So where did it start, this unquenchable thirst for basketball, this deep-gut passion that has taken David Blatt, at 55, around the world, playing, coaching, always learning; this long and winding road that has landed the Framingham native in the NBA as the new coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers?
Was it when his late mother Lillian used to throw books at him? One landed on the side of his head. He picked it off the bedroom floor. “It was Homer’s ‘Iliad,’ ” said Blatt.
“My mother wanted me to read, be educated, and not just play basketball outside. I read it and fell in love with Greek mythology.” He would one day coach in Greece and play basketball overseas.
Blatt could do both. Learn and play. It got him into Princeton.
Was it when he was a long-haired, cocky, admittedly undisciplined 13-year-old looking for action at the basketball court in the shadow of Bowditch Field? That was where the older kids played fierce pickup games. Blatt joined in, never thinking he didn’t belong.
One day at the court a man approached Blatt. “He said, ‘You’re a pretty good player. What’s your name?’ ” Blatt said. Blatt told him. “Then he asked me, ‘Do you know who I am?’ I said, ‘No.’ He said, ‘I’m Smokey Moresi, the high school coach. Would you like to come out for the team next year?’ I said yes. And he said, ‘Then cut your hair.’ Next day I did.”
Blatt played junior varsity as a freshman, then bloomed into one of Framingham South High’s greatest players, and Moresi had many. In his introductory news conference in Cleveland Wednesday afternoon, Blatt gave a shoutout to his former mentor, “Smokey Moresi . . . the best coach I ever played for.”
Was it when Blatt at was at Princeton, playing for legendary Pete Carril? The Tigers were playing at Columbia. A coach from Israel was in the stands.
“After the game he came up to me and asked if I was Jewish,” said Blatt. “I said yes.” He invited Blatt to come to Israel after his sophomore year. Blatt went and fell in love with the country. After Princeton, Blatt went back and played in Israel. It was the start of a 10-year professional career in Europe.
An injury ended Blatt’s playing days. But he knew this: no way had he had enough of basketball. He settled in Israel but coached all over Europe. He was wildly successful with several teams. He led the Russians to a bronze medal in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Last month his Maccabi Tel Aviv squad won the Euroleague championship, the continent’s equivalent of the NBA title.
There was nothing else to prove. It’s was time to come home,” Blatt said. “I was at the top of my profession, top of the food chain in Europe, not a small place. I’d done everything I wanted to do [in Europe]. I didn’t feel a need to come back.”
Blatt’s Cavaliers introduction came a week after he was interviewed for the job by owner Dan Gilbert, general manager David Griffin, and “about six other guys,” said Blatt.
“It was intense. They all had something to say. They wanted to know who I was and what I was about. It lasted three hours and 15 minutes. Nobody got up.”
Blatt, a dual citizen, is the first European coach to go directly to the NBA as a head coach. “I’ve always followed the NBA,” he said. “I’ve had NBA coaches in my gym. My contacts were pretty deep.”
A few years ago Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew visited Blatt specifically to watch him conduct practice.
Before the 2012 Olympics Blatt’s Russian team practiced at the San Antonio Spurs’ facility. “[Spurs coach] Gregg Popovich took me out to dinner. He’s one of the most interesting human beings I’ve ever met.”
Now Blatt will be coaching against Popovich, and the entire NBA. He will be in the spotlight. There will be doubters. Can a guy who’s never coached in the NBA on any level find success? He’ll be scrutinized in the US and Europe. He doesn’t even blink at the challenge ahead, in a city starving for a winner. “I wanted to come full cycle and coach in the best league in the world,” he said.
His confidence, his sense of self-worth, was intact from the beginning. As a solidly built, 6-foot-3½-inch high school and college point guard, there was never any question who the leader of the team was. Coaching in Israel and Europe, Blatt roamed the sidelines with unmistakable authority, never doubting that he could get his team to where he wanted it to go.
If Cleveland hadn’t hired him — three years and a team option — Blatt would have become assistant coach of the Golden State Warriors, who have a first-year coach in Steve Kerr. “Through Steve’s generosity, I was able to interview for the Cleveland job first,” said Blatt. His father, William, died in Tucson recently. Blatt came from Tel Aviv for the services. During a layover at LAX he and Kerr met for an hour. It was agreed that if Blatt didn’t get the Cleveland job, he’d be Kerr’s top assistant.
Blatt’s family moved to Framingham from Louisville when he was 2. The family home was perilously close to the north side of town, which would have placed Blatt at Framingham North High. That meant he wouldn’t have played for Moresi, who would play a big role in shaping his life as mentor and coach.
Moresi would drive Blatt to summer camps to improve his game. Blatt loved the challenges, just like when he was playing with the older kids at the Bowditch Field court.
One day Moresi picked up Blatt to take him to yet another basketball camp. “I asked him, ‘Where we going this time?’ ” Blatt recalled. “He said ‘Five-Star Camp.’ I said OK. I thought it would be a nice drive to the Poconos. The camp was in Wheeling, W.Va.”
By Blatt’s senior year a number of colleges wanted him. Jim Calhoun was the Northeastern coach. “He came to talk to David while we were shooting around in the driveway,” said Gary Bernson, a life-long friend of Blatt’s.
Blatt also played football in high school. “I played fullback and linebacker. I was pretty good. But I stepped on a broken bottle in Maine. I had surgery and missed my sophomore year [of football]. I did miss it. But basketball was my destiny.”
It has taken Blatt to the NBA. He’ll be emotional when the Cavaliers play the Celtics at TD Garden. The Celtics were his favorite team as a kid. “Bill Russell was my idol,” he said. “I read his books. I did a book report on one of them in fourth grade.” He can tell you about Tommy Heinsohn and Johnny Most. Now that he’s in the NBA, Blatt’s entire past seems to be swirling in his basketball mind these days.
Blatt and his wife Kineret have four children: twin daughters Shani and Adi, 22; a 15-year-old daughter, Ela, and a son, Tamir, 16.
After a far-reaching career, who can say if the Cavaliers job will be Blatt’s final turn on the sidelines? There’s an overbooked NBA cemetery of short-shelf life coaches. But Blatt doesn’t dwell on the negatives. He’s come back to make the Cavaliers relevant again.
The long, global journey started in Framingham. “I’m 55, but I never left my roots,” he said.Lenny Megliola can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.