David Blatt and the making of the first Israeli NBA coach

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Pete Carril is enshrined into the Basketball Hall of Fame. The legacy of a 30-year college coaching career at Princeton University. David Blatt was his captain in 1981. A tough Jewish boy off the streets of Boston.

Resilient, smart, played to win. He didn’t fill the stat sheet. Averaged 2.4 points a game. NBA wouldn’t beckon. His mother had convinced him to study law.

Bob Gonen was a Jewish-American transplant to Gan Shmuel, a small Israeli kibbutz. A community of about 800 souls, its processed food exports are the largest in Israel. It also hosts a basketball team. Then its coach, Gonen first saw Blatt in Princeton’s victory over Columbia University towards the end of the 1981 season. He hadn’t played too badly. Was he Jewish? Would he come to Israel for a summer? Volunteer on the kibbutz, get to know the country, play a bit.

Like many secular American Jews at the time, Blatt’s connection with Israel had been limited. His mother expected him to marry Jewish. He attended a reform Hebrew school in preparation for his Bar Mitzva. An appeal for Israel was suggested at the end of each class. That was about it. But he didn’t really want to be a lawyer. He took a chance.

The land and its people have a mystical pull. Blatt was not an exception. The Levys hosted him as only Israelis can. He served in the army as a food supplier in a military base kitchen. He picked up Hebrew without attending courses. The connection with his Judaism intensified. Blatt wouldn’t return to the U.S. Instead, he would embark on a 12-year playing career in the Israeli league.

At the ripe age of 34, Blatt retired. He had kept in touch with coach Carril. Maybe he’d try his hand at coaching as well. He took an assistant job with a small club in another kibbutz – population 800. In his third season with the team, Blatt became its head coach. It didn’t take long to become the Coach of the Year. Maccabi Tel Aviv, the biggest and best club in Israel, would come calling. Firmly in the spotlight, Blatt amassed every possible Israeli title and a Euroleague’s Final Four for the next two seasons.

But in 2003, legendary coach Pini Gershon became available. Gershon is arguably one of the best European coaches of all-time. The only Israeli basketball coach to ever win the European championship thrice. Having hurled a few bigoted comments, Maccabi Tel Aviv forced Gershon’s exit from the team. A two-year self-imposed retirement followed. It proved temporary – he wanted his old job back. A media circus was sure to ensue, dragging the club through a power struggle. Blatt wouldn’t hear of it. Despite his accolades, he agreed to accommodate Gershon by accepting a demotion to assistant coach.

Pete Carril has compared coaching to teaching school. One can stand in front of a room saying the same thing to everyone. Yet, students’ ability to learn and utilize the information differs. The same is true for basketball – there is a limitation to what you can teach. Actions, they say, speak louder than words. Maccabi Tel Aviv immediately responded by capturing the first of back-to-back Euroleague championships. In record-setting fashion, they crushed its finals opponent by 44 points. To date, this is the best team in Maccabi history.

The next season, Blatt was named as the head coach of the Israeli national team. More success would follow. Russia’s Dynamo St. Petersburg won the EuroCup with Blatt at the helm. Promoted to coach Russia’s national team, he prevailed at a European championship and won an Olympic bronze. Eventually, he would regain the reigns of Maccabi in 2010. This May, Blatt led an undermanned Maccabi team to a Euroleague crown, the biggest title in Europe. The team won in an unprecedented fashion, defeating Spanish and Russian tournament favorites, frequently playing from behind.

Israel is a country where sport is a central source of identification and gratification. The dramatic fashion in which Maccabi had achieved success under Blatt brought excessive jubilee. Political realities are never far away here. International successes are rare sentiments that deserve exaggerated emphasis. “You are heroes and have brought incredible pride to the State of Israel,” President Shimon Peres told Blatt.

In many ways, Blatt is a typical immigrant. He still has difficulty writing Hebrew. He still has an accent. Born into a by-the-book culture, adjustments were due to be made. But Blatt is deeply connected with Israel. Marrying Kineret, he fulfilled at least that request from his mother. Two of his children serve in the army. The other two will as well. He shuns politics, popularity notwithstanding. Though he wouldn’t mind an ambassadorship in the next professional life.

Now Blatt will coach the best player in the world, LeBron James, in the NBA. As James recently discovered, even the far and away best player cannot carry a team to a title without some semblance of team play. Pete Carril has a word on this too. “Everybody makes such a big deal today about team play because there's such a scarcity of it,” he relayed in his book. “Greed is a reason. You have to understand the influence of greed. A player has to be selfish in the pursuit of the development of his skills, but he cannot be selfish when it comes time to blend them in with what's good for his team.”

Blatt will spearhead the Cleveland Cavaliers, an otherwise mediocre team at best. Every coach preaches team play, but Blatt has personified selflessness – the best of Jewish traditions. It would be unthinkable for an American professional to take a demotion at the height of his career. Altruism is the epitome of leadership precisely because it instills instant credibility. Blatt can credibly demand it of his players. His success on the next level is looming.

LeBron James
NBA Draft
Cleveland Cavaliers

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