Jun 29, 2009 — By Dr. Jeffrey S. Gurock
While there has been abundant chest-bumping on Tel Aviv streets among Israeli basketball fans over the selection of Omri Casspi by the Sacramento Kings in the first round of the NBA draft, the odds are against this late first-round pick securing a roster spot in the world’s most competitive round ball league.
The skinny on this thin forward is that he is just not strong enough or sufficiently resourceful on the offensive end to make it at this rarified level. But were Casspi to survive the weeding out of training camp, the marketing possibilities would be endless among American Jews.
While we now do have one of our own in a loop that was once very Jewish—Jordan Farmar of the LA Lakers follows in the footsteps of Ozzie Schechtman, who made the first basket in the history of the Basketball Association of America, a forerunner of the NBA, and of Dolph Schayes who was one of the league’s greatest stars in the 1950s—if billed as an Israeli star, Casspi’s emergence would garner far more attention and excitement in our community. For more than a century, sports entrepreneurs have recognized that Jews—perhaps more than other Americans—exalt vicariously through the exploits of their sports heroes, foreign and domestic.
A little-known fact and case in point: In 1926, the greatest all-Jewish sports team of the 20th century—Hakoah Vienna, winners the previous year of the Austrian professional football crown—made a triumphant tour of the U.S. They were even fêted in the White House by President Calvin Coolidge. Taciturn Cal met with almost no one. In a stop in New York, after receiving keys to the city from Mayor James J. Walker, some 47,000 fans turned out at the Polo Grounds to watch them compete. More than 30 years would elapse until Pele would bring out larger crowds to soccer games in America. Hakoah, a Zionist club, also packed stadiums in Brooklyn, Chicago, Philadelphia and St. Louis. Everywhere they went, most of the captivated audience was Jews, excited to be part of those athletic scenes. They were also very proud of that White House reception. So caught up were Jews in America with Hakoah’s successes that they largely ignored protests among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform rabbis that three of the matches were on the Sabbath. The rabbis were out of touch with their community’s emotions.
A true believer in sports’ meritocracy, NBA Commissioner David Stern will not push the Kings to find a roster spot for Casspi. But with Casspi on board all concerned might expect a major resurgence of Jewish fan interest in the NBA. As for the Israeli athlete, massive beyond-the-contract allurements would accrue to him . Not only would the NBA store carry his uniform—perhaps with a premium jersey with Hebrew as well as English lettering—but he might be convinced to endorse his own line of kosher Israeli products despite the fact that he is a secular Jew.
That would be an interesting historical twist of fate. Hakoah—that Zionist club in the pre-Israeli state era—never considered endorsing religious values during its tour here 83 years ago. Unquestionably, it is worth it for Casspi to try his hand at the NBA before settling for the Israeli or European leagues.
Dr. Jeffrey S. Gurock is the Libby M. Klaperman Professor of Jewish History at Yeshiva University and author of Judaism’s Encounter with American Sports (Indiana U. Press).
The opinions expressed in this piece are solely the author’s and cannot be attributed to Yeshiva University.