By Roman Fuentes
For the Mitzpeh
It was June 16, 2015. Confetti rained over the Golden State Warriors as players celebrated their NBA Finals victory. Led by up-and-coming star Stephen Curry, the Warriors beat the Cleveland Cavaliers four games to two in the best-of-seven series. Lost in the celebration, the Cleveland Cavaliers walked off the court in disappointment. Marred by injuries, the Cavs and their superstar LeBron James fell short of immortality.
Alongside James’ reeling team was Coach David Blatt, an Israeli-American basketball specialist with a long history in the sport. Blatt kept his job after the championship loss, but was subsequently fired halfway through the following season after starting an excellent 30-11. Even though the Cavs kept him on for another half season, Blatt’s coaching legacy in Cleveland was already cemented to his team’s championship loss.
Junior finance major Calvin Hou saw strengths and weaknesses in Blatt’s style.
“What made him a good coach was his experience,” Calvin said, “[but] he also had a lack of confidence when dealing with his players, particularly LeBron.”
Blatt began his basketball career playing for Princeton University. Following his collegiate career, Blatt competed at the international level, winning gold in the Maccabiah Games with the United States in 1981. Additionally, Blatt played 12 seasons in Israel’s Super League until injuries forced him to retire.
Following retirement, Blatt began coaching, starting as an assistant for Hapoel Galil Elyon, an Israeli professional basketball team. That season, Hapoel’s head coach was fired, giving Blatt his first professional coaching job. Two years later, in 1996, Blatt earned Israeli “Coach of the Year” honors.
In 2000, Blatt moved to Tel Aviv and served as an assistant for Maccabi Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv enjoyed great success, winning a Euro League championship and the Israeli Cup. Blatt also received “Coach of the Year” honors in 2002, as an assistant.
In 2004, Blatt moved to Russia and signed with Dynamo Saint Petersburg. During his first year there, Blatt’s team won the International Basketball Federation Euro Cup, earning him the title “Coach of the Year in Russia.” In 2012, Blatt served as coach of Russia’s national basketball team during the London Olympics, leading the Russians to a bronze medal.
Following the Olympics, Blatt began looking for coaching opportunities in the NBA. He entered the process with a staggering .787 winning percentage in the Israeli and Euro Leagues, combined.
On June 20, 2014, Blatt was hired by the Cleveland Cavaliers. At the same time, basketball legend LeBron James made his return to Cleveland, promising his hometown city a championship. During their first year together, the Cavaliers and Blatt performed very well, becoming Eastern Conference champions and reaching the NBA Finals.
“He seemed to get blacklisted,” Hou said about Blatt’s current absence from the NBA. “As a head coach, your main priority should be having control over your players, and I think teams noticed his relationship with LeBron.”
Junior computer science major Derek Farley said Blatt’s particular team may have impacted his short tenure.
“His time in Cleveland made for bad publicity,” Farley said. “He could have had a longer stint with a smaller market team, especially if it weren’t for the LeBron-sized spotlight [Blatt had on him].”
This seems to be the commonly shared theory; Blatt was kicked out of Cleveland by James, due either to a difference of basketball philosophies, disagreements over player-related issues or a mixture of both. However, when asked about this directly in an interview with Bleacher Report’s Amos Barshad, Blatt gave a different response.
“The NBA game is very different. I don’t think that initially I really realized how different it was,” Blatt told Barshad, referencing differences between basketball culture in the NBA and clubs he coached previously. “I was just thinking—basketball. Then—what I thought WASN’T different about basketball was ALSO pretty different.”
When he was asked about opportunities in the NBA as either an assistant or head coach following his departure from Cleveland, Blatt made it clear he was looking for head coaching positions.
“I was interviewing for head coaching jobs, and if I wasn’t gonna get one, I was gonna come back to Europe,” he said. “I made that decision on day one.”
Blatt’s time in Cleveland seems to be his most high-profile accolade, where some fans theorize that he may have found himself overwhelmed for the first time in his career.
“He had to handle too much, too quickly,” said Hou.