Omri Casspi Clinic

Gabe Margolis stood in a hallway outside the gym at the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Beachwood on a recent April evening, clutching a miniature basket and an Israeli flag. Barely able to contain his excitement, he hoped to meet the player whom some Cavaliers fans consider to be the biggest disappointment of the season.

Dressed in a gray sweat suit, Omri Casspi had spent about an hour with 70 kids at a youth basketball clinic, offering instruction, answering questions and, as 11-year-old Sam Spiegel put it, “showing us we’re not alone out there.”

As the spindly 6-9 forward emerged from the gym with his brother and sister-in-law at his side, he spotted Margolis and greeted him in Hebrew:

“Ma sh’lom’cha [how are you]?” Casspi asked.

He spoke briefly in English to the 23-year-old Beachwood resident and posed for a picture with the flag before heading into the night.

“It was an inspiring moment,” Margolis said, clinging to an autographed picture of Casspi. “I am literally shaking from the opportunity to meet him.”

Some athletes represent a hometown, a college, a nation. Casspi, the first Israeli-born player to play in the NBA, represents a people. It is an honor and a responsibility Casspi does not take lightly.

From the diamond-encrusted Star of David he wears around his neck to the numerous appearances he makes inClevelandand other NBA cities, Casspi embraces a role that might give other high-profile athletes pause.

It has been a trying first season in Cleveland — one that has seen him lose his starter’s spot, placed him momentarily at odds with coach Byron Scott over his knowledge of the playbook and produced career-low offensive numbers.

But the 23-year-old understands nobody wants to hear his problems when they wait 30 minutes after a game just for a chance to say hello.

“You have to remember you have little kids coming to see you,” Casspi said. “They don’t care as much about what you did in a particular game, but what you represent to them.”

The white-and-blue Israeli flag has been spotted in many arenas in which the Cavs have played this season. Except for rookie Kyrie Irving and Scott, Casspi is perhaps the club’s most requested player, team officials confirmed.

On the road, he grants interviews to everyone from mainstream media outlets to local Jewish newspapers to an East Coast blogger for a website called “The Sports Rabbi.” Several weeks ago, two journalists fromIsrael’s most widely circulated paper flew toClevelandto spend time with him.

“It’s a big deal back inIsrael,” said Cavaliers guard Anthony Parker, who played one season alongside Casspi with Israeli powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv. “He’s got a lot of eyes on him, and what he does on the court is scrutinized.

“It’s a gift and a curse when you are the first player from a country like that. When you have success, everyone is around you and behind you. When things aren’t going so well, you get the flip side of it.”

In his third NBA season, Casspi continues to help other franchises sell tickets as their group sales departments reach out to Jewish community centers and synagogues. Some clubs hold “Jewish Heritage Nights” in places such asNew Jersey,MilwaukeeandCharlotte, and feature postgame meet and greets with Casspi.

Rubbing his black beard, the small forward said he remains unencumbered by all the attention and demands. Whatever trailblazing pressure he felt during his rookie season with the Sacramento Kings in 2009 has vanished.

“I think almost every player would want to be in my position at the end of the day,” Casspi said. “People coming to support you, day in and day out, has been great, and getting a chance to interact with the Jewish community inAmericais even greater.”

Commitment to country

Part of Casspi’s appeal is that he seems to take as much pride in his people as they take in him. Visitors to his Twitter account, @Casspi18, find an athlete connected to his roots and history.

On Wednesday, he re-Tweeted the following message: “It’s the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day inIsrael. Please RT for support. Remember all the six million who were killed.”

One of his most moving Tweets included a picture of himself and Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, taken inOrlandoduring NBA All-Star Weekend in late February. “Dreamed about this moment for a long, long time,” Casspi wrote.

Shalit, 25, is a member of the Israel Defense Forces, captured by Hamas militants and held for five years until his release on Oct. 18, 2011, as part of a prisoner exchange deal. Two years ago, Casspi traveled toIsrael’s capital city ofJerusalemto lend support to the family at a protest outside the prime minister’s residence.

