Led by unlikely coach David Blatt, Russia is poised for an Olympic run
LONDON -- It was 40 years ago that the U.S. lost an Olympic basketball game for the first time. Its conqueror was the Soviet Union, which was given three chances to score in the final three seconds of what continues to be, from an American perspective, the most controversial basketball game ever played.
Now the U.S. enters the medal round facing the possibility of a gold-medal final against Russia, and in many ways, the story of this Russian team is harder to believe than the outcome of 1972. For these Russians are coached by David Blatt, a Jewish-American whose religion and nationality would have made him an antagonist of the old Soviets.
"Oh, people were looking at me like I had three heads," Blatt said of his 2006 hiring by the Russian federation. "It was not a popular decision.
"You take an American growing up in the time of the Cold War, add to it the fact that I'm Jewish and with an Israeli passport, and then you time-warp me into the ex-Soviet Union as the head of the Russian men's basketball team. It's almost mind-boggling. And I lasted! I didn't get my head chopped off in the first year or two."
On the contrary: Blatt coached Russia to the 2007 European Championship behind the play of J.R. Holden, a point guard who looks nothing like the players of the 1972 team. Holden is an alumnus of Bucknell, a naturalized Russian who happens to be African-American.
The Russians are always good for a surprise. Last month in Venezuela they won the FIBA qualifying tournament to earn a last-minute trip into this 12-team Olympic tournament. Then they upset Brazil and Spain to win Group B with a 4-1 record -- positioning Blatt in a quarterfinal showdown with Lithuania and two wins away from a potential gold-medal final against his native country on behalf of its former enemy.
"Now I'm part of the fabric of the basketball society,'' Blatt said of his standing in Russian basketball, which led to his recognition at a formal ceremony at the Kremlin after the European Championship. "Those good people gave me the highest order for coaching in Russia, and no foreigner has ever received that. That says it all right there."
Blatt, 53, grew up in suburban Boston. He was a guard at Princeton for coach Pete Carrill in 1980 when the U.S. ice hockey team upset the Soviets at Lake Placid. He would move to Israel to play basketball professionally, and naturally he ascended into coaching, a career that would take him to several of the most famous clubs in Europe, in both Russia and back in Israel. He has immersed himself completely in the international game, storming the sideline and fighting for every possession, even if his team is winning handily, as it was throughout its 73-54 victory over China last week.
"There are two types of coaches and two types of people -- there's macro coaches and there's micro," Blatt said. "I'm a micro coach. I don't see the big picture during a game. It's of no interest to me. I'm seeing the play in front of me."
He witnessed China's Yi Jianlian drive the baseline for a dunk last Tuesday, a play that had no discernible effect on the game's outcome. But Blatt had conditioned his players to force plays up from the baseline, so he erupted at their failure.
"If I'm doing things in practice every day for months and months and I'm a micro guy, what do you want me to do?" he said. "I don't give a damn what the score is. That's important to me because the next time that happens the score may not be 20, it may be two. So I'm out there fighting for that moment, that point, and people always say to me -- and it's really fair -- why are you upset?'"
In a loud whisper, he went on, "I don't give a [expletive] about the score. I want to do things right. Because I know to do one thing and another thing and another thing and another thing right, you're going to win. And if you let that go, then sooner or later it's going to bite you on the butt and you're not going to win. That's how I am. Other guys, they see things macro --
Yet Blatt also possesses a well-chronicled ability to adapt, because how else would someone like him become coach of Russia? And then to succeed in marrying the two ends of the spectrum? His dynamic 23-year-old point guard, Alexey Shved, recently signed a three-year, $10 million contract with the Minnesota Timberwolves. "Two years ago he came to me with long hair," Blatt said. "I said, 'Cut your hair or you're off the team.' He cut his hair.
"This year he came with long hair, and [Sergey] Bykov got hurt -- our other main guard -- so I said, 'Cut your hair.' And he said, 'No, coach, I'm not going to cut it.' And I said OK, because he's a great young player and I need the kid. I love the kid."
After a promising start to the Olympics, Shved's minutes have been reduced. Following the win against China, Shved was giving an interview in the mixed zone when Blatt passed behind him and interrupted. "Come on, man," Blatt said, "let's go -- stop talking and start playing."
Russian basketball was amid a state of crisis when Blatt was hired to take over. Russia had failed to qualify for the 2004 Olympics, the old Soviet developmental system was no more and young stars were no longer being developed as they were before.
"The program was in such a shambles and they realized they had to totally change the way that they did things, and I came in with a whole different mindset. For years they were forced to come,'' Blatt said of the Russians who played for their national team. "I came in, the first thing I did, I said nobody comes unless they want to come. You don't want to come? Don't come. People just couldn't believe it, that's not the Soviet way."
It was the American way, actually.
"The second thing, we were going to make the players better," Blatt said. "We weren't just going to bring them and draw every last ounce of blood out of their body. We were going to work with them and make them better, so they left the program feeling like it was worthwhile. Look at what's happened to them -- we've had guys drafted, had guys going to CSKA and Khimki [the big Russian clubs] and make millions, and they become better players in our program.''
This Russian team is built around 31-year-old Andrei Kirilenko, who exploited the NBA lockout as a reason to return home and play for CSKA. He regained his health and his energy, and in these Olympics he has looked like the younger Kirilenko who was an All-Star for the 2003-04 Utah Jazz. His teammates are all younger with the wherewithal to provide Blatt with size at every position, enabling them to extend their defense and create easy baskets.
"With him the Russian team got a face," Kirilenko said of Blatt. "We don't have a great scorer, but we're going to have a team game. We're going to have a great team defensively, we're going to have a press, and we glue it together."
Blatt's next ambition would be to coach in the NBA. If that chance never comes, it would be the ultimate irony -- that he, of all people, was invited to coach the national team of Russia, but did not receive an offer from his homeland. But the best way to earn respect is by winning. Two years ago, at the FIBA World Championship in Turkey, his Russians lost a tight 89-79 quarterfinal to the Americans. Before that game, Blatt suggested that perhaps the U.S. hadn't been robbed at the 1972 Olympics.
"In order for an upset to happen, a number of unusual occurrences must come to the forefront," Blatt said. "You've got to have a day where the American team isn't shooting particularly well. You've got to be able to rebound against them. You've got to take away quick return baskets, which is really the strength of their offense, which comes primarily from their ability to pressure the ball and force turnovers. And even at that, I don't know how much of a chance you've got."
Above all, he remains proud for taking an intimidating job that would have seemed beyond his reach in the not-so-distant past.
"It was an opportunity of a lifetime to try to do something, in sportive terms, historic," he said.
On Sunday, in the gold-medal game, Blatt may yet have the opportunity to double down.