Can David Blatt guide the Cavs to the promised land? Two decades of coaching (and winning) far from the NBA prepared him for this moment. And having the best player on the planet won't hurt
This is an article from the Aug. 11, 2014 issue
CAVALIERS COACH David Blatt is, as he jokingly says, some version of the Wandering Jew, uncertain of how to answer when asked about his nationality. "I guess you can say I'm a citizen of the world," says Blatt, who has coached in Israel, Russia, Italy, Turkey and Greece over the last two decades. There couldn't be a more bilingual household than the Blatt home in Even Yehuda, a suburb of Tel Aviv—he speaks only English there, and his wife, Kineret, speaks only Hebrew, and so their four children speak both fluently. They are a close-knit family bonded in part by basketball—Kineret played on a professional team in Israel that Blatt coached; his son, Tamir, 17, is the starting point guard on the Israeli junior national team; and his daughters, twins Shani and Adi, 22, and Ela, 16, have lived and died with the exploits of his clubs.
Yet the 55-year-old Blatt will, as he has done before, leave them behind when he begins his new life in LeBron Land.
"Of course we will miss him," says Ela. "We always miss him. But we are used to it."
"Israel is our home," says Shani, who, with her twin sister, just completed her mandatory two years of military training. "But our father is always in our thoughts. And there is Skype."
THAT DIFFERENT-PATH aspect of Blatt's résumé, personality and family life is, as much as anything, why the Wandering Coach is now the Cavaliers' coach, the first international bench boss to come straight to a head job in the NBA.
"We were looking for an innovator," says Cleveland general manager David Griffin, who met Blatt on a scouting trip to Europe for the Suns 17 years ago. "We wanted someone who thinks outside the box. That is David."
But 31 years spent mostly abroad, learning provincial customs, deciphering local tax laws, mulling over baffling currency exchanges and simply pronouncing the names of players such as Ognjen A≈°krabi¬¥c (from his Dynamo St. Petersburg team in Russia in 2004--05) or Ramunas ≈†i≈°kauskas (from his Treviso Basket team in Italy in '05--06)—the umlauts, carons and other assorted accent marks alone would've driven a lesser man to distraction—have not scrubbed the American out of Blatt.
His best friends remain two boyhood chums from Framingham, Mass. He stays in touch with his high school coach, Philip (Smokey) Moresi. He pledges fealty to the read-and-react offense he learned at Princeton under that grumpy hoops philosopher Pete Carril. He is a diehard Celtics fan—granted, he has to tamp that down now—who claims his left ear is "permanently cauliflowered" from listening to Johnny Most's radio broadcasts. He still scans the basketball horizon in hopes of spotting a player with the defensive instincts of Bill Russell, his hero.
Blatt can run through the rotations of a hundred European teams past and present, but often his frame of reference is straight out of the States. As Blatt watched the Cavs' second-round pick, Virginia guard Joe Harris, shoot jumpers during summer league practice in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, he excitedly poked his younger companions, Trent Redden, 30, and Koby Altman, 31, Cleveland's assistant GM and director of pro player personnel, respectively.
"This is scary," said Blatt. "Joe shoots exactly like Bill Bradley. The take-up, the release ... it's Bradley." Then Blatt realized they were staring at him with a who-the-hell-is-Bill Bradley? look.
Though some of Blatt's most vivid basketball memories come from competitions thoroughly unfamiliar to most fans in this country—EuroCup, EuroBasket and SuperCup could just as easily be international sports bars—part of his brain stayed centered on the American game. In 2007, as Blatt coached the Russian national team in a tense EuroBasket final against powerful Spain, he watched his top player, J.R. Holden, an American from Bucknell, make a crucial down-the-stretch steal from Pau Gasol. Blatt thought, That is exactly what Michael Jordan did to Karl Malone, conjuring up a famous play from Game 6 of the 1998 Finals when the Bulls defeated the Jazz.
Then something even more miraculous happened at the other end. Blatt narrates:
"J.R. has the ball. We're down one. I'm screaming to let the clock run down. I don't want Spain to get it back. J.R. gives it up, goes and gets it back. Time running down, and he takes a crazy shot that hits the front rim, caroms to the back, seems to be falling away, then somehow drops through, like ... like God had pushed it back. We win.
"One thing came into my mind. It was exactly—and I mean exactly—like the shot that [Boston's] Sam Jones took to beat the Lakers in Game 4 of the 1969 NBA Finals. Hit the front, hit the back, somehow bounced through."
Blatt was at that game, sitting high in the Boston Garden stands beside his father, Dr. William Blatt, a biochemist. It was the only game they ever attended together—one of the few warm memories David has of his distinguished dad.
