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Just 24 hours after guiding Russia to the European Championship title David Blatt was already preparing for his next challenge. The 48-year-old Israeli coach arrived in Turkey on Monday to join up with Efes Pilsen which he will guide in the Euroleague this season.
On Sunday night Blatt became the first Israeli coach to win the EuroBasket tournament after Russia defeated Spain 60-59. The victory over the host and world champion completed a remarkable two weeks for the Russian team, which won its first Euro title since the break-up of the USSR despite its underdog status.
"This was a victory of David over Goliath. We faced the beast and knocked him down and won," a joyous Blatt said. "It's an historic event. I'm proud to be the person in charge of this historic journey.
"Our plan was to stay in the game and make them feel the heat, the pressure of 15,000 fans, and to see how they play. Fortunately, we did that and we won."
Blatt's game plan worked to perfection on Sunday, with nationalized guard J.R. Holden scoring the winning basket for the Russians with 2.1 seconds remaining in the final.
"This is an ultimate moment in the history of the Russian nation. It's the first championship of the new Russia. I feel very lucky to be part of history both in Russia and FIBA Europe basketball," Blatt added.
Spain was a massive favorite ahead of the game, with Russia surprising everyone by simply reaching the title game.
"Russia's win surprised me in the same way it surprised everybody else," Israel coach Tzvika Sherf told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "David played a major role in his team's win. He made the most of the abilities of his NBA players and combined them outstandingly with Holden and the skills and European experience of the players from the top Russian sides.
"David succeeded in making Andrei Kirilenko the star of the side and at the same time also got the Utah forward to contribute to team play. David ran his team fantastically and prepared the side for every game as only he knows."
Russia finished eighth in the European Championships in 2005, meaning Blatt had to rebuild the team and take it through qualification when he was appointed to the job last summer. According to Blatt. the turning point came after the team lost its second qualifier to Belgium last September.
"After that loss I walked inside the locker room and went crazy, threw things around and told the players that now I understand why everybody, including myself, thought that Russia is a loser team," he said. "After that game, a lot of people back home said, this is the same old thing. They were saying Russia is just losers, but since that game everything has changed."
Blatt, who was born and raised in the US, moved to Israel in the early 80s after playing for the American basketball team in the 1981 Maccabiah. The former guard, who played collegiate basketball at Princeton University under coach Pete Carril, began his coaching career at Hapoel Galil Elyon in 1993.
Six years later he was appointed as Pini Gershon's assistant at Maccabi Tel Aviv, remaining with the club until 2004. Blatt was named head coach for the 2001/02 season after Gershon announced his retirement. He was, however, demoted to the assistant's position two years later after Gershon came out of retirement and the two guided Maccabi to the Euroleague title at the end of the season.
Blatt left for Russian club Dynamo St. Petersburg in 2004 and led the team to the FIBA EuroCup. He then moved to Italian giant Benetton Treviso, winning an Italian championship and cup in his two seasons at the club.
Blatt could have well been guiding the Israel national team at the EuroBasket tournament this month had local bureaucracy been slightly more flexible. He was named as the national team coach in 2004, but despite coaching in Israel for over a decade he was later told he would not be able to guide the blue-and-white as he had no Israeli coaching certificate. Blatt quickly lost patience with the ensuing wrangle and decided to resign before ever even coaching the team.
Blatt is being tipped by many to make the rare leap from European to NBA coaching. The coach has never hidden his desire to guide a team in the best league in the world and after Sunday's triumph is surely a step closer to fulfilling his dream.
"If a European coach will reach the NBA in the coming years it will be David," Sherf said. "David is very similar to Phoenix Suns coach Mike D'Antoni. They're both Americans who coached successfully in Europe for several seasons. David has the vision, ability and contacts to get to the NBA."
"The NBA dream is closer then ever, but it won't happen this season because I have a contract with Pilsen," Blatt told Army Radio on Monday. "I will only leave for the NBA if I receive a challenging and financially satisfactory offer."
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