Omri Casspi has explained why he is putting club before country after ruling himself out for Israel at next month’s Eurobasket competition.
Casspi, 21, recently became the first Israeli to join the NBA after signing a three-year contract with the Sacramento Kings, worth $3.5 million.
Ranked 23 in the draft, he hopes to put Israeli basketball on the map in America.
“I’ve told the coach that my priorities are to prepare for the game in the USA, playing alongside superstars,” he said. “This is a big step for me so I need to establish myself. I’ve taken such a big step and I must give it my best shot, give it 110 per cent, be in the best possible shape and feel comfortable in my new surroundings. I just can’t do both. The coach understands.
“It was a very hard decision to not play for Israel. I’ve been playing for all the national teams from the age of 14.”
Recalling his excitement at the signing, he said: “My family and friends were in the house with me. We were very excited. When I heard my name called, it was like a dream come true. I was very emotional as I know how hard I’ve worked and that I’d made history.
“Being the first Israeli in the NBA, I don’t feel any more pressure than what I already put on myself in terms of how well I want to do. I just want to relax and play like I did at Maccabi Tel Aviv. I keep setting myself targets but first want to understand the league a little bit. I expect to struggle a bit initially but I want to help my team win. I want to be productive and I know that the points and rebounds will come.”
The Kings’ first match against Oklahoma City is on October 28. Casspi is confident that the long journeys between games will not pose a problem. “I’m used to being away from home for 20 days. I’ve been through this situation many times. I feel mature enough to be away from home. My big brother Eitan will be staying with me but my mum, dad and sister will stay in Israel and come over regularly.” He also expects to have the support of “a very big Jewish community in San Francisco”.
Now one of the highest paid players in Israeli sporting history, Casspi has vowed not to let his status go to his head. “I’m representing my country first and foremost. From day one, I’ve never played basketball for money. For me, money is just something that comes with the sport.
“I had bigger offers of more money from clubs in Europe but I have never just thought of the money, and I think people in Israel appreciate that.”
Despite his absence from the Eurobasket, Casspi believes that the tournament is important. “Everyone looks up to the national team and I believe that we have to be able to compete in the top eight. We have a very talented team and a good coach. If we can win our first two games and get confidence you never know.”
However, he believes that there is a major problem within Israeli basketball in terms of the top junior players not coming through. “We’ve got to find a solution,” he said. “There is a high level of expectation but it’s very hard to develop Israeli talent. We need a programme to guarantee that we will have talented players in junior teams.”
Casspi believes that the future is bright for the national team. “We have big talents in Israel and basketball has made big strides over the last few years. I can’t pinpoint why no Israeli have made it in the NBA until now. I hope I can give Israel a good name.”
The Israel national team is taking part in Game on at the 02 against Great Britain, Poland and Turkey, starting today.
The three-day competition is being held to aid preparations ahead of Eurobasket 2009.
Israel get proceedings under way against Turkey tonight followed by a match against Poland on Saturday. They complete their schedule against GB at 5.30pm on Sunday.