Sinai Says: Despite hero status, Blatt’s return as coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv is no simple matter

Giving him a long-term contract, as well as additional authority, is something the Maccabi owners would find very hard to swallow.

David Blatt (photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
David Blatt
(photo credit: ADI AVISHAI)
Believe it or not, but Maccabi Tel Aviv’s Euroleague triumph over the weekend actually reduced coach David Blatt’s chances of continuing at the club.
That isn’t to say that he definitely won’t be the Maccabi coach next season.
But as things currently stand, his days with the yellow-and-blue look to be numbered.
And the likelihood of his departure only increased following Maccabi’s unforgettable weekend in Milan.
One would think that Maccabi and Blatt would be a match made in heaven. He was widely regarded as one of the best coaches in Europe even before guiding Maccabi to a sixth European championship title in club history – its first in nine years – and he is a proud Israeli who has professed his love for the yellow-and-blue on numerous occasions.
Nevertheless, sometimes what seems like a fairytale from the outside is in fact a nightmare from within.
Blatt’s first stint at Maccabi lasted five years, starting in 1999. He spent two seasons as an assistant before succeeding Pini Gershon as head coach in 2001.
He led Tel Aviv to the Euroleague Final Four in 2002, but was asked to return to the assistant’s role ahead of the 2003/04 campaign. Tel Aviv was chosen as the host of the Final Four that season and the ownership decided to bring back Gershon as it deemed him likelier to succeed.
Blatt swallowed the insult and agreed to the demotion, with Maccabi ultimately claiming the Euroleague title that season.
However, he had no intention of remaining an assistant any longer and he spent the next six seasons coaching in Russia, Italy, Turkey and Greece. He also took charge of the Russia national team in 2006, going on to lead it to remarkable success.
Blatt guided Russia to the European title in his first major tournament with the team in 2007, while also claiming a bronze medal at EuroBasket 2011. The team’s crowning moment with Blatt arrived at the 2012 London Olympics, when the Russians won a bronze medal.
His return to Maccabi always only seemed to be a matter of time and it finally arrived in the summer of 2010. He took the club to the Euroleague final in 2011 and a year later was handed a contract extension for three years.
Had Blatt’s contract for 2013/14 not been guaranteed, it is safe to say he would have already been ousted last summer.
The differences between Blatt and the ownership rather than the results on the floor would have led to such a decision, although Maccabi was sent packing in the quarterfinals of the Euroleague in 2012 and 2013 and dropped the BSL championship to Maccabi Haifa last season.
No coach had ever continued at Maccabi after losing the local title, but the hefty sum the club would have had to pay Blatt as compensation combined with the lack of potential successors meant he retained his job, even though his relationship with several of the club’s owners had soured long before that.
Some of the owners felt Blatt wasn’t treating them with the respect they deserve, and they vented their frustrations in the media. Blatt of course didn’t like being questioned on matters he thought were under his authority, but despite the ongoing personal acrimony, financial circumstances kept the parties together.
Nevertheless, Blatt was rumored to be one defeat away from being sacked earlier this season after Maccabi’s worst-ever start to a local league campaign saw it lose four of its first nine BSL games.
Blatt somehow righted the ship and the ownership decided to remain patient until the end of the season when it will be able to replace the coach cheaply, with the third and final year on the contract being a mutual team and coach option.
However, no one could have imagined how the past month would unfold.
It began with a stunning victory over Olimpia Milano in Italy in Game 1 of the Euroleague quarterfinals. Blatt was honest enough to admit after the game that he had given up hope of mounting a comeback when his team found itself 12 points down with two minutes to play.
However, the players never lost faith, and Maccabi ultimately won in overtime, with Milano’s Keith Langford missing a chance to win the game for the hosts when he missed a free throw with 0.7 seconds to play in regulation.
Everything could have been different had Langford hit that shot, but he didn’t, and Maccabi clinched its place in the Final Four by wrapping up the series with two home victories.
Maccabi still entered its Final Four semifinal against CSKA Moscow as a massive underdog and was on course for defeat despite erasing a 15-point deficit.
But an inexplicable turnover by Moscow’s Victor Khryapa allowed Tyrese Rice to score the winning basket with 5.5 seconds to play and no one who watched Sunday’s final against Real Madrid will ever forget how Maccabi outfought what is regarded as the best team in Europe to force overtime before outplaying the Los Blancos in the extra period.
Maccabi at last won its sixth European crown after three defeats in its previous three appearances in the championship game and Blatt finally claimed his first Euroleague title as a head coach.
Blatt already made clear after his side’s progress to the Final Four that he would not be remaining at Maccabi for the final year on his current contract should he not be handed an extension, and he emphasized the point after Sunday’s win.
“I need to meet with the owners again as there are some things we need to discuss,” said Blatt. “I don’t want to stay here as a lame duck. I have a contract for one more year, but my goal isn’t to remain here for just one more year. I want to be part of a club’s vision, and I hope that club is Maccabi. But if not, than it will be somewhere else where they will believe in me over the long run.”
Part-owner David Federman, who attacked Blatt in the media in the past, said he believes the coach “is going nowhere,” but added that “anything is possible in life.”
After finally winning the Euroleague and achieving all that there is to achieve at Maccabi, there is really only one reason for Blatt to remain at the club: his family.
Blatt has already experienced the often lonely life of a coach abroad and he could have made a lot more money had he not decided that he’d rather coach at home in Israel in recent years.
Of course, should he be given an opportunity to be a head coach in the NBA, that would be a completely different story and he will surely not turn down such an offer.
But even should that offer never arrive, Blatt can significantly increase his salary by moving to one of Europe’s big clubs in the summer, with CSKA Moscow believed to be eying the coach as a replacement for Ettore Messina.
But while Blatt and Maccabi will probably have little difficulty agreeing on financial terms on a contract extension, the 54-year-old Boston native also wants reassurances regarding his decision-making power at the club.
If there is one thing that Maccabi’s owners – and most owners in pro sports for that matter – want to avoid, it is relinquishing control to an employee.
And while it may not seem so at the moment due to his heroic status, Blatt is no more than a high-priced employee in the eyes of the owners.
Giving him a long-term contract – which would effectively ensure he can’t be sacked for years to come – as well as additional authority is something the Maccabi owners would find very hard to swallow.
It is surely in the best interests of the club for Blatt to continue from a basketball perspective, but unfortunately the decision will ultimately have little to do with basketball and everything to do with the exasperating internal politics at Maccabi Tel Aviv.
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