LAS VEGAS — In a stunning turn of events that he has managed to take in stride, David Blatt has transformed from a mysterious hire who has spent the past 33 years playing and coaching outside of the United States into LeBron James’s next NBA coach — in about two weeks.
Blatt, from Framingham, Mass., is a media star in Las Vegas, having lucked into coaching the greatest player on earth in his first NBA job. James committed to the Cavaliers without a real relationship with Blatt, choosing Cleveland because of his desire to bring a championship to his native Ohio.
Blatt just happened to be the newly hired coach, and now his responsibility has grown exponentially. He is not only a trailblazer for overseas coaches who have been generally overlooked for NBA jobs, he is assigned to orchestrate a plan for James to win his championship with a cast of talented but unproven players.
The perception of the Cleveland Cavaliers has improved dramatically recently. After James left the team with the “Decision,” the Cavaliers staggered to recover, a franchise stripped of its identity in the matter of a one-hour televised special.
Now the Cavaliers walk into Cox Pavilion for Las Vegas Summer League games with swagger. Top pick Andrew Wiggins eagerly awaited his first mentoring session with James. Cleveland’s 2013 top pick, Anthony Bennett, who experienced a horrid rookie season, looks trim and ready to prove he’s no bust from Canada. And Blatt fielded constant questions about James, even though they have had minimal conversations.
“This is my first interview,” he jokingly said after reporters surrounded him following the Cavaliers practice at Desert Oasis High School in Las Vegas. “I haven’t done this before.”
Blatt comes to Cleveland after a successful run as coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, the Celtics of Israeli basketball. After winning four consecutive Israeli championships and a Euroleague title and winning 80.3 percent of his games, he decided it was time for a new challenge.
At 55, Blatt realized his window of opportunity to coach in the NBA was shrinking. His reputation was no better, stock no higher.
“Honestly, I just sort of came to the point where after this last year winning three titles in our local league and our local cup and winning the European Championship, I sort of felt like there wasn’t a lot more for me to do,” he said. “Certainly I was happy and at home with Maccabi Tel Aviv but I just came to the decision that it was my time to try something else and sort of get closure to my career.”
Although he was considered one of the best coaches in the Euroleague, Blatt emerged on the American basketball scene because of his passionate coaching of the Russian national team during the 2012 Olympics, leading the country to a surprising bronze medal.
Former NBA players who have played for Blatt endorsed his style, and Cleveland general manager David Griffin was looking for a splash after the merciful ending to Mike Brown’s second tenure as coach of the Cavaliers. Blatt not only had the pedigree (albeit internationally) to qualify for the job, but also the personality to manage the responsibility and pressure.
“I’ve been living with expectations all my life; now I’ve never coached LeBron James, mind you, and I’m well aware we just got the best player in the world,” Blatt said. “Naturally, that’s going to set the standards high. But wouldn’t you rather it that way than the opposite? I know I do.”
In Euroleague, Blatt was in a high-pressure job. Management demanded victories and championships.
“Europe’s a big place,” Blatt said. “I didn’t feel any sense of disrespect or any lack of appreciation for our game. It’s just a different place and far away from the NBA game. I think the European game, European player, and the European coach have become very, very well respected and appreciated. You’ve seen the enormous influx of European players in the last 20 years.
“And if I do a half-decent job, you’ll probably see some European coaches as well.”
Blatt is not only representing Framingham and those dedicated coaches without NBA backgrounds, he is representing the state of basketball overseas. If he is a rousing success, NBA teams will scour Russia, Iceland, Scandinavia, and Luxembourg for good coaches. If he doesn’t succeed, the perception of the international coach may be damaged.
“I hope that I do help my team be very successful and we play a good brand of basketball and that will pave the way for other guys from overseas to come and be part of the best league in the world,” he said. “You keep trying to put the pressure on me but I’m telling you, I worked in a club, Maccabi Tel Aviv, that losing a game was a national tragedy. I’m used to it, believe me.”