If there's one thing David Blatt understands, besides well-spaced offense and how to open a checking account in a foreign bank, it's absence.
"ALL THE communication challenges have been great," Blatt is saying, "but the biggest was the first, in St. Petersburg, Russia."
He is sitting on the deck of Gary Bernson's condo, 26 floors above Peachtree Road in the tony Buckhead section of Atlanta. Blatt grew up four doors from Bernson, who is inside talking to Pete Savas, called P.J., another Framinghamian who represents the third part of this apparently eternal boyhood triangle.
Apart from the two years he spent in Atlanta as a Xerox salesman in the mid-1980s, an occupation he found distinctly uninspiring, Blatt had been in Israel since '81 as a player and coach when in 2004 he accepted a job guiding Dynamo St. Petersburg, becoming the first Westerner to lead a team in the former Soviet Union. The family stayed behind in Tel Aviv, and the saga of the Wandering Coach began. He took a crash course in the language but still had to communicate in a kind of mishmash Esperanto.
"I coached with tone, not phrase," says Blatt. "If I was yelling louder, they knew to move faster; if I spoke quietly, they needed to slow down. My enunciation was so bad that it served our team better if they learned my terms, not vice versa."
Over time, though, he became fairly proficient, and after being named the Russian national-team coach in 2006, he started making his play calls in that language to befuddle opposing scouts.
Alone but never lonely—that could be the title of his autobiography to this point—Blatt was deliriously happy in St. Petersburg. He soaked up the culture and loved visiting the houses of the great Russian writers Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Pushkin, Red meat to a Princeton English major. He talked to anyone and everyone he met. "I'm a child of the Cold War," says Blatt, "and to suddenly find myself in the Russian culture, all of these myths I had grown up with disappeared. I missed my family, sure, but I loved every minute of every day." And the fans loved him, particularly after he won Dynamo a EuroChallenge championship.
St. Petersburg set Blatt's coaching compass: He would take a job almost anywhere, he would adapt and find happiness, he would seduce the citizenry, and he would win. One more thing: He wouldn't be afraid to leave. Contentment always waged war with ambition, and ambition usually won. So after one season Blatt bought himself out of his second year to move to Treviso Basket. The St. Petersburg fans didn't love him so much after that.
Treviso was one of those dream European jobs, the team Mike D'Antoni coached twice. D'Antoni, the former Nuggets/Suns/Knicks/Lakers coach, also transitioned from the international sidelines to the NBA, but his example only proves that Blatt is a new entrée on the coaching menu: D'Antoni had played in the NBA for parts of four seasons and the ABA for the majority of one, and, when hired by Denver in 1997, started as director of player personnel.
"We had a great team when we won the [2006 Italian league] championship," says Blatt. "Our best player was Andrea Bargnani, who became the first pick in the ['06] draft."
Blatt sees a look in a reporter's eye.
"I know what you're thinking," he says. "Coaching Andrea Bargnani is not like coaching LeBron James, right?"
GRIFFIN, THE CAVALIERS' 44-year-old general manager, stands at a blackboard in his office at Cleveland Clinic Courts, the team's workout facility/corporate headquarters in suburban Independence. Griffin is reconstructing some of the 3½-hour sit-down that he, owner Dan Gilbert and several other franchise executives had with Blatt on June 18, the meeting that led to the coach's hiring.
Blatt had all but accepted an offer to become new Warriors coach Steve Kerr's lead assistant and didn't think that he was the Cavs' top candidate. He was. Many things about Blatt appealed to Griffin, beyond the obvious coaching acumen that had produced championships in so many places as well as a bronze medal with Russia at the 2012 London Olympics. Every one of Blatt's 12 lead assistants over the years has gone on to be a head coach, giving him, √† la Larry Brown and Gregg Popovich, his own coaching tree, albeit one whose branches would be largely unknown to an American audience—Kest≈´tis Kemz≈´ra, Evegeny Pashutin and Guy Goodes are three examples.
Griffin valued not only Blatt's brain but also a lower part of his body, something in the groin area. Blatt is most certainly the only coach in history who can be caught on one YouTube video conducting a press conference in flawless Hebrew; on another telling his Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv players, in unequivocally plain English, to "shut the f--- up" during a timeout huddle; and on a third kicking two Russians off the squad during an Olympic game for the same offense. (He did reinstall Alexey Shved and Sergei Monia before the game was over.)
Blatt is most typically considered an "offensive coach," but he has excelled on defense too, using a multifaceted approach that involves both man-to-man and various matchup zones. During the first season of his second head-coaching stint at Maccabi, in 2010--11, he pressed full-court the entire year.
