London Diary: Israeli could lead Russia to medal

The only Israeli with a realistic hope of returning home with a medal isn’t even part of the country’s delegation.

Maccabi Tel Aviv's David Blatt 370 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Maccabi Tel Aviv's David Blatt 370 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In a way, it’s quite sad that the only Israeli still with a realistic hope of returning home with a medal from the London Olympics isn’t even part of the country’s delegation.
The shortcomings, and in certain instances the abject failure, of the athletes on the delegation, mean Israel will end an Olympics without a medal for the first time since the Seoul Games in 1988.
But there is one Israeli on the verge of the pinnacle of his career in London, one victory away from a place on the podium.
Israelis have rarely had any sort of affinity for the national basketball team of Russia, but that all changed when David Blatt was named as its coach in 2006.
The Boston-born Israeli, who made aliya 30 years ago and is also the coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, has accomplished remarkable success with a previously underachieving side.
Russia hadn’t finished any higher than fifth in its four European Championship appearances before Blatt took charge, failing to even qualify for the 2004 Athens Olympics.
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However, Blatt led Russia to the European title in his first major tournament with the team in 2007, also taking a bronze medal in EuroBasket 2011 as well as finishing ninth at the 2008 Beijing Games.
He is poised for a triumph of a completely different echelon this weekend after guiding Russia to the semifinals in London.
After losing just once in five group games, and then to only at the buzzer, Russia advanced to the last four on Wednesday with an 83-74 win over Lithuania.
Russia will face Beijing 2008 silvermedalists Spain, which edged France 66-59, in Friday’s semis.
A win for Russia will guarantee it a gold or a silver medal (probably a silver with the US the likely opponent in the final), with a defeat to leave the Russians to fight for a bronze medal against the loser of the semi between the US and Argentina.
What has made Blatt’s feat all the more impressive is the fact that he has accomplished it with a roster which is on paper no where near as good as many of its opponents.
“The greatest achievement of my career is my body of work with Russia,” Blatt said after the win over Lithuania.
“We won two medals in four years at the European Championships and it is a great honor for me to be leading this program. We may still end up without a medal in London but we certainly did all we could to claim one.”
While his American accent means that the Israeli chapter of his biography often goes ignored, Blatt does his country a great service both on and off the court.
I don’t remember ever being genuinely thanked for attending a basketball game the way I was by Blatt on Wednesday.
It was as if I was doing him a favor by coming to see his side play in the quarterfinals of the Olympics when in fact it was my privilege to observe his acumen during the game and conduct after it.
And Blatt’s courteousness is not reserved just for the journalists.
On the rare occasion that Blatt was also asked questions regarding Israel in the hour-and-a-half he patiently spent after the game speaking to the world’s press, he replied like a perfect ambassador.
“I wish I could have walked with the Israeli delegation at the opening ceremony,” Blatt told the Israeli media.
“Even as the coach of Russia I represent Israel in all I do. I’ve always said that and will always be committed to that.
Some people don’t see it that way, but I believe that with my whole heart.”
There has been precious little to cheer about for Israeli sports fans in the 2012 Games.
But in Blatt, Israel has an additional reason for pride in London, one which could even have a medal hanging round his neck on Sunday.