Posted Aug 6 2012 1:42PM - Updated Aug 7 2012 1:09AM
LONDON -- David Blatt has told the story many times, but his first few days as coach of a Russian basketball team were not joyous. He couldn't communicate with his players; his players couldn't communicate with him. He was a Jewish American who'd lived in Israel and raised his family, now trying to make a go of it in a country whose history with Jews is littered with horrors.
One morning, not sure if he hadn't made a terrible mistake, Blatt went to get something to eat with his assistant coach, Kestutis Kemzura. While waiting for their food, a man plopped down on the stool next to them. In Russian, he asked for a shot of vodka, and downed it. Thirty seconds later, the man asked for another shot, and downed that one, too.
Blatt asked Kemzura what was going on.
"Russian breakfast," Kemzura replied.
"I knew then that I was gonna like it there," Blatt said Sunday.
Blatt was in front of the Athletes' Village at the London Games, a beautiful afternoon, and over the course of a few minutes several people walked up to him and asked for a picture or an autograph. He ran into Bryan Colangelo, the Raptors' GM. He is well-known, this David Blatt, even if you may not know his name or what he does. You may by the end of these Games.
Blatt, whose regular job is coaching the legendary Israeli team Maccabi Tel Aviv, is coaching the Russian National team in London, trying to pull off the upset of upsets. The U.S. is, of course, the prohibitive favorite to win the gold medal, entering play Monday night undefeated in Pool A. But Blatt's Russian team has clinched Pool B, with a 4-1 record, even after it was upset Monday morning by Australia, on a last-second 3-pointer by guard Patty Mills, who's been in the NBA the last few years in Portland and, now, San Antonio.
It is surprising the 53-year-old Blatt hasn't joined Mills by now.
Blatt has earned a reputation around the world as one of basketball's best coaches. He has won everywhere over the last decade, culminating in Russia's upset victory to capture the 2007 EuroCup over dominant Spain, a tournament hosted by Madrid.
"He's got respect from Russia, which is a really difficult country to get respect from," says Tony Ronzone, the longtime international scout now working with the Mavericks, and who has scouted opponents for USA Basketball for the past several years.
Blatt grew up in Framingham, Mass., and played basketball at Princeton for Hall of Fame Coach Pete Carril on a team that included Steve Mills, the former NBA executive and president of Madison Square Garden, and Craig Robinson, now the coach at Oregon State. (Robinson's sister, Michelle, is the First Lady of the United States of America.)
"I never thought of him as a coach," Steve Mills said Monday morning from New York. "I didn't think it was impossible or anything like that. He just never expressed anything. He just loved to play. When you're playing for a guy like Carril, you feel like everybody you play with really understands the game. He really knew the game, so he was fun to play with."
After Princeton, Blatt helped lead the U.S. team to the gold medal at the Maccabiah Games in Israel in 1981, then was trying to decide what to do next. He came back to the States.
"I think David worked for Xerox for six months or something like that," Steve Mills said. "He called me one day and said 'I can't do this anymore. I'm going back over there to play.'"
Blatt went back to Israel and played for teams all over that country before retiring in 1993. He got married and he and his wife raised four kids. Blatt quickly segued into coaching and moved up quickly, becoming lead assistant at Maccabi in 2001. That team won two Euroleague titles and a Suproleague title in four years.
Blatt returned as coach at Maccabi in 2010. His two stints there bookend a coaching resume that has taken him to Dynamo St. Petersburg in 2004 and 2005, Benetton Treviso from '05 to '07, a season with Efes Pilsen in Istanbul, a return season at Dynamo and a year in Greece coaching Aris Thessaloniki.
But his success in resurrecting the Russian program from the shambles in which it found itself has been perhaps his biggest triumph.
