When David Blatt was hired as head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers last June, he was not highly recognizable when he walked the streets of downtown Cleveland. What a difference a year makes.
Now, Blatt can go few places without being recognized. For good reason. The Jewish coach has the Cavaliers in the mix to win the city of Cleveland’s first championship in a major sport since the Browns won the National Football League title in 1964.
After leading Israel’s Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv to a stunning upset in the Euroleague basketball championship in 2014, the expectations were that the 56-year-old Blatt would utilize his vast overseas coaching experience with a Kyrie Irving-led rebuilding Cavaliers team that one day would return to the NBA playoffs.
All that changed on July 11, when Ohio native LeBron James proclaimed that he was coming home again after four years with the Miami Heat. Suddenly, the oddsmakers installed the Cavaliers as the favorite to win the title—even before Blatt coached his first NBA game. The expectations for Blatt had changed overnight. Soon, Kevin Love was en route from Minnesota and Blatt was the coach of a new “big three”—James, Love, and Irving.
The season began slowly—the Cavaliers had a 19-20 record on Jan. 13—while Blatt was getting to know his players and his players were getting to know each other. Talk persisted that the coach might not make it through his first season in the league.
But Blatt would have no part of that. The team started to improve, and then came the trades that brought J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland. Within a few games, the team began to click.
The Cavaliers ran off a winning streak here and another one there. They owned an 18-game winning streak at their home arena late in the season. They won the Central Division championship. They locked up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Blatt was named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for March.
Ahead of the playoffs, which begin this weekend, Blatt—the first coach to make the jump from the European leagues to NBA head coach—called the NBA “such a far-reaching and complex animal.”
“There’s so many sides to the NBA, both inside the game and outside the game, and it’s all-encompassing,” Blatt told the Cleveland Jewish News in an interview after practice at Cleveland Clinic Courts during Passover. “Obviously, this is a big country, and the NBA is one of the most popular sports—basketball in general, and the NBA specifically, is one of the most popular sports in the land of sports.”
Blatt was already under the microscope in Israel, where Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv is regarded like the New York Yankees. When he arrived in Cleveland, more than a dozen Israeli reporters converged on his press conferences. In fact, he had to give press conferences in English and then moments later do them in Hebrew.
“Everything here is bigger,” Blatt said. “In Israel, and coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv is unlike almost any other place in Europe, I can tell you that scrutiny is great and seemingly everyone in the country knows and follows Maccabi. You don’t see that in most other countries in Europe. But here, just the mere volume of media, whether it be TV or radio or Internet or whatever, the volume is just so great. It’s everywhere, it’s almost overwhelming.”
It reached a fever pitch in mid-January amid the Cavaliers’ struggles. Sports talk shows and other media members questioned whether the Boston-area native was in over his head. But Blatt isn’t one to duck challenges. He accepts them head-on.
“The best way to deal with it is don’t pay too much attention to it,” Blatt said. “Neutralize the noise and focus in on the things that are important in terms of the job of helping make the Cavaliers successful. I never found good advice in the newspaper, let’s put it that way.”
With the NBA season longer compared to that of Israeli basketball, less time is available to practice, so adjustments need to be made on the fly. It didn’t help when Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao went down with a season-ending injury and other players missed games due to injury. It seemed Blatt was coaching a different starting lineup every game. Then came the trades for Shumpert, Smith, and Mozgov—and more adjustments for Blatt. Thanks to decades of coaching, he was able to quickly right the ship.
“[You] just [need] an understanding of what you have and how to develop a system that works for that group,” he said. “You have to be able to adjust, you have to be open-minded, you have to be willing to try and sometimes even to fail, but not ever to give up but continue to go forward. Those are the basic things I can say probably work anywhere.”
The Cavaliers began the season 18-10, but then James got injured and missed eight games. The team floundered during its star’s absence—and Blatt found himself on the hot seat.
“Naturally, we struggled like every team in the NBA that gets sideways during the course of the season,” Blatt said. “I knew I was an easy target being new, and being unusual in the NBA world, so I was an easy target. I never paid any attention to all that stuff. On the flip side, since Jan. 15, we’ve had the best record in the NBA and I didn’t see anybody electing me for president.”
As a Jew who has lived in Israel for more than three decades, the way Blatt treats others is always foremost on his mind.
“Just in terms of the basic respect that I try to show the people here and the human aspect of treating others that you would want them to treat you” is how Blatt described his attitude. “And loyalty to purpose and to one another. I think those are very Jewish principles; certainly, I live by them here,” he said.
Blatt had hoped to immerse himself in Northeast Ohio’s Jewish scene, but so far he has done little other than lighting a public menorah during Hanukkah, speaking at the Shaw Jewish Community Center in Akron, and spending holidays with friends. He said he has been involved “less than I would have liked just because of the incredible intensity of our [NBA] season.”
“There’s just not a lot of time,” said Blatt. “I have mixed in with the community. I have met a lot of wonderful people. Great thing about the Jewish people is they’re always there… I’m not extremely religious. I would say I’m much more culturally Jewish than religiously Jewish.”
Since becoming the Cavaliers’ coach, Blatt has made one trip back to Israel to see his wife Kinneret, twin daughters Shani and Adi, daughter Ela, and son Tamir.
“[During the] All-Star break, I went home for four days and three nights, and it was wonderful,” Blatt said. “Nobody knew I was coming in, thank goodness. I didn’t tell anybody because I knew it would be overwhelming, so I kept it quiet.”
Blatt is unsure when his next trip to Israel will be because of the playoffs, NBA draft, free agency, summer league, and more.
“Cleveland is a wonderful place and the people here have been so warm and so accepting and so generous toward me, and I love the community, but it has not been easy for me… when you’re away from the things you know and the people you love [in Israel], it’s not easy… I’ve had other seasons when I’ve been away. I coached a year in Italy when my family wasn’t with me, and I coached a year in Russia, my family wasn’t with me… I’m hoping my kids will be able to come over and see some playoff games,” he said.
Blatt played point guard and was team captain at Princeton University under Basketball Hall of Famer Pete Carril. Tamir, a high school basketball standout, is a chip off the old block.
“I haven’t been able to watch him too much, but I do get some of the videos of the games,” Blatt said. “He’s doing well. … I coached him a lot when he was younger. The last couple of seasons, I tried to be his dad more than his coach.”
When Blatt isn’t dealing with X’s and O’s, he enjoys spending time with friends, reading, and partaking in the restaurant scene.
“I’ve been known now and again to watch a game on TV, just to watch an NBA game, without dissecting it,” he said.
Blatt, who lives in a downtown Cleveland apartment, has enjoyed the recognition that comes with being an NBA coach.
“It’s very nice because the people here love the team and are excited about the Cavs,” he said. “So, it’s very nice. Yes, I’m very recognizable.”
He added, “It’s a great time to be in the city of Cleveland. No question if we can keep this kind of performance and this kind of excitement going, I can only imagine what will happen in the city.”
Bob Jacob is managing editor of the Cleveland Jewish News, where this article originally appeared.