“Just think about what his parents had gone through,” he said. “A lot of people back home can relate because they have to serve, and it could happen to anybody.

“They released over 1,000 prisoners with blood on their hands. It’s not an easy issue. A lot of families have lost their sons and kids over suicide bombers and people like that.”

Each able-bodied 18-year-old must serve three years in the Israel Defense Forces. Casspi was among a select few granted “outstanding athlete” status from the IDF’s sports committee. While he attended basic training and learned to fire a gun, he remained with the Maccabi basketball team, having to report only several times per week to a Tel Aviv base.

His older brother, Eitan, who lives with Casspi inCleveland, was a paratrooper. His younger sister, Aviv, currently serves the IDF. Casspi is grateful to the men and women who protectIsrael’s freedom.

“It’s a small country that is bordered on three sides by enemies who want to kill us,” Casspi said. “People are trying to fight us while we are trying to keep democracy alive in theMiddle East.”

Casspi, however, draws a distinction between the politics of an “enemy state” and its people. Among his best friends on the Cavaliers is a Muslim, Semih Erden, ofTurkey. They discuss the conflicts in the region and the best avenues to peace.

“I don’t think the people ofEgyptare bad, they are great,” Casspi said. “Wars are fought over politics and religion, and it’s always going to be this way.”

In late February, Casspi received word from a mutual friend: Shalit was coming toOrlandoand wanted to meet him.

They ate dinner, drank wine and talked hoops. Shalit is a huge basketball fan. He learned of Casspi’s travels toAmericaand his first-round selection by the Sacramento Kings in 2009 while listening to Maccabi games during his confinement. As the evening unfurled, there was little question who appeared more starstruck.

“I was . . . it was a great honor to see him and meet him.” Casspi said.

Looking to improve

Casspi is not the first Jew to play in the NBA. The New York Knicks had four Jewish starters in 1946 while participating in the Basketball Association of America, a forerunner to the NBA. American-born Dolph Schayes joined the Syracuse Nationals in 1964 and made 12 All-Star teams.

In recent years, however,New Jersey’s Jordan Farmar was the only Jewish player of distinction until Casspi’s debut three years ago. The son of Shimon and Ilana Casspi grew up idolizing Michael Jordan and watching Parker win titles with Maccabi Tel Aviv.

InSacramento, Casspi wore No. 18, which represents “Chai” or life to Jews, and doubled it inClevelandbecause Parker has dibs on the number. The Cavaliers sell No. 36 jerseys in the team gift shop with the Hebrew spelling of Casspi on the nameplate. He hopes those replicas will be available for years to come.

Casspi, who has one season remaining on his current contract, must improve his play to remain with the rebuilding franchise. He came to training camp still feeling the effects of an off-season knee injury suffered while playing for the national team and could not find a rhythm.

Casspi is averaging 7.1 points, 3.5 rebounds and shooting 40.2 percent from the field — the worst totals of his three-year NBA career. He lost his starting spot to Alonzo Gee in early March and had to defend his familiarity with the team playbook. If the franchise drafts or acquires a small forward this summer, Casspi could be expendable.

Although his production has increased in recent weeks, Casspi doesn’t deny the disappointment in his performance.

“It has been a tough season as a team and as an individual,” Casspi said. “I know what I can do and what I need to get better at. I feel I have yet to play to my potential.

“I have my own ideas why [he struggled], but my focus is try to end the season strong.”

Casspi likely will retain a passionate following as long as he stays in the NBA. He has no desire, he said, to play outside the league while in his prime.

Throughout the season, a group of fans sitting in a courtside corporate box at The Q have rooted for him, even attempting to gain his attention during timeouts.

“Jewish people get excited when one of their own succeeds,” said Elizabeth Elia of Solon, whose daughter, Tovah, attended the clinic. “It stirs something inside you and makes you feel excited and proud.”

In a season of great challenge, Omri Casspi has found resolve in the heroism of soldiers and the unwavering cheers of fans who don’t care how many 3-point shots he has missed.

Plain Dealer reporter Mary Schmitt Boyer contributed to this story. To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: treed@plaind.com, 216-999-4370