Blatt brings back old-school values to muddled Maccabi

The endless pursuit of joyless triumphs, coupled with the Moni Fanan scandal, has certainly left an indelible scar on the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball brand.

Maccabi Tel Aviv 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Maccabi Tel Aviv 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach position has become somewhat of an impossible job in recent seasons.
Unrealistic expectations combined with dysfunctional management has led to Israel’s leading sporting brand going through six different coaches in the past four years.
Maccabi has seemingly tried every possible option.
After giving an upcoming European (Neven Spahija – 2006/07) just one season, it pushed out a bright Israeli talent just seven months into a three-year contract (Oded Katash – 2007/08), before getting rid of a proven veteran (Tzvika Sherf – 2007/08) just weeks after he took the team to the Euroleague final.
Effi Birenboim was then sent packing just nine games into the 2008/09 season, with Maccabi deciding to fork out a reported $2.5 million to bring back Pini Gershon on a threeyear contract.
Tel Aviv is now still paying off the man who guided it to three consecutive Euroleague finals between 2004 and 2006, including two straight European championships, after sacking Gershon this past summer.
Enter David Blatt.
If there’s one man who can save Maccabi from, well, itself, it is Blatt.
The endless pursuit of joyless triumphs, coupled with the Moni Fanan scandal, has certainly left an indelible scar on the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball brand. However, if I were to handpick the person with the requisite experience and nuanced leadership skills to take the club forward, Blatt would be the man.
The 51-year-old Boston native has both the mental wherewithal and coaching talent to help the yellow-and-blue embark on a new era, which will see Maccabi return to its roots, representing Israel proudly both on and off the court.
“I came here to rejoin Maccabi and to help them change some of the things that have not gone well here in the last few years,” Blatt told me earlier this week ahead of Tel Aviv’s Euroleague opener at Caja Laboral Vitoria on Thursday.
“Things that have to do with how the team played and how it behaved. I’m not talking only from a professional standpoint.
Just how everything was run. One of my mandates was to try and change some of those things. Get Maccabi back on track.”
Blatt, who originally moved to Israel in the early 1980s after playing for the American basketball team in the 1981 Maccabiah, is not worrying himself with Maccabi’s recent track record with its coaches.
“How I’m judged by management is not under my control.
I know what I came to do and I know I’m up to that task and I’ll do the very best I can with no fear,” said Blatt, who was a key contributor to Maccabi’s remarkable success during the first half of the last decade as an assistant to Gershon (1999/2000, 2000/2001, 2003/2004) and a head coach (2001/2002, 2002/2003).
In his six seasons away from Israel, Blatt cemented his place as one of Europe’s best coaches.
The Princeton University graduate led Russian club Dynamo St. Petersburg to the FIBA EuroCup in 2005 before moving to Italy’s Benetton Treviso and winning an Italian championship and cup in his two seasons with the club.
He followed that up with perhaps the greatest achievement of his career to date, guiding the Russian national team to the European Championship title in the summer of 2007.
Blatt has since coached Russia in the Olympic Games and World Championships while also working in Turkey and Greece, meaning he is especially excited to be finally returning to Tel Aviv.
“I’m extremely happy to be back in Israel,” he said. “I was six seasons outside of Israel and it’s nice to be home in my own environment.”
Maccabi has been built around foreign players for decades now, but it set a sad precedent last season. Eight players averaged more time on court in the Euroleague than Guy Pnini, who with just 15 minutes per game played more than any other Israeli-born player on the roster.
It was long ago that Maccabi made a decision that winning comes before all else, but Blatt understands that becoming a proud symbol of Israeli success is just as important as lifting trophies.
“We really put an emphasis this summer on strengthening our Israeli core,” said Blatt, who brought back former stars Lior Eliyahu and Tal Burstein. “It was important to us to bring these Israeli players back to Maccabi from an identity standpoint. To have players from Israel that will be leaders at Maccabi.”
As always, Maccabi fans expect no less than a league and cup double and a place in the Euroleague Final Four. Blatt accepts this, but is wary of building up the expectations so early in the season.
“I really believe we have to take it in stages. Our first goal is to qualify for the Top 16,” he cautiously noted. “We have a very tricky group. We have a lot of very difficult away games against teams that are constantly evolving. We are a new team and we can’t look too far ahead. We need to qualify first and go from there.
“I respect the fact the fans would like to see the team in the Final Four, but you can’t put the cart before the horse.”
Blatt is pleased with his team’s early-season form, but is not ruling out making changes to the roster.
“I think we’re playing pretty good basketball,” he said.
“Whether or not the strength of our roster is going to be enough depends on how this roster evolves. If the club sees the opportunity to make a change and strengthen the team, than we will. I’m happy with the group we have, but I also think that adding a player that could have a significant impact on the team is not a bad idea.”
Considering the unrest experienced at Maccabi in recent years, it is anyone’s guess how long Blatt will last at the club.
However, by hiring Blatt Maccabi has given itself perhaps one last chance to return to its core values. Now all it has to do is give him the time he needs to rebuild the club.
“I hope we play good basketball and maximize the potential that we have,” said Blatt when asked of his targets for the season.
“I hope we go as far as our capabilities take us. We want to win the championship and win the cup and at least make the final eight in Europe, which is a big challenge. Hopefully, down the course of the season we can develop as a unit and perhaps do something special. We want to reach high.”