Israel's Omri Casspi leaps into NBA as his Tel Aviv club totters

Omri Casspi became the first Israeli to play in the NBA on Wednesday. But Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Israeli team that trained him, faces claims of financial scandal triggered by the suicide of a vice president.

By , Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Sacramento Kings rookie forward Omri Casspi (18) brings the ball down court against the Golden State Warriors in an NBA preseason basketball game in Sacramento, Calif, in this Oct. 17 file photo.
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When Sacramento Kings forward Omri Casspi buried his first jump shot yesterday against the Oklahoma Thunder, the swish was celebrated back home in basketball-loving Israel as its long awaited National Basketball Association debut.

But the Jewish state's coming out on one of professional sports grandest stages comes at an awkward moment for the team that boosted Casspi to the big time.

The Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball club became Israel's unofficial national team by winning five European Championships in three decades. At home it owns 48 national titles dating back to the fifties, but now the team is at the center of allegations of a Ponzi-like investment scheme run by a former executive.

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The claims were triggered by the suicide of former Vice President Moni Fanan, who reportedly left behind large debts after running a business for more than a decade that delivered returns in cash envelopes to players and referees. Team management has pled ignorance, but now Maccabi's reputation is on the line as players, staff and owners are summoned by tax authorities to answer questions.

"Maccabi is probably one of the top five brands in Israel. … But Enron was a huge as well," said Yair Galily, a sports sociologist at Israel's Wingate Institute. "To say I knew nothing is an insult to people's intelligence."

If there's a formal criminal investigation, Maccabi could become the latest venerated Israeli institution stung by scandal and hubris. In recent years, several Israeli ministers have gone to jail and a former president and prime minister are battling in court to clear their names.

Since the Fanan suicide, Israeli newspapers have printed stories about players out tens of thousands of dollars, Fanan's links to organized crime and business relationships he had with league referees.

"We don't have anything to hide," said team spokesman Nitzan Ferrero, who insisted the investigation has nothing to do with Maccabi. "We are cooperating fully with investigators."

Basketball criminals

In a front-page editorial titled "criminal basketball" the daily Ha'aretz called for a "thorough investigation that will enable Israeli sports, basketball, and Maccabi Tel Aviv to embark on a new, cleaner path."

When Maccabi upset Ceska Moscow en route to its first European crown in 1977, the triumph over the cold war superpower which backed Israel's enemies gave the country a morale boost and its first international sports achievement.

Tal Brody, a college standout from New Jersey who passed up an NBA career to play with Maccabi declared at the time:"We're on the map, and we are going to stay on the map."

Even as Israel's athletic progress has remained spotty, Maccabi has been a fixture in the Euroleague playoffs and a training ground for European standouts and US college graduates who hope to make the jump back to the NBA.

While soccer overshadows basketball in Europe, the success of Maccabi has put the two sports on par in Israel. Devotees are known to pull all-nighters to watch important playoff games. Several of Maccabi's Israeli stars have flirted with NBA teams over the last decade but never reached the American hardwood.

Six years after joining Maccabi's youth team, Casspi's premier performance was worth the wait – 15 points over 19 minutes of playing time. "After 2000 years of exile and 63 years of the NBA, he did not disappoint the firm," declared the Israeli website Ynet.

"Omri Casspi is a product of a trend. He shows that fundamentally, what ails Israeli basketball is a curable illness, rather than a terminal disease," said Amotz Asa-El, a former managing editor of the Jerusalem Post. "Basketball is played here extensively and played well. If Maccabi Tel Aviv falls, others will come in its place."

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