Original Article in The Jerusalem Post:

Omri Casspi’s Memphis Grizzlies came to town to square off against the struggling New York Knicks team in a Sunday matinée game at Madison Square Garden. Casspi did not travel to New York with the team.

After missing four games with right knee soreness, the Grizzlies announced over the weekend that an MRI revealed a meniscus tear for the 30-year-old Israeli forward. In a pre-game interview Sunday with The Jerusalem Post, Grizzlies head coach J.B. Bickerstaff confirmed that Casspi will undergo surgery but reports, “I don’t know yet when the surgery will be.”

Bickerstaff and several team members spoke glowingly of Casspi as both a reliable player and important role model and remain optimistic about his return.

While Casspi has only averaged 6.3 points and 3.2 rebounds in his 36 games this season, the 30-year-old, drafted by the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the 2009 NBA draft, has played an important role on eight NBA teams over 10 seasons.

Coach Bickerstaff described Casspi as “the ultimate professional.” He noted that “Casspi is a guy you can count on whether you play him 10 minutes or 25 – you know he will play extremely hard. He will give you energy. Being dependable in this league is huge.”

Teammates Garrett Temple, JaMychal Green, Yuta Watanabe and Justin Holiday shared their coach’s affection for Casspi. They spoke with the Post in the Grizzlies locker room prior to tip-off. Temple, an eight year guard who was involved in a reported recent altercation with Casspi, had only positive things to say about his teammate.

“Omri was always ready, always a professional. He is a guy that, when he plays, he plays really hard and was able to get some easy baskets in the open court. He is a great rebounder. We will miss his ability to come in and impact the game right away, off the bench.”

Green, a fourth year player, commented that Casspi brings “a lot of things other players don’t have right now,” including his slashing ability and the energy he brings to the team. “We are definitely going to miss him.”

Casspi has been a good friend and source of support to several foreign players on the team including Watanabe, of Japan.

“He is a great guy, a great player and he helps us with a lot of energy,” said Watanabe.

He notes that Casspi’s years of experience in the league made him a calming presence, and Casspi regularly speaks with him after games.

“He’s a cool guy, nothing too crazy,” offered guard Justin Holiday. “He’s a veteran guy, he has been around and played the game for a while. He knows how to win and when he is on the floor, there is an energy. He brings aggressiveness to the game, He is obviously very important to this team. At times, he has been a very good spark for us, coming off the bench – so not having him is a big blow for us. We are praying that everything goes well for him.”

Despite the Grizzlies’ 96-84 victory over the Knicks, they are likely to miss Casspi’s energy and court smarts as the season progresses. Bickerstaff added: “We’re going to miss him, obviously.  It is disappointing anytime you have in injury like that when you expect to miss that amount of time.  But knowing Omri, he will work his tail off and be ready to go.”

Casspi is no stranger to missed games due to injuries and illness. This season alone, Casspi has missed games due to right knee soreness (four games in January), illness (one game in December and one in January), knee soreness (one game in November) and right thigh soreness. Last season, Casspi missed games in the months of October, December, January and March due to sprained ankles, strained back, and back soreness.  His injuries ultimately led to his being waived last April and not playing in the championship games for the Golden State Warriors.

In February, 2017, Casspi, who was on his second stint with the Sacramento Kings, and DeMarcus Cousins, were traded to the New Orleans Pelicans. In his only game for the Pelicans three days later, he broke his right thumb after scoring 12 points in a 129-99 loss to the Houston Rockets. Casspi was waived by the Pelicans a few days later after being ruled out for four to six weeks.

Casspi’s torn meniscus is a disappointing setback as he has been a recent asset to the Grizzlies.  He averaged 11.8 points per game with 4.0 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 24.7 minutes per game over his six appearances prior to getting hurt.

With the Grizzlies far from playoff contention, is unclear whether Casspi will see action again this season and whether this recent injury will impact on his NBA career. Recovery time for an uncomplicated meniscectomy is often six weeks; return to sports after a meniscus repair surgery can take three to six months.

The questions now is whether Casspi be able to return to his pre-injury form?

“It really depends,” says Manhattan physical therapist, Dr. Jennifer Schlinger. “Ten years in the NBA already is a lot of wear and tear on the knees, so I wonder how much damage there is and the extent of the surgery he needs.”

Schlinger is both cautiously optimistic and a bit uncertain.

“Meniscus surgery can range, but is usually relatively minor with definite return to sport after –but of course the NBA is an entirely different level. I would say he will probably get back to playing after following intense rehabilitation and physiotherapy, but the longevity of his career may be limited.”

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Optimistic of a full recovery, the second Israeli in the league joins a record-breaking 92 international players from 39 countries.

NEW YORK — On a recent Monday evening, New York City’s Madison Square Garden was rocking. The sellout crowd of 19,812 at the newly renovated Manhattan landmark was on its feet cheering as the Knicks came from behind to tie the visiting Dallas Mavericks with seconds left on the clock.

But a buzzer beater by Dallas Mavericks’ 7 foot, 245-pound forward Dirk Nowitzki sent the Knicks down to defeatsville again, with a final score of 110-108.

