Posted Sep 3 2010 9:51PM
Omri Casspi views the world and his place in it with the wisdom of someone beyond his 22 years. He believes he's an agent for peace, especially within his home country of Israel.
Casspi took part in several goodwill endeavors this summer, including visiting with the Israeli president earlier this week. A basketball camp with Israeli and Palestinian children, also this week, held just as much importance.
"Really close to my heart," Casspi said by phone from Israel. "I really believe in the role we can play for peace. Those kids are the next generation. They have to understand they can live and play together."
The camp was sponsored by Peres Center for Peace's Twinned Peace Sport Schools, whose mission is to "encourage reconciliation between young Palestinian and Israeli boys and girls." Conflict is a constant backdrop in the Middle East.
United States-initiated peace talks are currently taking place between Israel and Palestine. As vital as politics are in forging common ground, grassroots programs also have a place in the process.
"Basketball and sports are a bridge to communicate and overcome the difficulties we have in our country, in our language, in our culture," said Casspi, a Sacramento Kings small forward and the first Israeli-born player in the NBA.
More than 100 kids took part in the clinic at the Jewish-Arab community center in Jaffa. The Twinned Peace Sport Schools project has over 1,600 kids from across the region ages 10 to 15, representing various religious and cultural backgrounds.
Casspi answered questions from the campers about life in the NBA before hitting the court for some hoops.
"I shared some of my experiences on the court on how basketball connects differences in religion and languages," he said. "It was a good experience for me."
It's been a summer of good experiences for Casspi. He was part of a delegation of current and former NBA players that met with Israeli President Shimon Peres on Wednesday in Jerusalem to discuss the U.S.-Israeli relations. Casspi also toured local hospitals.
Somehow, though, Casspi managed to sneak in basketball into his break. He helped Israel qualify for next year's European championships and is busy preparing for his second training camp with the Kings.
Multi-tasking is nothing new for Casspi. He visited with numerous Jewish groups in cities around the league throughout his rookie season. The media demands on his time were just as excessive. The Kings organization felt that too many extracurricular activities were being piled on and began to limit some of Casspi's appearances as the year wore on.
Casspi didn't mind the all the attention. He never saw it as a burden or an imposition.
"It's part of who I am and my duties being an NBA player," he said. "I'm blessed to have this opportunity."
Though his production tailed off some over the last few months of the season, Casspi didn't cite the demands on his time as a reason. He expects to be just as visible and accommodating this time around, even if the novelty of being a groundbreaker for his country has worn off a bit.
"I look at it as a great experience and a great opportunity I had," Casspi said. "I expect it to slow down a little this year, but I still want to do that kind of stuff and visit with Jewish communities and do stuff like this for peace."
As for the Kings, Casspi can't wait to get to camp and get started. Sacramento went only 25-57 last season under first-year coach Paul Westphal, but that was an eight-game improvement. The team is built around Tyreke Evans, last season's Rookie of the Year, Carl Landry, lottery pick DeMarcus Cousins and Casspi.
"I love the direction we're going," said Casspi, who averaged 10.3 points and 4.5 rebounds. "We have a great coach, I love the team. We need time to click. Obviously me, Tyreke, DeMarcus, our coaches and everybody want to win a lot. That's our goal.
"The main thing we can control is staying together. We need to live through some tough times and stick together. If we have a good atmosphere inside the locker room, the sky is the limit. We have a lot of talent, a lot of guys that can play. I'm excited. This is great opportunity we have."
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