“An ambassador,” said David Blatt.
That’s what he’d do, might become, if he can’t do this anymore, this game that has dominated his life and taken him to high places.
“I’ve always had the dream to be an ambassador, a diplomat in Israel. In some way I’d want to help the country.”
Blatt, a dual US/Israeli citizen, is 60. His life has been about basketball, from the scruffy outdoor courts of Framingham, to Framingham South High, to Princeton, to the highly competitive overseas leagues.
And then when he had his fill of playing, Blatt grabbed clipboard and whistle and journeyed off to become one of the most successful European coaches ever. “He was known as the Phil Jackson of Europe,” said Gary Bernson, Blatt’s best friend and former high school teammate at South.
Blatt couldn’t pull himself out of the gym. Any gym.
Now, he has been forced to.
Two months after announcing he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, Blatt resigned earlier this week as coach of Greece-based Olympiacos Piraeus in the EuroLeague. Olympiacos had opened the season on Oct. 4. In a statement, he said “it’s in the best interests of both sides to part ways [with the team]. My time in Greece with Olympiacos has been meaningful and significant in many ways.”
In a release, the club said, “we’ve had the honor to work with one of the greatest figures in world basketball.”
On Monday, in an e-mail, Blatt elaborated.
“I don’t want to use my illness as an excuse, but in my discussions with management, I had to be honest about certain limitations I had,” he said. “But more so, there were many problems in the team. We had only played one game. It did not start well. Together we sat and decided it was better for everyone that we part ways. No hard feelings.
“I’m looking forward to my next steps and challenges, as I have always wanted to do more. After 12 years as a professional player and 27 as a coach, time to enter a new phase of life. I relish it. Sometimes the window closes and the door opens.”
Blatt, the father of four children, is approaching the disease the same way he went after every game he ever played or coached: eye to eye. He’s on a new cycle of treatment. “No guarantees, it just came out,” he said of the new treatment over the phone from Greece.
The constant of MS is fatigue, legs weakening, and faltering balance. The 6-foot-3 Blatt has always been a high-energy guy. It’s the way he played and the way he coached.
“He was a pretty legit player as a freshman,” recalled Phil “Smokey” Moresi, Blatt’s high school coach at Framingham South.
“There was an aura about him, a cockiness. As a sophomore, he was a starter. The other four starters were seniors. He won them over by getting the ball to them.” Blatt ran the show, up tempo.
Blatt’s recent medical troubles began following back surgery in June 2018. He dutifully did his post-op physical therapy. Time went by. “But I didn’t feel any improvement,” he said. “I thought ‘what’s going on here?’ ” It was suggested he see a neurologist. He did. Tests proved out he had MS.
“There’s been good days and less than good, but I’m happiest when I’m coaching.” Now that’s been taken away.
Blatt understands what he’s up against, but please, no sympathy overtures. After the diagnosis he wrote an open letter to his team that emphasized “I am still the same person. Self-pity doesn’t do anything but foster and encourage a downward side.” He says he went back to his coaching methodology: “Find out the problem, why did it happen, how do we fix it?”
He had been working out with the team trainer, emphasizing aquatic exercise several times a week. “I’m not as quick and nimble as I used to be,” he said. “I’ve got to be careful.”
Bernson, who has visited Blatt in Israel, recalled a younger Blatt. “David was like Superman, always in shape. To see him like this is heartbreaking.”
Added Moresi, “But he never complains. Every time I talk to him it’s ‘how you doing, coach?’ He never says anything to worry me.”
Blatt has been candid with his family on his condition and what to expect. “We’ve all educated ourselves about this. They’re realistic,” he said. “It’s not life-threatening, in short distance.” Still, the body breakdown is progressively debilitating, particularly ominous for someone like Blatt, who has always lived life in motion.
“He had told me he thought he could make it through this season,” said Bernson. One game wasn’t the plan. The team’s statement called the decision to part ways with Blatt “consensual termination.”
Moresi, who also coached at Ashland High and in college, had a profound effect on the career Blatt chose. “He taught me basketball and life lessons.” Blatt was a star on Moresi’s teams that ripped off a 58-game Bay State Conference winning streak.
“It was a great time in our lives,” said Blatt.
Former Celtics standout Tom “Satch” Sanders was coaching Harvard when Blatt graduated from Framingham South. “He wanted David, but he’d already given [Princeton coach] Pete Carril his word,” said Moresi.
Blatt played for the US national team that was twice crowned champion of the Maccabiah Games. In six seasons as Maccabi Tel Aviv coach, his record was 179-21. Blatt coached the Russian national team to a bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Olympics. While coaching Russia to a EuroBasket championship, Blatt was described in a New York Times story as “an American Jewish Israeli who coaches Russia.”
Blatt’s success abroad didn’t get ignored back home. In the spring of 2014, he met with Golden State Warriors head coach Steve Kerr, expecting to sign a deal as an assistant. But at the last moment, the Cleveland Cavaliers breezed in with an offer as head coach. Blatt took it.
The Cavs advanced to the NBA finals in Blatt’s first year, but lost to the Warriors, coached by Kerr. It was the first time two first-year coaches had made it to the NBA finals. Blatt received a congratulatory call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
On Jan. 22, 2016, the Cavaliers fired Blatt. The team was 30-11 at the time, the best record in the conference. Assistant coach Tyronn Lue took over and the LeBron James-led Cavaliers went on to win the NBA title. The team sent Blatt a championship ring. He was 83-40 as the Cavs’ coach.
Blatt follows the NBA only casually. “Some of it is still a little painful,” he said, “but I’ve got bigger challenges now.” One of the joys is watching his son, 22-year-old Tamir, make a name for himself playing pro ball in Israel.
So that’s David Blatt at 60. Work, hopefully, unfinished. Life to live. Life is work.