The breakup of the Soviet Union also broke up the former superpower's basketball factory, which won gold at the 1988 Games in Seoul behind the then-young Arvydas Sabonis. But after the end of the USSR, players scattered to different countries. Lithuania developed a strong program behind former Golden State player Sarunas Marciulionis, but Russia struggled to keep up. The Russians didn't even qualify for the 2004 Summer Games in Greece.
"Guys, before I came there, were more or less forced to play," Blatt said. "Now it's purely a voluntary thing. We're turning them away, which is one of the best things that has happened to us. I said, 'Nobody has to come. We're going to offer you great conditions. We're going to help you become better basketball players. We're going to give you an environment that you want to play in and get better in. But if you don't want to be here, don't come.' That was the first thing that I said, and it was as far from the Russian environment as could be. But it worked."
This Russian national team features several players with NBA ties, including Andrei Kirilenko, who just signed a deal to return to the league with Minnesota next season, and his soon-to-be teammate, guard Alexey Shved. The Nuggets' Timofey Mozgov plays center. Forward Viktor Khryapa had a cup of coffee with the Nets and Bulls, and center Sasha Kaun, the ex-Kansas Jayhawk, was the last player ever drafted by the Seattle SuperSonics franchise.
"We're still a little outside the bubble," Blatt said Sunday, before the Argentina loss. "We still had to qualify this summer to make the Olympics. And we were not favored in this group. You had Brazil and Spain, certainly, with their NBA-laden rosters, favored to beat us. And we came in and we won the group. People still aren't quite sure if we are of that caliber. We are. We think we have a shot to medal."
Since 2007, when Blatt helped engineer Russia's upset over Spain, he has been on the radar of many NBA teams. But it has yet to happen for him. These Olympics mean many things to many people, but they are the ultimate resume-builder for Blatt. A trip to the gold medal game and an opportunity to defeat the vaunted U.S. team would be an international basketball career capper.
It would also be a rematch of the matchup between the United States and Russia in the 2010 World Championships in Turkey, a game whose buildup was made spicier when Blatt and U.S. Coach Mike Krzyzewski had dueling press conference exchanges. Blatt had said then that, after watching a documentary on the controversial game, he'd come to believe that the Soviets had won the game fairly.
Told of Blatt's comments, Krzyzewski first said that Blatt had that viewpoint because Blatt was Russian (he isn't), and then said that the '72 game would always be a negative memory for Americans and "somewhat of a positive for those who believe in fairy tales."
After the U.S. team won a close one over Russia in that quarterfinal matchup, Blatt and Krzyzewski had nothing but positive things to say about one another. And Blatt reiterated Sunday that he's got no problems with Krzyzewski.
"I've known him for many, many years," Blatt said. "He coached against my Princeton team at the Aloha Classic in Hawaii in 1980. He was a rookie coach for Army, and I was playing for Princeton. I've known this guy forever. It cleared up as soon as it was over. A lot of it was grandstanding between the two of us -- moreso on his part. I was coming from a place where my message, I had hoped, was that the world changes and we view history a little bit differently when you have perspective. And Coach K jumped on it as a motivating factor for his team. OK. He was doing what he had to do for his unit. But no, we haven't had any problem. Hell, I talked to him this summer about players ... we're fine."
Blatt has made no secret of his NBA ambitions. Having gone and won just about everywhere in Europe of consequence as a basketball coach, there is not much left to do here. He loves the life, accepts the grind. But he would love to take his family back to the States and live closer to his relatives in Massachusetts.
There are, though, headwinds. He makes seven figures over here, but he'd be coming to an NBA where teams are cutting back on coaching salaries. Steve Mills hears from teams that are curious about his old teammate, and he thinks Blatt's success with NBA players like Kirilenko has eased the waters somewhat.
Blatt is not sure an NBA team would hire him as a lead assistant, nor does he think he's necessarily cut out to do that job. He is, he says, a coach.