A handsome Israeli in street slacks, button-down shirt and sports jacket sat the whole game on the Mavericks bench, smiling and cheering — and biding his time for his chance on court.

Currently in treatment for an injury, Gal Mekel, the well-dressed Israeli, was signed by the Dallas Mavericks in July 2013.

Only the second sabra in the National Basketball Association, the Petach Tikvah native is averaging 2.4 points in his 30 games played this season. Mekel, 26, is a 6 foot 3 inch guard — perhaps a skill learned on his seven siblings.

At age 17, Mekel won the Israel Youth League championship, then went on to play two years of college basketball for the Wichita State Shockers in the United States. Mekel says he still roots for his old team, which stalled in a close game during the Round of 32 in this year’s NCAA March Madness tournament.

Before joining the NBA, Mekel played professional basketball in Israel and Italy, adding Maccabi Tel Aviv, Hapoel Gilboa Galil, Maccabi Haifa and Benneton Treviso to his list of credits.

Now Mekel sports a #33 Dallas Mavericks uniform.

Mekel started his first NBA game on November 13, 2013, scoring six points with seven assists against the Minnesota Timberwolves. But the Israeli has had a greater impact and shown more potential than his numbers may suggest.

Teammate Dirk Nowitzki praises him as a hard working team player who moved in while others were injured.

“He was thrown in to the water earlier in the season—playing when Jose (Calderon), Devin (Harris) and Shawn (Marion) were injured. He did a good job. He kept fighting. He is a great passer,” says Nowitzki, in his 15th year in the NBA.

Now, Mekel is battling back after suffering a torn meniscus in his right knee in a January 13 game and has been traveling with the team since the NBA All Star Break.

Mekel spoke with the Times of Israel in the Mavericks locker room following the Knicks/Mavs game on his way to spend a late evening with family members in New York City.

“I started feeling a little better after the All Star Break and started full practices with the team. Now, I’m a little sore and will be seeing the doctor when we are back in Dallas,” says Mekel. (Mekel has subsequently had his knee drained and will be out until early April.)

Mavericks Coach Rick Carlisle is impressed with Mekel and in a post-game interview says, “We like him and are glad that he is part of our organization… He has gotten better as a player, and he is ahead of schedule with his recovery from knee surgery.”

Mekel is working at returning and remains upbeat and optimistic. “It is not easy — but that’s life in athletics.”

Mekel speaks affectionately of his teammates — especially those who came to the NBA from other countries — who have been especially supportive and helpful as Mekel transitions to life in the NBA. Mekel singles out Jose Calderon, the 6 foot 3 inch guard from Spain and Nowitzki from Germany.

Calderon notes, “I was in a similar situation when I got here nine years ago. Gal asks questions, he listens, he is a great worker — he is doing great!”

The NBA reports a record-breaking 92 international players from 39 countries and territories for opening-night rosters for the 2013-14 NBA season. The previous opening-night record was set in the 2010-11 season with 84 players from 38 countries and territories.

Twenty-seven of the 30 NBA teams feature at least one international player. France is the most represented country with ten players, and Canada follows with eight. Australia and Spain each have five players on team rosters, with Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Russia, and Turkey each having four. Four countries have their strongest representation ever – Australia (five), Israel (two), Italy (four), and Russia (four), with Macedonia making a first appearance on the list.

Mekel appreciates the support of Calderon, Nowitzki and the other international players in the league.

“They went through the same stuff I’m going through as a non-American rookie. It is good to learn from them,” says Mekel.

Fellow Israeli NBA player Omri Casspi, traded last year from Cleveland Cavaliers to the Houston Rockets, has also been a big support.

“I have played against Omri four times this year if you include the pre-season and the season. We talk and we are good friends,” says Mekel.

Mekel isn’t bothered by the observations of some skeptics who note that he hasn’t received the same support and enthusiasm on the part of Jewish and Israeli fans who came out en masse for Casspi during his first seasons in the NBA.

“There has been a great reception in each city we play and there are lots of Israeli flags,” notes Mekel, who praises the Dallas Jewish community.

“The community loves him and anything Israeli. He is a great guy, he has a great heart, and he is great for the community. We are just waiting for him to get over his knee issue,” says long-time Dallas resident, Martin Golman.

Despite the warmth and support of both the Dallas players and the Jewish community, Mekel admits, “I miss my family, friends and food. I love my country.”

But the road to rehabilitation and remaining in Dallas is filled with detours and obstacles. On March 4, Mekel was assigned to the D-League Texas Legends for several games.

“It’s time for him to get some game minutes to continue with his rehab,” says coach Rick Carlisle. “I just want to be clear that this is an opportunity for him to continue his rehab and conditioning, and he’s done very well with that.”

Despite Mekel’s travels back and forth from Dallas to the D-League, he can look forward to a guaranteed minimum of three years with the Mavericks. Mekel remains upbeat and has modest goals— “to get healthy, help the team before the end of the season, be a good player in the league and establish myself. I see that I belong.”


