Back Into Focus
The NBA features the 450 best ballplayers in the world and each of them has to be mentally focused on a nightly basis. But how do you concentrate on basketball when your family and friends are essentially in a war zone some 6,000 miles away?
Cavaliers forward Omri Casspi – the only Israeli player in the NBA – is alone in understanding this concern, one he’s dealt with since entering the league in 2009.
And in mid-November, as the Israelis and Hamas squared off in another deadly exchange, Casspi played through the distraction of knowing loved ones were in harm’s way.
“It got to me in one game,” admitted the 6-9, 225-pound Casspi. “When it started, we had a game in (Brooklyn) and the three, three-and-a-half minutes that I played, I wasn’t there. My head wasn’t there. I wasn’t focused. And from that point on, I thought: ‘You can’t think about it. There’s nothing you can do. Hopefully, things will get better soon, but you can’t worry about it. You need to come play basketball. That’s your job, that’s what you need to do.’
“And from that point on, I was 100 percent focused on what I need to do and not let it affect me at all.”
On November 21, the two sides agreed to a cease fire. But Casspi accepts the fact that this likely won’t be the end of hostilities.
“It’s been quiet for the past two weeks; the ceasefire’s been quiet,” said Casspi. “It’s a tough reality we live in. But I was born into it, so it’s no difference – it’s nothing new to me.”
Casspi came into Training Camp this fall with a newfound confidence. After getting most of a true offseason this summer in Cleveland, Casspi returned to play with the Israeli national team.
With Israel attempting to qualify for the EuroBasket Championship in 2013, Omri excelled – leading the squad in scoring in seven of their ten qualifying contests and topping the 20-point plateau on four occasions.
Casspi’s the youngest player on the Israeli national team, but that’s also nothing new to him. He was just 13 when he joined Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth team and played with the real thing as a 17-year-old understudy to two-time Euroleague MVP, Anthony Parker.
“(Playing on the national team) helped me 100 percent,” he asserted. “Just finishing last season, coming in here, working on my game, getting healthy, going to the national team and kind of bring everything to the court there. I felt great coming into Training Camp. I felt like it got me into the right rhythm and on the right page. The mindset is as important. And I feel like it really helped me.”
Last season, Casspi started 35 games with the Wine and Gold before having his spot usurped by Alonzo Gee. He played in 65 of Cleveland’s 66 games, but never quite found the rhythm he had in Sacramento.
This year, with problems looming in his homeland, Casspi got off to a slow start – taking four DNP-CDs in Cleveland’s first six contests.
But after his awakening after the contest in Brooklyn – and not-coincidentally the cease fire on November 21 – Casspi has played some the best ball as a Cavalier.
Since November 23, Casspi has been hot from beyond the arc – shooting at a 54 percent clip (14-for-26) from long distance. And maybe just as importantly, Casspi rebounded, scrapped for loose balls and played the solid defense that Coach Byron Scott demands.
“(Coach Scott) is always ‘defense first,’” said Casspi. “It’s something he always stresses with us. If you do the little things – you rebound, you play hard defensively – first of all, you get more time. But really, things come more easily on the offensive end.”
Scott praises Casspi for his patience and persistence.
“I think the first thing is, he just kept his head in it,” said Scott. “He never got down on himself. He looked at is as though: ‘Hey, if I get another opportunity, I’m going to just take advantage of it.’ He was always positive, always worked. And when he got his chance, he was able to go in there and play pretty well.
“You have to give him a lot of credit for hanging in there, for persevering through the whole situation and (was) able to also come in and be a positive influence on what we’ve been doing. And I think it sends a message to the other guys that when you get an opportunity, you’d just better be ready.”
“I was always really patient,” added Omri. “At the beginning of the season I didn’t play much. And every basketball player, obviously, wants to play. But I figured that I have to stay positive, work on what I need to work on to get those minutes, to get on the court.”
Besides playing with his national team, Casspi worked on his upper-body strength and hoisted between 500-1,000 shots up a day – which might explain why he’s shooting .134 points above his career three-point shooting average this season.
After arriving in a new situation, it can take a while – depending on the player – to get used to the new surroundings, new teammates, new system. It’s something Byron Scott admitted recently that C.J. Miles is going through. Sometimes a change of scenery can take a while to get used to.
Casspi finally looks like he’s getting comfortable in the wine and gold – and his three-point stroke is much-needed while some Cavs continue to get healthy.
“As far as our system, our team, the way we’re built – the offense gives an opportunity for everybody,” explained the fourth-year forward. “It’s not that our coaches are telling me to sit in the corner and wait. The ball moves, we penetrate, we kick. If you have an open shot, you need to take it. So the way we’re built, I feel like I get a lot of opportunities that I can contribute.”
Though he still checks on his loved ones back in Israel every day, Casspi has a clearer head moving forward. He’s a tough-minded 24-year-old and he may have weathered the most difficult part of his season. Now, he can concentrate completely on the game he loves.