Over the past year, David Blatt has gone from being “just” another successful basketball coach to one of the most famous people in Israel.
The dramatic Euroleague triumph with Maccabi Tel Aviv last spring, followed by his move to coach the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, have transformed the Boston native who relocated to Israel over 30 years ago into a Holy Land household name, including in homes who scarcely follow sports.
Such has been the magnitude of the change that advertising campaigns and phone calls from the prime minister have become somewhat routine for Blatt these days.
With the Cavs to visit the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night, Blatt’s celebrity is nowhere near its peak.
Winning the championship with Cleveland would take his stardom through the roof and further cement his place among the true greats of Israeli sport.
Blatt looks to be on his way to a legendary status in Israeli basketball, so who better than the two greatest local hoops icons, Mickey Berkowitz and Tal Brody, to break down Blatt’s season to date and his prospects in the final? Brody, the 12th pick in the 1965 draft who gave up a career in the NBA to pursue his basketball dreams with Maccabi Tel Aviv, believes Blatt had to overcome three main challenges in order to reach the current stage.
“Contending with the press, contending with the public when they lost nine out of 10 when LeBron James was injured and contending with superstars on the team were the three biggest challenges David faced and I think he did a great job,” Brody told The Jerusalem Post this week.
“I think his character, experience, education and intelligence are what allowed him not to get overexcited during the tough times. He experienced tough times with Maccabi and with other teams and he handled it very well in Cleveland and hasn’t lost his cool. I’m sure he was gritting his teeth with some of the things that happened, but the fact that he is a first year coach in the NBA and is going to the Finals has allowed him to gain the respect of the players and I hope also of LeBron James.”
Brody said he lost a lot of respect for James when he publicly boasted in a press conference that he had overruled Blatt to score his team’s winning basket in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in Chicago.
“As the leader and playmaker of Maccabi, I also sometimes didn’t do exactly what was instructed in the huddle because I felt on the floor that we need to do a different play,” admitted Brody. “But never was I proud in the press conference after the game that we didn’t do the play the coach wanted and that it succeeded.
I don’t know what he was looking for. He already had the basketball respect of everyone and I don’t think anybody thinks he hasn’t achieved everything he wanted to achieve on the basketball floor.”
At around the same time of the conversation with Brody on Monday, James was endorsing Blatt across the Atlantic in a way he hadn’t done beforehand.
“Well, anytime someone is scrutinized really for nothing, I’m able to relate,” James said after the Cavaliers practiced on Monday.
“For him in this instance, obviously, we knew that a lot of people were going to say things that, you know, didn’t mean much, but that’s just what they have to do. That’s what helps sales. People love reading the negative things more than the positive things, so I think he’s handled his situation unbelievably. Being a rookie coach in the NBA, being able to take his team to the Finals, I think he’s done a hell of a job.”
For Berkowitz, widely accepted as Israel’s greatest ever basketball player, the fact Blatt even made to the NBA was a surprise.
“The fact that he started as a head coach and not as an assistant surely placed him under extra pressure. And when the best player in the world in LeBron James arrived, it put him under even more pressure,” said Berkowitz.
“It was unbelievable that he was given a head coaching position and I think he might have even surprised the Cavs by leading them to the Eastern Conference title. You can only tip your hat to him. I don’t think he could have imagined this at the start of the season.
“Who would have thought that we would be able to say that we have a coach in the NBA Finals? I just hope he continues to have luck on his side.”
Berkowitz believes Blatt is the best ambassador Israel could wish for and feels he should already be regarded as one of the best coaches in the world.
“I think his knowledge and professionalism trumped his lack of NBA experience. If you are not good enough, you don’t make it to the Eastern Conference finals, and if you are not good enough you don’t win the East. Unless you are very good both in the professional and psychological aspects of the game, you can’t coach someone like LeBron James,” noted Berkowitz. “I think that considering what he has achieved Blatt is today among the top three coaches in the NBA. I hope that in a month I will be able to say that he is the best.”
Both Brody and Berkowitz are of course crossing their fingers Blatt and the Cavs go on to lift the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
“Since that press conference, I like [Golden State star and NBA MVP] Steph Curry a lot more than LeBron, but I still hope Cleveland will win because of David,” said Brody. “I’m sure it isn’t going to be easy, but I think they have a well-rounded team and they can do it. I think it is going to be a good and interesting final and it is very hard for anybody to say who will win.”
One way or another, considering his current status, Blatt can expect another phone call from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. All that remains to be seen is if it will be of a congratulatory or consolatory nature.