|Omri Casspi is the lone Israeli on their roster currently plying his trade in the NBA|
By Mark Woods
Israeli basketball has rich traditions. Think six European club titles for Maccabi Tel Aviv. A-List players who have passed through the country. Imagine then, if you will, the reality that they have never captured a EuroBasket crown.
A silver in Turin in 1979 apart, even the semi-finals have habitually proven elusive. It is time to change the record, says their current captain Omri Casspi, after his team secured their passage into the last 16 of this summer's championships by advancing out of Group A in Lille.
After coming 21st in Slovenia in 2013, it was first a relief. "We've been in the desert for four years," the Sacramento Kings forward says. "We're back where we belong, so I'm happy."
In victories over Poland, Russia and Finland, the latest incarnation - coached by Erez Edelstein - have gelled tightly. Fourth overall in assists as the Group Phase nears its end, the parts are working in unison in what is a break from so often in the recent past.
|The evidence is clear when Casspi declares the team has improved chemisty compared to other recent tournaments|
"We got better," Casspi declares. "We worked on our game. We came ready. We prepared for this EuroBasket. We know what's at stake. We're better individually and as a team. Our chemistry is better. Despite the loss against Bosnia, we've played good through the tournament and I'm happy for the group."
And the team's lone NBA representative has been at the heart, visibly vocal on the court, quietly setting the tone off it. "It's one of my duties. Coach gave me the permission to be the captain and he wanted me to be that leader on the court, sometimes offensively, sometimes defensively. So I'm happy that everyone is following each other and following the coach's lead."
Yet why the disconnect between Israel's great club success and a national team that has only once qualified for an Olympic Games? "It's a long story," Casspi sighs. Neither money nor passion is an issue. Lavish resources have been spent importing talent from around the world into the Ligat, players like Carlos Arroyo, Anthony Parker and Jordan Farmer among those plying their trade in recent times.
|Omri Casspi shies away from discussion regardingthe heavy Americn influence on Israel club basketball|
That has upsides and down, Edelstein argues. Exposure at the higher end of the Euroleague. But promising talent can be shunted to the fringes at the expense of foreign recruits.
"There is a big argument in Israel about that," he states. "Do we play with too many Americans and limit the opportunities for Israelis? There is a rule in the league that every possession you need at least two Israeli players on the court. On one hand, it's good because Israeli players get an opportunity. On the other hand, it makes it harder for them to get on.
"I don't want to get involved. I think if more teams would play in Europe, you could even play with four Americans because teams would play twice in a week. And that's the way we would have more Israeli players. Plus the past two World University Games, we didn't send an Israel team. That's very important. There's a big gap from the Under 20 team and the senior team. Those are the four years we're missing and that's what we need to think about in the future when talking about making the pool bigger."
| Casspiis displaying a refined game this summer|
The more like Casspi they can produce, the greater the example set. This summer, the 27-year-old set about refining his game following a sixth season in the NBA that saw him set career highs in shooting percentage while averaging 8.9 points per game for the Kings.
"I came back to the basics, to working with my trainer David Thorpe," he reveals. "He knows my game better than anyone."
Thorpe, who has also worked with Israeli team-mate Gal Mekel, along with a clutch of other NBA players, has had an influence far beyond his clients. Dedication over there has been used as a benchmark over here. "We have a group of guys who want to get better," Casspi adds. "I'm happy we motivate our energy to the right places. We channel it on the court and we want to keep improving."
And progressing. Israel will head to Lille this weekend looking for a win that would push them to within reach of qualifying for the 2016 Olympics. Progress indeed. We can't yet think that far ahead, Casspi declares.
"We went from qualifying to competing for the top of the group," he smiles. One step at a time. But at least, this time, major leaps forward.