Griffin was lured by Blatt's flexibility on offense as well. "When I first scouted his Russian national team, he was playing slow because he didn't have a good point guard," says Griffin. "The next time I saw him, in the Olympics, he played fast because he had a team that fit that. Very few coaches adjust to their talent even year by year; David did it event by event."
The broad strokes of what Blatt will do—or wants to do—with James and the Cavaliers are clear. Being a creature of both Princeton backdoors and European open courts, Blatt is no isolationist. Gush to him about the Spurs' team play in the 2014 Finals, and Blatt will concur only with reserve.
"I've seen a lot of teams in Europe play that way," says Blatt. "Therein lies the attraction and essence of European and San Antonio basketball. You're not depending on one or two players. But that won't be a problem with LeBron. For a superstar, he's more of a team player than anybody I've ever seen."
Ultimately, though, systems and X's and O's were not the primary reason Cleveland hired Blatt. For one thing, Griffin said he received unanimous reviews from the former Blatt players he talked to ... and he talked to more than a hundred. The Cavs also felt that Blatt's success at Maccabi would help prepare him for NBA stress. "Maccabi is a cultural phenomenon for Israelis," says Griffin. "The pressure David had to win—and I mean every game—was very real."
Griffin sensed that Blatt isn't afraid of change. "When you've had as much success as David has had—you run into this a lot with college coaches—you find people who aren't interested in making the jump to the NBA and growing and evolving," says Griffin. "You find people who want to take what they've done elsewhere and bring it somewhere else. But David knows that he will have to make adjustments."
Blatt acknowledges that learning process. "I know I'm going to have to adjust to the individual greatness of these players," he says. "I grew up with the old saying, There's no 'I' in 'team.' But I also heard Michael Jordan say, 'Yeah, but there is in "win." ' I won't forget that."
The Cavs' brass liked what they heard, and so did Blatt. After his interview he called his son and said, "Tamir, I blew them away. I think I'm getting the job."
All that remained was a negotiation with Blatt's agent, former New York Jets general manager Mike Tannenbaum. The result: a three-year deal for an estimated $10 million with a host of incentives, most of them related to playoff performance, that make another several million possible. Kerr was disappointed to lose him but gave Blatt his blessing.
So there was joy in Cleveland, and joy in Even Yehuda. But there was also no clear fix on the 2014--15 Cavaliers roster; to a certain extent, there still isn't.
After Blatt was hired, there was a war-room meeting about acquiring a starting small forward. At one point Griffin put four letters on the board with names next to them:
B was Chandler Parsons.
C was Gordon Hayward.
D was Trevor Ariza.
A was not referred to by name but rather as The Guy.
Blatt and Griffin swear that the name of Akron's Finest was never uttered, lest a curse come down on the franchise. The official free-agent season was still two weeks away, and there was that small matter of the owner's having trashed James when he left for Miami in 2010.
Soon after hiring his coach, Griffin went into sell mode, jettisoning assets to clear space for The Guy. And it wasn't long before the options of Parsons (signed by Dallas) and Hayward (re-signed with Utah) went away. Had the Cavaliers not landed James, they would've essentially given up players such as Jarrett Jack and Tyler Zeller to potentially end up with Ariza (who eventually signed with Houston).
Only Kyrie Irving, Anderson Varej√£o, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett and Matthew Dellavedova remain from the 15-man roster that finished the 2013--14 season. Bennett is frequently mentioned as bait, along with No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins, in a deal for Timberwolves All-Star power forward Kevin Love.
"Giving all that away without having the slightest idea we could get LeBron?" says Griffin. "That was a ginormous gamble. And David was really understanding about it. He trusted that we knew what we were doing."
Though Blatt did have his doubts. "We had about six guys on the roster at one point," he says. "I was thinking that Kyrie Irving would be playing 47 minutes a game. But then suddenly things got better."
That was on July 11, when James, in a first-person essay on SI.com, said he was coming home. The announcement triggered spontaneous celebrations all over Cleveland, one of which was described thusly by a cab driver who was downtown when the news broke: "It was like everyone won the lottery at the same time."
Blatt had briefly met LeBron at the last two Olympics, but they had a real get-together last week in New York City. James was finishing his thespian work on the Judd Apatow comedy Trainwreck, while Blatt was visiting his three daughters, who were on holiday. Coach and Franchise Player didn't talk much basketball, but Blatt was ecstatic about how well they got on ... and Shani, Adi and Ela were equally ecstatic about the Cleveland shopping tips from LeBron's wife, Savannah.