"If I come to the league, it's not going to be for financial reasons -- at least not initially," he said Sunday. "I'm at the point now, five, 10 years ago, I would have told you differently. But now, having gone through what I've gone through, having had, fortunately, good jobs and good success, financially I'm not so concerned any more. I'll come to the league -- if I come to the league -- I'll come when the situation is right, where I can get an opportunity. I'm not naïve. I know no one's taking a European directly to be the head coach. But if I can come into the league with a significant position, where I see a path for becoming a head coach, money won't be the reason that I come or don't come. Because I'm OK where that's concerned."
Candidly -- "humbly," he says -- he does not believe there is anyone more qualified, with his skill set and experiences as a player in the States and a coach in Europe. But he knows it is possible that it will never happen for him in the NBA.
"I don't wake up and think about being an NBA head coach," he said. "I know I could coach there. And I would like to, because I would like to bring my life full circle ... to coach in the league, is that the thing that I feel I think I need to justify my existence? No. I've coached many, many NBA players. I've coached at that level. I've coached with and against many NBA coaches. I know everybody in the league. I'd love to do it. But I don't live for it."
1) Usain Bolt. My God. What would he run if he actually ran flat out for 100 meters? Eight point nine?
3) That's a pretty good way to go out, Michael Phelps. The Best Eva.
4) In the wake of Serena Williams' smackdown of Maria Sharapova in the Olympic singles final at Wimbledon, which she followed up with a fourth Olympic doubles title with sister Venus, isn't it about time to acknowledge that the way Richard and Oracene Williams raised their daughters, and the way their daughters have played tennis -- on their timetable, not the world's -- has worked out pretty well?
1) "Paul, pass me the gravy, please. Paul, pass me the gravy. Paul. Paul!" "Get your own damn gravy, Ray!"
2) We are a world divided into Those Who Tweet and those who don't. But if, say, you were taping an event at the Olympics, and you didn't want to know anything about who won or who lost or what the score was, why would you then get on Twitter, when you know people are going to be talking about the event live, in real time -- and then get mad at them for doing it? Explain it to me like I'm a 6-year-old.
3) I worked in Philadelphia for a few years recently, and went to dozens of Andy Reid press conferences. I don't know the man at all. We never exchanged as much as a hello socially; I asked some questions, he provided some answers. But I'm a dad, and I cannot imagine what Reid is going through today, after his 29-year-old son was found dead in his room at the Eagles' training camp at Lehigh University. It's no secret that Reid's two sons had demons that became public in recent years, but that's not what I'm thinking about today. I'm thinking about the love you feel for your child every day, the joy that is in your heart when you see them, and to think that that could be gone ... well, it's something I don't want to think about. My deepest condolences to Andy Reid, his wife and their family.
Why do I fall for the Olympics every time?
I'm a reporter for a living, and thus, I tend to be cynical and think there's always an ulterior motive for all human behavior. I pride myself on never being surprised by anything anyone does or says, no matter how revolting, because then, you can never be disappointed by anyone. Isn't that a terrible way to view humanity? And yet, humanity proves my point, over and over.
So I should view an event like the Olympic Games with derision and scorn. Because I know that host cities have a history of removing their poor, and sometimes, entire neighborhoods, to construct the venues that are used sparingly, and then abandoned. I know that the Games have left some cities deeply in the red with little chance of ever recovering their revenue. Here in London, cabbies complain that they're being kept away from Olympic Park and wide swaths of town that are venue sites, unable to pick up fares for hours at a time. I know all of that.
But I love the Olympics.
You can't describe the swath of humanity that is in London. All the colors, both in clothing and in skin. All the different languages being spoken. All the national pride and clothing. Jamaicans on Sunday, going into Olympic Park to see their countrymen Usain Bolt and Yohan Blake settle things once and for all. Everywhere, British fans celebrating the host country's great day Saturday in track and field, where their heroine Jessica Ennis won the heptathlon, and Greg Rutherford won the men's long jump, and Mo Farah won the 10,000 meters race.
