Maccabi’s magical savior stoically holds court

Interview: David Blatt has not only built a winning team at Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, he has revolutionized the entire franchise.

Macabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt 311 (photo credit: Adi Avishai)
Macabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt 311
(photo credit: Adi Avishai)
David Blatt has not only built a winning team at Maccabi Tel Aviv this season, he has revolutionized the entire franchise.
While his main responsibility as coach was to assemble a roster strong enough to take Maccabi back to the Euroleague Final Four for the first time since 2008, the 52-year-old American-born Israeli has also achieved something far more significant, regardless of the result the yellow-and-blue record in Friday night’s semifinal against Real Madrid.
Unrealistic expectations coupled with dysfunctional management saw Israel’s leading sporting brand hit rock bottom last season, but just a year later, Maccabi has rebounded as if previous head coach Pini Gershon never embarrassed the club at Madison Square Garden and former team manager Moni Fanan had never committed suicide.
Maccabi has not only excelled on court, but it has done so in a captivating manner, while also strengthening its Israeli identity to once more become the local neutrals’ favorite.
All of this has been led by Blatt’s example, and even with the most crucial stage of the campaign only to begin this weekend, the coach already feels that this has been a “great season for Maccabi.”
“The results have been above and beyond, even off the charts successful,” Blatt told The Jerusalem Post ahead of the Final Four.
“Even more importantly, when I look at the response to the team I feel that we have really accomplished our main goal, which was to reconnect with the fans.”
Blatt, who returned to Israel last summer after six seasons of coaching abroad, explained why this Tel Aviv team has attracted so many accolades, although he admitted that its immediate success had even caught him by surprise.
“The fact that this is a blue-collar team makes it easy to identify with,” said Blatt, who was a key contributor to Maccabi’s remarkable success during the first half of last decade as an assistant to Gershon for three seasons (1999/2000, 2000/2001, 2003/2004), as well as a head coach for two years (2001/2002, 2002/2003).
"It is not a team that on paper had big names and great stars like the 2003/2004 team. It was a work in progress and there was a process involved. Blood, sweat and tears turned into very attractive and captivating basketball.
“Honestly, I didn’t envision this.
My timetable was two years. I really thought that it would take us that amount of time to fix what had gone wrong in several previous years. I didn’t think it was going to happen as quickly as it did.
“We got underway and we got everybody on board and found that we have got a lot of guys who are unselfish and are very motivated and team orientated and things developed quickly.”
There were many question marks hanging over the roster put together at Maccabi last summer even before the season began, and the doubts only intensified after it was outplayed in a 94-78 defeat to Caja Laboral Vitoria in its Euroleague opener.
However, Maccabi went on to gel quicker than anyone had predicted and soon played better than the sum of its parts, winning nine consecutive continental games to advance to the Top 16 before eventually thrashing Vitoria twice in a row on its way to a 3-1 quarterfinal series win.
“When you win nine straight games, some by huge margins and some in the last seconds, than you understand that you have the ability to win in different ways and under different circumstances and that shows that you have depth and quality in your team,” Blatt said.
“This team has been one of the hardest working teams I have been involved in. It gives you confidence that you are not going to get outworked by people. I think that is part of the minimum standard of being a successful team – that your effort level is there day to day as well as in games. It means someone is going to have to come out and play really well to beat us.”
Blatt, who originally moved to Israel almost 30 years ago after playing for the American basketball team in the 1981 Maccabiah, is concerned about the month-long layoff his team has had since the Vitoria series, but is still optimistic about his team’s chances of winning a sixth European title in Barcelona.
“I don’t think it is realistic to label us as favorites. I don’t think that there is a breakaway favorite in this Final Four,” he said.
“It’s not a good thing for us that the series against Vitoria ended a month ago. It is the same scenario we had before our two Euroleague losses to Vitoria and the defeat to Barcelona in the Top 16. But it is what it is.
There wasn’t much we could do about it because teams in Europe are midseason and practice games are hard to come by.

“I hope we can overcome this with practice and mental preparation. I think that when you get this far and beat the quality teams that we beat to get here you should have confidence.
“We are maybe not as strong as some of the other teams in the Final Four, particularly with Doron Perkins going down. On the other hand, if you look at our statistical numbers and our record we are one of the better teams, and when you take into account that we advanced to the Final Four without home-court advantage you know that we have the quality to go all the way.”