Maccabi Tel Aviv players peel back the curtain on Cavaliers' David Blatt
NEW YORK -- Chants of “Tel-A-Viv” reverberated throughout Barclays Center. Beach balls bounced from section to section. Cowbells rang in another. Yes, this wasn’t your typical Nets game.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, fresh off its 2014 Euroleage title, finished a 17-day barnstorming tour through the United States and Brazil in front of a Brooklyn crowd largely there to support Israel’s most renowned basketball team.
All of this... without David Blatt.
He wasn’t on Maccabi's bench during the Nets’ 111-84 win in their preseason opener Tuesday, but his impact was seen at the game in yellow Euroleague champion t-shirts sprinkled throughout the Barclays black backdrop.
Born in Boston, educated at Princeton, Blatt’s coaching résumé doubles as an impressive passport: Israel, Russia, Italy, Turkey, Greece and Israel before coming home to the States and his first gig in the NBA.
One of Blatt's former players with Maccabi, Yogev Ohayon, sat in the Nets visitor's locker room before Tuesday's game and cracked a smile when asked about the well-traveled Blatt.
Ohayon, a 6-foot-2 Israeli point guard, never could beat Blatt to the gym. Always the first to arrive and last to leave, Blatt’s dedication paid off when Maccabi snagged its first Euroleage title since 2005 last season.
It didn't come easy. Maccabi lost three of its first eight games before rattling off 17 straight wins midway through the year. In Euroleague group play, any early season struggles make for an uncomfortable couple of months. Especially under a coach as meticulous as Blatt.
“You better bring a helmet when you lose a game,” Ohayon said of Blatt’s video sessions. “It doesn’t matter who you are, what you are, he’ll always talk to you in front of your face. He’ll always tell you the things to make you better. We know that’s Blatt.”
While you might think that the pressure of coaching in the NBA exceeds Blatt's old job, his new boss and longtime friend, Cavaliers GM David Griffin say otherwise.
"Maccabi is a cultural phenomenon for Israelis," Griffin told SI's Jack McCallum this summer. "The pressure David had to win -- and I mean every game -- was very real."
Maccabi power forward Alex Tyus, who starred for Billy Donovan at Florida from 2007-2010, believes Blatt is destined for success in the NBA thanks to his experience in Israel, his tenacious coaching style and his honest delivery.
“As far as a player’s coach, I think he’s one of the better ones. He can relate very well to American players who come to Europe,” Tyus said. “I feel like when I’m talking to David, he’s being truthful and real with you.”
Tyus’ teammate, Jeremy Pargo, was an NBA point guard from 2011-2013 is now in his second stint with Maccabi. Pargo’s CSKA Moscow team lost to Blatt in the Euroleague semifinals last season despite being up six points with 1:30 remaining.
With time winding down in the semifinal clash, Blatt called an inbounds play for star point guard Tyrese Rice to drive down the right side of the key towards the defender covering teammate David Blu. Rice dumped the ball to a curling Blu and screened Blu’s man. Blu drained the three-pointer to pull Maccabi within one with 13 seconds left.
During the ensuing timeout, Blatt implored his team to “Pressure the ball! Pressure the ball!” Blu’s steal on a mishandled pass led to a contested Rice layup in transition that sent the Mediolanum Forum into a frenzy and the Israeli announcers into hysteria.
“Playing against Blatt, you know there’s no quit in them. He wants to beat any given team. If he was ‘The Little Giants,’ and he was Spike playing against the other guys, he’d still come out expecting to win,” Pargo said. “That’s one thing he instills. Playing for him, you’re going to be a winner.”
Pargo mixed up the movie references. Blatt is more the underdog coach Danny O’Shea than Spike Hammersmith -- the star player who leaves O’Shea’s squad for a more talented team (although that does sound familiar...).
Blatt now has his star(s) in Cleveland. He assembled a formidable coaching staff with an impressive NBA pedigree in assistants Jim Boylan, Larry Drew, Tyronn Lue and James Posey.
Blatt took on his old team and its new coach Guy Goodes last week in Cleveland. Maccabi, with seven new players and Goodes, a longtime assistant at the helm, lost 107-80 at Quicken Loans Arena.
“I feel like most of the plays Cleveland ran were the same plays we ran last year -- or even now!" Landesberg wrote. "They just had different names for them. [There] were a few options that he changed, but that’s Coach Blatt. He’s a smart guy and he knows how to use his personnel.”
Blatt first arrived in Israel as an undrafted 21-year-old playing for Maccabi Haifa. Thirty-six years later he has ascended to the top of the NBA. His former assistant, Goodes, has now reached the top of his own mountain: the head coach of Maccabi. Goodes takes over the Euroleage champions and the massive expectations that come with the distinction.
“I’ve been with Maccabi for almost 15 years. I know what’s at stake,” Goodes said. “I know the pressure there is. I saw the pressure. I know what I need to deal with.”
As for Blatt, his job changes a bit. There won’t be any beach balls in the crowd In Cleveland. There won’t be any cowbells. If all goes according to plan, there won’t be an urgency to win until June. Having LeBron along for the ride of your NBA coaching debut can’t hurt, either.
“In the NBA, everybody knows it’s a player’s league. In Europe, everybody knows it’s a coaching league,” Goodes said. “As I know coach Blatt’s character, he will adjust quickly. He will learn. I am quite sure he is going to do well.”