Posted Feb 9 2010 10:06AM
This is the moment a country and a league celebrate and a team dreads.
Omri Casspi of the Kings, the first Israeli-born player in the NBA, makes his Madison Square Garden debut Tuesday night in a game against the Knicks with particular transcontinental interest because of the large Jewish population in New York. Later in the week, Casspi goes to Dallas for All-Star weekend, with a media session with reporters from around the world and a spot on the rookie team that plays the sophomore squad Friday.
That's four days, three high-profile events, two cities and one growing problem.
The Kings are cheering his success and cringing at the same time. What was once the nice story of a player proudly representing his country and connecting with Jewish fans around the league has become a worry among team officials increasingly concerned he is being overburdened with commitments, to the point that they are stepping in to save Casspi from himself.
He gets nonstop invitations and accepts many. The mail brings offers to come to dinner in various cities. Or visit a synagogue. Or, in what had become a regular request, the marketing departments from opposing teams trying to arrange a Casspi appearance before or after games on the road, hoping it will generate ticket sales.
All that was before the biggest crush of all: this week. Casspi will be trying to accommodate everyone as he gets pulled in different directions by fans, media requests and NBA hopes of riding a personable, successful 21-year-old forward to a greater impact in Israel.
After stops in New York (tonight) and Dallas (Friday), whatever's left of Casspi returns to Sacramento after the All-Star break as the Kings try to rescue a promising start gone bad.
"It's a fine line," Kings coach Paul Westphal said. "One of the things that makes him special is he's got this country behind him and he's dedicated his performance to making them proud, and it's one of the reasons he's so focused. But I think that the extra demands on his time can be draining as well.
"I think it's something that we're going to have to keep our eye on and really work with him to scale down some of the things. The people who want him to succeed the most, in a way, can be an impediment to that success just by their well-wishing. It's definitely a concern."
In his first 32 games, Casspi averaged 13.2 points in 27.7 minutes and shot 49.8 percent.
In the 16 games since, Casspi has averaged 9.8 points in 27.9 minutes and shot 41.9 percent.
All the extracurriculars come on top of the typical rookie issues -- hitting the rookie wall, needing to improve on defense, opponents making adjustments and taking away some of what worked now that he's been around most of the league once. And it's all combined to prompt the Kings' response. Requests for in-depth interviews that a couple months ago would quickly have been green-lighted are a tougher sell. Same is true for requests from other teams for Casspi to do a grip-and-grin or speech to a Jewish group at the arena when Sacramento comes to town.
"There was one in Toronto," Casspi said. "There's one in New York. In Atlanta after the game, I had an event. Not an event, just around a thousand people waiting after the game for pictures and autographs. It's great to be part of it. It's really, really great.
"[It is] not tiring. I can't say that. I would say I'll do everything it takes. I'll do everything. But in all, I try to play basketball. I'm here to play basketball and I try to do everything I can to be fresh for the games. I'm trying to have fun, but I'm a basketball player. As long as nothing hurts my basketball shape or rhythm or my time of sleeping, everything is fine."
He insists that hasn't happened. The Kings, in words and action, are becoming convinced otherwise.
"It's part of who I am and where I'm coming from," Casspi said. "I took it into consideration in the beginning and I knew it was going to be. I'm just happy it happened the way I thought it would be. I'm just proud of it. It's really fun. Hopefully it will come more and more."
That's what the Kings are hoping, and what the Kings are afraid of.
Scott Howard-Cooper has covered the NBA since 1988. You can e-mail him here.
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