casspi handled the incident about as well as you can handle something like this. He told Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee and Sam Amick of NBA FanHouse that he was hurt when he learned of the graffiti, that he knew it was in no way indicative of fan sentiment toward him in Sacramento, and that he planned to "just let the police handle this and focus on having a great season."

On that score, a Sacramento police spokesman has said the department is investigating the incident as a "possible hate crime." I get the careful phrasing -- that term has a highly specific, debate-inspiring definition, especially in the United States, and as a result, law enforcement officials have to tread lightly in cases like these.

But that said, legalese and equivocations aside: Of course it's a hate crime. How the hell could it be anything else?

You can chalk it up to ignorance, stupidity, immaturity or any other explanation you'd like, but the pure fact is that nobody busts out the Krylon and throws up a Nazi symbol on top of an image of a Jew out of love. Nobody does what some sick skell did to Casspi's image without a shameful fever coursing through the blood.

You might not believe that those who commit crimes like this should be punished more severely because their actions were motivated by hate rather than hunger or poverty or greed or something else. But denying that hatred -- of Jews in general, of Casspi in particular, of some amorphous other, of one's own lot in life, whatever -- underpins the invocation of the slaughter of 6 million Jews and as many as 11 million more people from other groups (not to mention the evocation of Charles Manson) would be nonsensical.

Similarly, I get why nearly every report and commentary on the matter has taken a cue from the remarks of Darrell Steinberg, president pro tempore of the California State Senate, and included some sort of note that the abysmal artistic remix was all the more tasteless and offensive because "it occurred on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish new year." I tend to think that this small, disgusting act would've been just as heinous any other day of the year, because a flagrant's a flagrant whether it comes right after the opening tip or in the closing seconds, but I get it.

I'm not a Jew. I'm a Catholic. (A pretty severely lapsed Catholic, if we're being honest.) But despite the absence of any direct, personal connection to the immeasurable pain that symbol represents, this story and its immediate aftermath burrowed under my skin somethin' awful. Frankly, I'm not really sure what about it struck such a chord with me.

Maybe it's the amazing cognitive dissonance of defacing a picture of Casspi, a gifted kid who's such an immense source of pride for so many, who devoted time this summer to helping at a basketball clinic aimed at fostering interaction and tolerance between Israeli and Palestinian youth. I don't know Omri Casspi(notes), nor do I pretend to, and I certainly don't believe that anyone, regardless of their personal character, deserves treatment like this, but the juxtaposition of his specific face and that horrendous symbol ... I don't know, it just seems particularly uncomfortable.

Maybe it's that the ensuing discussion hasn't focused a whole heck of a lot on the important role in basketball history played by Jewish hoop luminaries like Red Auerbach, Red Holzman, Nat Holman, Marty Friedman, Sonny Hertzberg, Nancy Lieberman and Dolph Schayes, to say nothing of the rich history of Israeli basketball, of Ligat HaAl and Maccabi Tel Aviv and so much more. That swastika, this disgrace, is an affront to the many verses those legends have contributed, and continue to contribute, to basketball's brilliant narrative.

Maybe it's that the defacing of Casspi's picture came smack in the middle of a national argument about whether or not a Florida preacher should burn Qurans on the ninth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Maybe it was learning that the artist behind the mural told Sacramento's CBS affiliate that this isn't the first time the painting has been defaced. Maybe it was that in the middle of as great and unifying an event as the World Basketball Championships, something so dark and divisive had to muddy the waters.

Whatever the reason, it did, and I'm unlikely to forget that, even when we get back into the sweep of the season and we'll have Omri Casspi's game, rather than his image, to discuss. (And plenty of it, if Casspi gets his way -- he told FanHouse's Amick that he intends to show everyone that he's the clear choice in the battle for the Kings' starting small-forward spot this year.) The painting's repaired, Casspi's ready to move on, and so, I'm sure, are most of you. But I hope we wait, even if only for a second.

"Selah" is a Hebrew word that shows up a lot in the Bible, notably in the Psalms, and while it encompasses a lot of meanings, many of the translations come across as something like, "Pause for reflection," or "Stop and think about that." We should take this opportunity to stop for a moment, think about what that symbol means, and think about what Omri Casspi must have felt seeing it stretched across his face. This kid deserves better. We all do.