Blues for the yellow-and-blue?

After going through five coaches in four seasons, Maccabi Tel Aviv seemed to have finally found the leader it had been looking for in David Blatt.

Maccabi Tel Aviv 370 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Maccabi Tel Aviv 370
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
By the time you read this, Maccabi Tel Aviv will have already played its crucial Euroleague encounter against Barcelona.
The outcome of Thursday night’s showdown at Nokia Arena had dramatic implications on Maccabi’s entire season.
A win over the Spanish powerhouse would resurrect the yellow-and-blue’s continental campaign at the halfway mark of the Top 16 after the team seemed to have been dead and buried after suffering four defeats in its first five games in the group. A defeat, on the other hand, would essentially end any lingering hopes Tel Aviv might have had of reaching the Euroleague quarterfinals.
The significance of Thursday’s game could also have repercussions on the future of coach David Blatt, who has come under increased fire from critics and fans over recent months.
One might have thought that Blatt had done enough by now to have considerable job security.
But when things go wrong, the fingers are ultimately always pointed at the coach. That’s just the way it is in sports.
In a perfect world – or, for that matter, any world other than Maccabi’s – the outcome of Thursday’s game would have almost no effect on Blatt’s status, considering all he has accomplished.
By any reasonable measure of success, he has done a superb job in his latest tenure at Maccabi, which began in the summer of 2010. And he’s done so under far from ideal conditions. But at Maccabi, expectations are eternally unreasonable.
Blatt guided Tel Aviv to the Euroleague final in 2011 and his team has won every competition it has entered in Israel under his stewardship. He led the yellow-and-blue to a State Cup triumph for a third straight year last week, with Tel Aviv beating Maccabi Haifa 76-68 in a dramatic final. Maccabi has also won the BSL championship in the past two seasons and currently leads the league standings with a 15-1 record.
In fact, Blatt has led the team to an outstanding 74-4 record in league and playoff action over the past twoand- a-half seasons, with each of those four defeats coming in relatively insignificant games.
So how on earth is anyone even questioning him? In many ways, the coach is a victim of his own success.
Blatt played a key role in Maccabi’s glory days at the turn of the century as head coach Pini Gershon’s assistant, helping the team to European titles in 2001, 2004 and 2005. He also dramatically exceeded all expectations in his first season back with the club in 2010-2011 by taking the team all the way to the Euroleague final, ultimately only losing to Panathinaikos. As a result, even the most minor of potholes at Maccabi is made to seem like the Grand Canyon.
Despite building his roster almost from scratch once more, with seven of his 12 players only joining the team last summer, Blatt guided his men to an 8-2 record in the Euroleague regular season and first place in Group B.
But the turmoil that accompanied Maccabi’s off-season took its toll as the campaign progressed and the opponents grew stronger.
Maccabi’s preparations for the season were overshadowed for months by the Yogev Ohayon saga. The Israeli guard signed a contract with Russian club Lokomotiv Kuban and exchanged numerous insults with Maccabi’s management before a FIBA arbitrator ruled that he is under contract with the yellow-and-blue. The sides somehow put the ordeal behind them and reconciled.
Meanwhile, Pops Mensah-Bonsu was brought in initially to help fill the void left under the baskets by the departure of Sofoklis Schortsanitis – but he didn’t pass a medical exam and Maccabi only completed the signing of his replacement, Malcolm Thomas, days before the team’s Euroleague opener.
Thomas was released earlier this month after not having settled with the team.
Its stuttering start to the top 16 means Maccabi faces an uphill battle to reach the quarterfinals, and despite his being under contract for next season, stories have started to surface that the club is looking for a replacement for Blatt.
It is now easy to forget, but Maccabi was in complete disarray when Blatt entered the fray in the summer of 2010.
Maccabi had just dropped its second Israeli league title in three years, something that hadn’t happened since the 1960s, and had failed to make it past the quarterfinal stage of the Euroleague for a second straight season.
But far more crucially, it had also completely lost touch with its core values, resulting in its reputation reaching an all-time low.
The Moni Fanan scandal and the embarrassing behavior of Blatt’s predecessor, Pini Gershon, had seemingly tarnished the club beyond repair, but Blatt played a significant role in helping Maccabi reconnect with its supporters and with Israeli sports fans in general.
After going through five coaches in four seasons, Maccabi seemed to have finally found the leader it had been looking for; but a few bad results have erased years of hard work.
The last Maccabi coach to spend more than three consecutive years at the club was Tzvika Sherf between 1983 and 1987. It remains to be seen if Blatt will be the next.
In the meantime, he refuses to take the criticism to heart.
“Hate or anger don’t motivate me,” he told the assembled media after seeing his team lift the cup last week. “I don’t want to prove people wrong or use other people’s judgments or evilness to motivate myself or my players.
I don’t have time for that. I’m too big a boy for that.”
Maccabi may have lost to Barca on Thursday, or perhaps it sprung a surprise and won. Regardless, the result should have no effect on Blatt’s future with the club. He has done more than his fair share to prove that Maccabi could not hope for a better coach.
And yet, the rumor mill has started to churn and all kinds of names are being mentioned in connection with Blatt’s job.
Unrealistic expectations have often seen Maccabi make fateful decisions it deeply regretted in hindsight, decisions that took years to correct.
Parting ways with David Blatt at the end of this season would just be the latest on the long list.