By Robert Gluck
Influenced by his Jewish upbringing and a summer on a kibbutz, basketball coach David Blatt is embarking on his highest-profile challenge yet: coaching LeBron James, the four-time National Basketball Association (NBA) Most Valuable Player who has made waves for returning to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.
Coming off guiding Israel’s storied Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball franchise to its 51st Israeli league championship and 6th Euroleague title this past season, Blatt landed the Cavaliers head-coaching job in June. Just weeks later, northeast Ohio native James rocked the NBA universe by leaving the Miami Heat for Cleveland, where he had spent his first seven seasons in the league.
Blatt, 55, grew up in Framingham, Mass., listening to the raspy radio voice of Boston Celtics’ announcer Johnny Most. During his sophomore year at Princeton University, where he played for legendary hoops coach Pete Carril and majored in English literature, Blatt was recruited to play for a basketball team at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel in Israel over the summer.
“I really had not had designs on making aliyah growing up or well into my college experience, but I was invited to spend a summer in Israel by a nice gentlemen and a coach in Israel who saw me play with Princeton, and I fell in love with Israel,” Blatt said in an interview with JNS.org. “That was a life-changing experience because I ended up spending 33 years there.”
The six-week kibbutz experience had “an influence on helping me to enter into Israeli society and life,” recalled Blatt.
“Beyond that I can tell you that some elements of the communal living [on kibbutzim] certainly can be found in the dynamics of teams sports, most importantly that all should work for the common good, and the better we do as a unit, the more the individual will benefit,” he said.
Blatt, who coached the Russian national basketball team to a bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, is known as an excellent communicator who gets the best out of his players and teams. At a press conference introducing the new coach, Cavaliers’ General Manager David Griffin called Blatt “an authentic leader.” Might Jewish values be the secret to his success?
“The lessons of Judaism are life lessons to begin with,” Blatt told JNS.org. “Without question, the values, the morals, and the ethics that I’ve taken from my Jewish upbringing have greatly influenced me in every walk of my life. Above all, the basic respect for people, accepting people for who they are, and what they are, is a guiding force in all of my relationships and all forms of communication.”
Additionally, Blatt credits his parents for instilling in him the right attitudes and habits.
“I was born to two very intelligent parents,” he said. “The best things they taught me were to read and to pay attention to what was going on around me. So I had a good start and I tried to develop it with good habits.”
In May, Blatt led underdog Maccabi Tel Aviv to a stunning comeback from a 15-point deficit against CSKA Moscow in the Euroleague semifinals, before another upset victory in the championship game over Real Madrid. Maccabi’s win prompted massive celebrations in Israel.
“Certainly the Jewish community will understand the parallel to David and Goliath,” Blatt said of the Euroleague title run. “One of the differences being, from our perspective, we did it twice in a weekend and not once.”
Less than a month after Maccabi’s championship, Blatt announced that he would leave the Israeli team to pursue his dream of coaching in the NBA. About a week later he was hired by the Cavaliers, becoming the first coach to move directly from the European leagues into an NBA head-coaching job.
“I’m proud to bear that distinction, but more importantly I feel responsible going forward and hope I can open the door wide enough so others can do the same,” he said.
Blatt said there are obvious cultural differences among all the societies in which he has coached: Israel, Russia, Greece, and Italy.
“Each country has a somewhat different style of basketball,” he said. “It’s played a little differently, officiated a little bit differently, followed a little bit differently, managed a little bit differently, and therefore is coached a little bit differently. There certainly are differences in the rules between the NBA game and European game. Each situation requires education and attentiveness to where you are and how you need to act.”
Now, Blatt’s focus shifts to coaching a young Cavaliers squad that will be led by the man widely considered as the best basketball player on the planet.
“Obviously we are all thrilled to have LeBron coming back home,” Blatt said. “It’s great for our team, it’s great for the city of Cleveland, and it’s great for the state of Ohio. He raises the bar without question, in terms of his greatness as a player, his ability to raise those around him, as well as his character and his drive to succeed, and his ability to play the game at a high standard and high team standards.”
When it comes to winning an NBA championship, something the Cavaliers have never accomplished since their founding in 1970, Blatt is preaching patience.
“We have to be very smart and deliberate in building our team into the highest-quality team possible and to compete every night,” he said. “We’ll see what happens. Talking about a championship on day one is a little premature. Certainly we will come to compete and be the highest level team we can be right away.”
Blatt was a Celtics fan while growing up in Massachusetts. At the time, the team was led by Jewish coach Red Auerbach, who won nine NBA championships in 10 years.
“I was very young when Coach Auerbach was winning championships and I didn’t understand all his tactics back then,” Blatt said. “But I did understand that teamwork was above all, and that the power of the team was greater than the power of the individual. That stuck with me throughout me career.”
Much like LeBron James returning home, so is Blatt. He has come full circle, landing back in America and realizing his dream. Can he make the transition from decades of coaching overseas to the pressure-packed NBA?
“I’m used to the pressure,” he said. “In Israel, if you do not win [a game] by 20 [points] they seem to feel you lost. But if you come prepared and work hard, you don’t feel the pressure as much. If you play the game right, it doesn’t make a difference where you play it.”