Houston — (JTA) — Midway through the first quarter, Omri Casspi entered the preseason game between his Houston Rockets and the Dallas Mavericks. A minute later, the buzzer sounded summoning Mavs rookie guard Gal Mekel into the Oct. 21 contest.
Casspi took his first shot, a three-pointer that missed. On the ensuing possession, Mekel scored on a driving layup.
Order was following form: Four years ago, Casspi became the first Israeli to play in the National Basketball Association. And with the new season tipping off this week, Mekel will become the second.
A reprise will occur imminently – this time when it counts in the standings – when the Mavericks return to Houston’s Toyota Center on Friday night in the first of four regular-season meetings between the Southwest Division clubs.
There’s no telling if those games will feature the chanting, adoring, Israeli flag-waving fans who punctuated Casspi’s NBA tenure early on or whether the adulation bestowed upon an Israeli pro in America has fizzled out before Mekel can feel the love, too.
The players, both 25, say they expect the atmosphere to resemble the former. While their in-season games will likely draw plenty of Israeli media, JTA spoke exclusively last week with Casspi and Mekel.
“It’s a big thing, I think, for such a small country to have two [NBA] players. It’s something unique,” Mekel said at the Mavericks’ downtown hotel here as Casspi sat across from him. “I saw the excitement when Omri came into the league, and I’m really looking forward to experiencing that, so hopefully we’ll bring pride.”
Casspi acknowledged that he “got excited” upon seeing that Dallas was Houston’s second opponent this season.
At 6-9, Casspi towers six inches above Mekel, so they won’t be matched against each other unless there is a defensive switch. Their coaches and teammates note similar characteristics in both players – primarily their competitiveness, commitment to improve, determination on defense and team-first mentality.