ONE SUMMER morning in 1975, Smokey Moresi, the Framingham South High basketball coach, pulled up to Brophy Elementary at eight. He saw no signs of his 16-year-old point guard, with whom he had arranged a workout the day before. That was unusual because David Blatt never missed one. Then Moresi heard a rustling in the bushes, and out popped a bleary-eyed Blatt holding a sleeping bag.
"My mother grounded me last night," he explained. "I snuck out of the house and slept here so I wouldn't miss the workout."
Blatt's father, William, a specialist in ultrafiltration (blood separation), left the family when David was eight. He and Lillian Blatt divorced, and when David was 12, his dad moved to the Netherlands. Blatt's older sisters, Karen and Pamela, chose to live abroad with their father, while David stayed home with his mother. "I intuitively felt my place was in the United States at that point," says Blatt, ironic, considering his have-suitcase-will-travel future.
William, who had remarried and had a son, would come back once a year and, at first, check in on David. But as the years rolled on that contact ended, and even after William returned and settled permanently in Arizona, the two rarely spoke. William had been an athlete himself, a good football player, but he never watched his son blossom into a high school star. "We just didn't have anything in common," says Blatt. "My father didn't step outside of his world, and I could've probably done a much better job of making him a part of mine."
The boy had a difficult relationship with his mother too. She remarried, but that union didn't last either. Lillian, who died in 1998, attended some of her son's high school games but never completely bought into his interest in sports. "It was a little bit of the old Jewish 'make something of yourself' thing," says Blatt. " 'You should be a lawyer or a doctor or a senator.' But it was more because she wasn't happy. She couldn't be protective of me because she was trying to protect herself."
Blatt's domestic life revolved around the families of his friends. "David found comfort in our house," says Bernson. "My mom and dad loved him." Savas's mother, an English teacher at Framingham South, drove the three buddies to school every day. Blatt's house was the last stop, and he was rarely ready on time. "We'd be screaming at my mom to leave," says Savas, "but she never would."
If this narrative sounds like it's veering toward the shy kid from a broken home struggles to find his way, nothing could be further from the truth. Blatt was in the middle of everything, the Alpha Adolescent. Part of that was attributable to his early maturation and physical superiority. As nine-year-olds, Bernson and Savas would play Blatt two-against-one on the playground and could never beat him. Even as 12-year-olds, "David would just toy with us," says Bernson, who would become a basketball teammate of Blatt's and the Framingham South starting quarterback. By the time he was a high school freshman, Blatt was already 6'2", 180 pounds, and in pickup games he would palm the ball, bull his way past his friends, score and yell, "McGinnis!" after muscular ABA MVP George McGinnis.
Blatt concedes that he took motivation from his broken family life. "I can't imagine there was a more independent kid than me," he says. "I was extremely driven. I would get up earlier, try harder, practice harder, take any challenge more seriously than anyone else."
It wasn't just sports. When Blatt was 13, he lied about his age and got a job washing dishes at the Marriott in Framingham so he would have walking-around money. He was a top student at Framingham South. He served as senior-class president and sang bass in the school's all-state madrigal choir.
Though Blatt wasn't close to his mother, he does credit Lillian, a special-education teacher and remedial-reading specialist, for instilling him with a love of books. "She would open my bedroom door and literally throw books into the room," says Blatt. "That got me reading at an early age." The arsenal included works on mythology and Homer's Iliad, which became her son's favorite. She knew enough to hook him with sports too, so he ducked out of the way of Bill Russell's Go Up for Glory and Jerry Kramer's Instant Replay.
It was no surprise, then, that Blatt decided to major in English at Princeton, where the all-state player matriculated after turning down about a dozen offers from scholarship schools, such as Boston College and Northeastern. He received financial aid and worked all four years for the Alumni Council, "a power source on campus," as he recognized right away.
Another power source was Blatt's coach, Carril, then, as now, a mix of bluster, bile and brains. Blatt didn't always get along with Carril, possibly because they were more alike than either would like to admit. He was recruited to be the backcourt mate of Steve Mills, now the Knicks' GM. Blatt played well as a varsity starter in both his sophomore and junior seasons. He was team co-captain (with All-Ivy forward Randy Melville) as a senior, but Carril benched him midway through the season in favor of a talented freshman, Billy Ryan.
"To that point," says Carril, 84, who still lives in Princeton, "it was the toughest coaching decision I ever had to make. David had done so much for the program. For me personally too. When David was a senior, a recruit told me that another school had been bad-mouthing me. I said, 'Hold on,' and handed the phone to David. He set the kid straight."