The world, happy with one another, for a minute at least, and yes, it's the part of the world with enough scratch to afford the prohibitively expensive tickets, hotels and airfare. I get that. But it still gets to me. It does. The Tube is packed every day, but there hasn't been one fight. Not even a raised voice. Yet the energy that is in London is palpable.
In Olympic Park, huge television screens are set up in an area called Park Live, where people can watch events being held at other venues. On Saturday, the big screen is showing the finals of the men's lightweight double sculls. The British team of Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter leads almost the entire race, and the obviously pro-British crowd is doing everything in its power to urge them to the gold.
And then ... here came Holland!
The Dutch team slowly, agonizingly, cut into the British lead. Half a boat (scull?) length. A quarter boat length. Then, just a few feet as they neared the finish line. Then, they were even. Then, they weren't. The Dutch crossed the finish line in 6:37.17. The British duo finished at 6:37.78. Sixty-one hundredths of a second. It was agonizing to watch. You could hear the air coming out of British lungs. The BBC interviews Purchase and Hunter afterward. They're in tears. They're in tears. They believe they've let their country down.
Whoa, dudes! First, you got the silver. You medaled. Second, there are exactly two people in the whole world that are better than you.
On Sunday, the U.S. men's basketball team practices at the University of East London. Watching them warm up is the under-13 national championship team of Great Britain, from the Newham Star Sports Academy -- NASSA. When the Americans aren't using the facility, it belongs to the NASSA kids, who beat 63 other teams to win the national championship. They watch the U.S. players with awe. One of the smallest, 11-year-old guard Enoch Denkyirah, looks like he's 5. But, apparently, he can D you up. His favorite player, he says in a near whisper, is Chris Paul.
"Because he's a point guard, and he dedicated himself to basketball," Enoch says. "I want to be like that, like he is personally, off the court as well. He's very nice."
Sunday evening, you go to Horse Guards Parade to watch women's beach volleyball. They show Bolt obliterate the world record in the 100 meters on the big screen before the first match. Then, the U.S. team of April Ross and Jennifer Kessy advances to the semifinals with a win over the Czech Republic. In the second match, top-seeded Brazil plays Germany, in front of the vaunted "Brazilian Nuts," groups of Brazil fans who are in force at every -- every -- event in which a Brazilian athlete takes part.
The Brazilian team of Larissa Franca and Juliana Silva is ranked No. 1in the world, the favorites after winning the world championships last year. It takes about 10 seconds to see why. They are incredible; they chase down every shot, no matter the angle or speed at which the German women hit the ball. Silva goes perpendicular to the sand to get to balls; Franca crushes at the net. It is a ridiculous combination of grace and power. Brazil wins the first set easily, 21-10, and is cruising through the second.
But then, Germany's Laura Ludwig goes on an incredible roll. She's diving all over the sand, saving attacks and returning them for winners, the way Andre Agassi used to stand at the baseline and pound your best serve down the line. She keeps points alive; she spikes at the net, she digs for her partner, Sara Goller. Almost single-handedly, she gets Germany back in the match, tying the set at 18, before the Brazilians hang on for the win. It is an amazing athletic display -- by someone, it cannot be forgotten, who is a world-class athlete.
One's appreciation for these athletes, able to train their bodies to go well beyond the limits of normal human endurance, and to keep thoughts of quitting or giving in from attacking their muscles, endures after all these years. It's one of the main reasons I love covering sports for a living. To see what is possible if but only the mind wills it. To see, in a time where mass murder is now commonplace and the world seems to always be teetering on the brink of economic calamity, where wars still are fought and entire peoples are still oppressed, to witness two weeks of joy and celebration from a cross section of the world is a desperately needed tonic.
