By Daniel Chavkin, staff writer, @dchav96
On June 21, 2014, the Cleveland Cavaliers hired Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach David Blatt to fill their head coach vacancy. Less than two years later, Cleveland fired Blatt despite a 30-11 record and an NBA Finals appearance the previous season.
Blatt’s firing was huge news across the NBA. As coach of one of the most famous men in America, LeBron James, Blatt faced an immense amount of pressure every game. Not only did he have to make the transition from coaching Euroleague to the NBA on the fly, but he needed to come in and win immediately due to the presence of James.
Although Blatt was heavily scrutinized in America, he was equally as praised in Israel. After graduating from Princeton in 1981, Blatt immigrated to Israel and served in the Israeli Defense Force. He spent his next 12 years as a player for five different Israeli basketball teams.
Once Blatt retired, he immediately went into coaching with Hapoel Galil Elyon, where he would be head coach on two separate occasions from 1993-1999. However, it wasn’t until Blatt took the head coach position at Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2001 that he began to obtain success.
Blatt first took over a Maccabi Tel Aviv team that had just won the Euroleague championship. While he would lead them to two Israeli Basketball Premier League championships, including winning 63 of the 66 games he coached in those two years, he was unable to win the Euroleague title. After Blatt left to coach in Russia in 2004, Maccabi would win back to back Euroleague titles.
Blatt coached five separate Euroleague teams and the Russian National team from 2004-2010, before returning to Maccabi Tel Aviv. From 2010-2014, Blatt would help Maccabi dominate the Israeli leagues, winning three Israeli Basketball Premier League championship.
Yet, Blatt’s stardom in Israel reached its ceiling in 2014 when he led Maccabi to a Euroleague championship.
With nothing more to accomplish in Israel, Blatt left for the NBA, agreeing to coach an underachieving Cavaliers team. Less than a month later, James agreed to return to Cleveland, immediately changing that team from rebuilding to contender.
However, Blatt was hired before James arrived. As one of the best basketball players in the world, James wants to be coached by someone he knows and likes. He never worked with Blatt before, probably never even thought twice about someone who never coached in the NBA, forming an immediate disconnect between the two.
Although the Cavaliers were consistently one of the best teams in the NBA, Blatt was scrutinized almost every day until his firing this year. By the time Blatt was fired, many people agreed with the decision, believing that James was more responsible for the team’s success.
In Israel, there was a different attitude toward the firing. While America praises James for his abilities and accomplishments, Israel does the same for Blatt. Therefore, Israelis had their own idea of who was responsible for the failed Blatt experiment.
It was James who never gave Blatt a chance and had it out for him from day one.
According to Israeli journalist Sharon Davidovitch, who spoke with Yahoo Sports about Blatt, James might be “the most hated person in Israel,” potentially reaching the same level of hatred as Hamas. Blatt’s fame in Israel has reached the point where anyone who rivals him is considered on par with Israel’s worst enemy.
The truth probably lies somewhere in between both ideologies. Yet, the fact that Israelis were defending Blatt so much is noteworthy. Israel accepted Blatt as their own even though he wasn’t born there. In return, Blatt gave the country IDF service and years of hard work as a basketball player and coach.
David Blatt gave Israelis someone to get behind, someone to root for in America.
Minor corrections made Feb. 6