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Omri Casspi on meeting up with Gilad Shalit, what it’s like to wear number 36, and life as the only Israeli playing in the NBA

NEW YORK — Basketball player Omri Casspi achieved overnight rock star status in 2009 when he was drafted 23rd overall in the first round by the NBA’s Sacramento Kings. Casspi signed a three-year contract worth $3.5 million and became the first Israeli to play in the NBA.

Casspi averaged 10.8 and 8.6 points per game in his two seasons with the Kings, and in 2010, he was selected to play in both the NBA All-Star Weekend Rookie Challenge and NBA All-Star Weekend H–O–R–S–E Competition. On June 30, 2011, Casspi and a 2012 first round draft pick were traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for forward/center J.J. Hickson.

Throughout Casspi’s NBA career, he has taken very seriously what he perceives as his role as ambassador of Israel and the Jewish People. Many United States communities have organized “Jewish Heritages Days” at their NBA stadiums, and Casspi has patiently posed for pictures and signed hundreds of autographs.

‘I feel happy being Israeli and Jewish every time I step on the court’

“I feel great pride being Jewish and Israeli, and a lot of responsibility. I feel happy being Israeli and Jewish every time I step on the court,” Casspi told The Times of Israel Wednesday.

Casspi was born into a sporting family. Father Shimon is an accomplished tennis player, mother Eliana was a competitive basketball player and sister Aviv played basketball for Elitzur Holon. Brother Eitan often travels in the States with Omri.

As a child in Israel, Omri Casspi played basketball for several local teams and at age 13, moved to the Maccabi Tel Aviv youth team. By age 17, Casspi turned pro and played for Maccabi Tel Aviv. He was drafted by the Kings at age 21, after he had completed his mandatory three-year service with the IDF.

Casspi signed with Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2011 NBA lockout and intended to join the team if the lockout was not resolved.

The 161-day lockout, which began on July 1, 2011, ended on December 8, 2011, and a shortened season began on December 25th. Casspi is averaging 22.8 minutes per game with the Cleveland Cavaliers with 3.4 rebounds and 7.7 points.

Casspi spoke with The Times of Israel in the visitors’ locker room at Manhattan’s Madison Square Garden prior to Wednesday night’s heartbreaking 120-103 loss to the New York Knicks; the Cavaliers led at the half 61 to 49.

Omri Casspi taking a shot at Wednesday’s game.

There is a picture of you and Gilad Shalit which appeared all over the Internet and Facebook yesterday. What is the story behind the picture and meeting?

Gilad Shalit came to Orlando for the NBA All Star Weekend last weekend. He wanted to keep it off the media. Nobody really knew he was there. He wanted to have quality time with his family and a few really good friends. We had dinner. It was very emotional for me.

How did he seem?

He seems fine. First of all, he is a big fan of basketball. I was honored to be around him and have dinner with him and talk.

How did you choose number 36?

[Smiling] Double Chai! I wore 18 in Sacramento. I come to Cleveland and Anthony Parker wore that number. I was going to either cut it in half and take 9 or double it — double chai — so I took 36.

Were you disappointed that you didn’t get to play for Macabi Tel Aviv, or were you happy to just get on with the season after the lockout? Were you in Israel during the lockout? Are you in touch with NBA player Jordan Farmar (who also played for Maccabi Tel Aviv)?

I was in States working out. I never got a chance to go to Israel. I was happy and disappointed — both! I kind of wanted to play for Macabi Tel Aviv a little bit and see my family. I am happy I am playing basketball for Cleveland.

I am very friendly with Jordan. We are great friends. He is a great guy. He did a lot of great things for Maccabi Tel Aviv this year. [Farmar actually played for Maccabi during the lockout — he returned to the New Jersey Nets after the lockout ended]

What has the adjustment been like — to a new team and to a new Jewish community?

Because of the lockout, we had no training camp and no summer activities with my new team — we didn’t have time to bond with the guys. We are going to get close this summer.

The Jewish community — wherever we go, West or East — there are a lot of people with flags. They come to support me, invite me for chagim…

Has the Jewish community’s excitement for you died down over time?

I get a warm reception. It has always been great.

Is there a communication gap between the Jewish communities of the US and Israel?

In Israel, we are not seen as a Jewish community. We are a country. It is a little different. Here, in the United States, people really get together. I think the two do understand each other — absolutely. In Israel, we support the Jewish people of the US, and the Jewish people in the US have a lot of influence — political, etc. I have been here 2 or 3 years now — I don’t think we [Israel] would have a country without the people of the United States.

Any ideas what you will do after basketball?

[Laughing.] No, I am still thinking about my basketball career. Not yet!

Jeremy Lin? [The Knicks’ Chinese American Harvard grad sensation]

I played against him before — when he was with Golden State. It is a really nice story. What a big step forward he made. Really nice story.

How do you relate to the Jeremy Lin story?

Everybody can relate in a way. When I first got here, many believed I could not play in the NBA. Then, I got better. When you see a guy like Jeremy Lin, it is inspirational.


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