Perhaps the unibrow is make out of the fur of a black cat who crossed path while walking under a ladder on Friday the 13th. Or something. From Gregorio Velazquez:
I would like to talk to you about Anthony Davis and his place in the USA team. From what I know is that previous USA teams (before the Jerry Colangelo makeover) that usually USA teams have 1 slot reserved for an amateur player/college standout. Although from what I can see is that Davis' selection was purely circumstantial since the slot for a college standout is no longer there. It just so happen that he's the only amateur (technically) in the roster since he has not yet played an NBA game.
Nevertheless his role now in team USA is the same as to what Christian Laettner, Jay Williams and Emeka Okafor had on previous versions. All of which were 12th man on the roster and did not get to play a lot of minutes during the actual games. Additional similarities is that all 4 of them came from strong college programmes and enjoyed tremendous on-court success during their college years. I am not sure of how people projected the other three entering their careers in the NBA as compared to Davis' who a lot of people say has superstar potential. Seeing the NBA careers of the 3, Laetnner although quite a lengthy career was a mediocre NBA player, Jay Williams was a borderline All-star at best before suffering the injury that voided his NBA contract, and Emeka Okafor who has had a solid NBA career but is below where he is expected to be at. And seeing Davis having a kind of career similar to any of it would be a huge disappointment. I know I did mention that your articles are very insightful and rarely do you venture on the superstitious side of the basketball but I wanted to know your thoughts about it.
Honestly, Gregorio, whether Anthony Davis is or is not a great NBA player will have nothing to do with his presence here at the Olympics. These things tend to take care of themselves. Like most great college players, Laettner and Okafor were drafted by very poor NBA teams, making it quite difficult for them to have much success. Williams' injury was one of those freak things that happens if you're unlucky and not careful about operating something dangerous. I think AD is going to be a great pro, though. And that has nothing to do with him being here, either.
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this ... building formerly called the 02 Arena. From Jeff Knott:
Always love your Morning Tip column, and I wondered if you could answer a question for me. As a UK basketball fan, it was great to host regular season games when the Nets and Raptors came here. Entirely understandable that the regular season games in London were a casualty of the lockout season, but are there plans for any regular season games to be played in London this season? There's massive excitement here with the Olympics and basketball tickets are even more in demand than the main athletics! There would be huge interest in any NBA games after the buzz of the Olympics and it would seem daft for NBA not to capitalise on that.
There is nothing official that I know of, Jeff. But I think you're absolutely right. It's hard to imagine the NBA wouldn't take advantage of the opportunity. It wouldn't be like them. I would definitely stay tuned.
Send your questions, comments, criticisms and dinner plans when you're 225,000,000 kilometers from home to firstname.lastname@example.org. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, interesting or snarky, we just might publish it!
40.5 -- Average point margin of victory for the U.S. men's Olympic team following its first four games in London.
36.6 -- Average point margin of victory for the U.S. women's Olympic team following its first five games in London. The U.S. team has not lost in the preliminary round of the Olympics in 36 years. Its closest margin of victory so far is 25 points. The women's team plays Canada in the quarterfinals Tuesday.
2 -- Number of Smiths on the Knicks' roster after New York signed Chris Smith, the younger brother of J.R. Smith, to a camp contract last week. Chris Smith, who played collegiately at Louisville, was on the Knicks' summer league team that played in Las Vegas last month.
"You're the first person to ever pronounce my name right."
-- U.S. men's coach Mike Krzyzewski, after a Polish journalist began a question to him with the precise phonetic pronunciation of his surname following the U.S. team's win over Tunisia Tuesday.
"I think the advantage of being an Asian basketball player in America is that no one expects anything from you, and no one thinks you are going to be good."
-- Jeremy Lin, during a press conference in Taipei on Sunday. Lin's parents are from Taiwan and his trip there is the first time he's been in that country.
"Yes, I will rap at his concert. I am in rehearsals now 10 hours a day and plan to demand joint billing."
-- Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, in an e-mail to Crain's New York Business, announcing his plans to participate in one of the concerts by music mogul and part Nets owner Jay Z to open the team's Barclays Center next fall.
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