Blatt didn't complain openly about the demotion and kept playing hard when he got his chances. But he also staged his own protest. Before practices and home games Blatt stopped at Dillon Gymnasium, the old campus basketball facility, and played a solid hour or two of pickup ball. He then showed up sweaty, almost daring Carril to confront him.
"Yeah, I heard about it," says Carril, "but I didn't say anything to him. You know why? Because it didn't matter. David Blatt, see, is a spartan."
What Mills and another ex--Princeton teammate, Tim Kane, the senior director of production at NBA Entertainment, remember about Blatt tracks more to his Athenian side. "The word I think about with David is compassionate," says Kane. "He was a competitor, but he also had a gift for bringing people together."
Mills agrees. "Our basketball circle was pretty tight," he says, "but when we left Jadwin [Princeton's basketball arena], we would get separated, black guys apart from white guys, the little social circles that kids get into. David was the one who made the calls to keep us together.
"Knowing that, and knowing how smart he is and how he looks at the game, I'm not surprised at all that he became a successful coach. And I'll be surprised if he's not successful in the NBA."
(Still, Blatt was not a candidate for the Knicks' coaching job; he was on Mills's radar, but team president Phil Jackson chose Derek Fisher.)
After graduating in 1981, Blatt went to Israel, where he had twice visited during college, to play with Maccabi Haifa. In search of a steady salary, he returned to the States to work for Xerox for two years, keeping his basketball chops sharp by competing in the Atlanta Pro-Am League. But Blatt got restless for Israel, went back and played for five teams over the next seven years. A ruptured Achilles during a game ended his career in 1993.
By that time Blatt had begun coaching junior and women's teams on a part-time basis. One player in particular on the 1987 Maccabi Netanya women's club impressed him with her defensive prowess. "She would pick up full-court and purposely allow her opponent to get by her," says Blatt, rising to demonstrate. "Then she would use her speed to catch up and punch out the ball from behind, what Rick Pitino's players do." Enamored with the move, Blatt subsequently made one of his own, and he and guard Kineret Eroshi married in 1991. Kineret has a Ph.D. in economics and runs her own financial company in Tel Aviv.
For Blatt, coaching full-time was a natural progression of his point guard mentality. "When David was playing," says Bernson, "you could smell the wood burning. He thought the game."
Blatt coached in Israel for 11 years before beginning the Russia-Italy-Russia-Turkey-Russia-Greece-back-to-Israel sojourn. All the while he was networking with NBA types who came to Europe for games and scouting missions. But it wasn't as if he was yearning for a head position in the States. He had built an international profile as the Russian national-team coach, one that only increased when he took over Maccabi Tel Aviv again in 2010.
But the 2014 Euroleague championship he won changed his thinking. Frequently a favorite, Maccabi was a long shot this past season, and Blatt's performance is considered one of the alltime masterpieces of European coaching.
"I had done pretty much everything in Europe," says Blatt. "I was 55. I told myself, It's time to make a move."
ON JUNE 1, the morning that Maccabi played Game 4 of the Israeli league semifinals, Blatt got a call that his father had died. He coached that night, a series-clinching victory, then jumped on a plane for Tucson and the funeral of Dr. William Blatt, 87. The son said his goodbyes, thought of a long-ago game in Boston Garden, then flew back and won a championship.
The Blatt narrative seems to scream for a theme of absence, some generational connecting tissue between father and son. Once again Blatt will pursue his hoop dreams while his family stays put. "Leaving one place for another has just never been hard for me," he says.
"It's not the same as it was with my father," says Blatt. "Being apart from my family is difficult, but my kids understand what their father is all about. Their mother is the pillar of the family in terms of closeness. But I am a part of that family structure, as unique as it might seem to an outsider."
Though Blatt has been an expatriate for three decades, adjustment to life in Cleveland should not be difficult for a Massachusetts kid schooled by guys named Smokey and Pete. He's already been to an Indians game ("It's not Fenway, but I had a great time at Progressive Field"), is ready to cheer on the Browns (except when they play the Patriots), can't wait to visit the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and is eager to sample the lamb loin at Lola Bistro, Iron Chef star Michael Symons's downtown eatery.
Still, for all that Blatt has seen and done, he's never roamed a sideline in a hostile NBA arena, sweating like a cornered bank robber while Kevin Durant buries his team with jumpers and a dozen Kremlinologists in the press section wonder, Wait a minute ... did LeBron just glower at his coach? In Cleveland he will have no Tolstoy or Pushkin, but he will have entourages, max contracts and, yes, isolation plays. The Wandering Coach, though, has been nothing if not adaptable. "I've been learning new things my whole life," he says. "No reason to stop now."