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Lessons learned in Europe coming to Cleveland sideline

New coach Blatt, a success overseas, tries his hand with Cavs

POSTED: Oct 31, 2014 11:25 AM ET

By Steve Aschburner

BY Steve Aschburner


David Blatt was the Euroleague Coach of the Year with Maccabi Tel Aviv for the 2013-14 season.

CLEVELAND -- Donnie Nelson took his seat along "scouts row," crowding into Milan's Mediolanum Forum with the rest of them for the Euroleague Final Four back in May. It was a far cry from the near-empty gyms Nelson and a few other Americans visited 25 years ago or so, beating basketball's bushes.

This was the big time, Maccabi Tel Aviv putting down CSKA Moscow and then Real Madrid to capture the 2014 Euroleague championship. Nelson, the Dallas Mavericks president of basketball operations, kept an eye on the fellow working the Maccabi sideline even though, in Rick Carlisle, the Mavs are all set in the coaching department.

"David Blatt is my hero," Nelson said last week about Blatt, one of those 30-year overnight sensations who will be an NBA rookie for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. "Here's a guy who really cut his teeth the hard way. If you look at his success, there's probably a handful, if that, of coaches who have worked overseas who could step into a job here. But he is definitely one of them.

"I was sitting there on scouts row, telling someone, 'If it was me, David Blatt would be on my 'A' list.' And then coincidentally, he was hired like [a month] later."

The Association: David Blatt

Head coach David Blatt leads the new-look Cavaliers with the experience he's gained from international coaching success.

Blatt, 55, was no secret. But he does represent a breakthrough for the NBA -- the first coach hired entirely for his international resume, without spending even a minute in the league as a player or coach. He's also something of a gamble for the Cavaliers.

His hiring by Cavs vice president of basketball David Griffin and owner Dan Gilbert didn't get the attention it deserved, probably, because a few weeks later, LeBron James announced to the world he was heading home. And a few weeks after that, Griffin cut a deal with Minnesota to bring All-Star power forward Kevin Love to Cleveland, too.

Just like that, the run-up to Blatt's first NBA season clicked like a three-way light bulb, going from 50 watts to 10,000 to 50,000.

Blatt was running through some sideline out-of-bounds drills at the Las Vegas Summer League when the news of James' signing swept through the practice gym. The big question immediately followed: How would he handle the gargantuan step up in pressure?

"I've been under scrutiny all my life," Blatt said in a recent phone interview. "No. 1, it's part of the business. And No. 2, it's not something that I spend my time worrying about. I've got bigger concerns than that. I have to be honest and I have to be forthright so my players will follow me. I have to do the best job I possibly can. From the outside, the media has a job to do, and I'm understanding of that. But I don't get overly caught up in it. I try to do my job and stay honest and stay true to my principles and philosophy, and try to help my players however I can."

I don't think I was hired because I was a European coach. I think I was hired because I'm a good basketball coach. You know what I mean?

– Cavaliers coach David Blatt

Few men among the 30 in his position, or the 450 who play in this league, have navigated change and uncertainty as frequently and as well as the Cavs' new coach.

Growing up outside Boston in Framingham, Mass., Blatt learned his basketball playing for respected high school coach Phil Moresi and then at Princeton under Pete Carril, innovator of the fabled "Princeton" motion offense.

Blatt's aptitude for coaching reportedly was nurtured at least a little by his mother, Lillian, who taught special-needs children. He also began coaching youth teams almost as soon as he headed to Israel to continue playing once his Princeton days were done. He played nine of the next 12 years in Israel before pursuing his coaching career full-time.

He worked as an assistant to Pini Gershon, first with Hapoel Galil Elyon and later Maccabi Tel Aviv. Later Blatt was courted and brought to Russia to revive a national basketball program hurt by the breakup of the Soviet Union. He led Dynamo Saint Petersburg to the FIBA EuroCup title in 2004-05 and the national team to the EuroBasket 2007 championships.

"I'm a Jewish-Israeli-American who walked into the old Soviet Union and won a European championship," Blatt told the Cleveland Plain Dealer this summer. "When it comes to basketball, what is there to be afraid of?"

Inside Audio Assist: David Blatt

Coach Blatt talks to his team pre-game about playing hard and not giving up the fight.

Mixing in stints in Italy, Turkey and Greece, Blatt helped Russia capture the Olympic bronze medal in the 2012 Games. His most recent work for Maccabi -- a 225-55 record in four seasons -- left him with just one obvious challenge.

It's impossible not to think of Blatt as a pioneer, the flag bearer for future international coaches whose chances of working in the NBA might rise or fall based on how Blatt does in his first season. But the coach doesn't embrace that role entirely.

"Certainly I feel that I do represent European coaches and European basketball, because that's where I've come from," the married father of four said. "But don't forget, I grew up and learned the game in the United States. I left at the age of 22, got experience in coaching and had great interaction with a lot of great players both here and over there.

"So I've got to be honest with you, I don't think I was hired because I was a European coach. I think I was hired because I'm a good basketball coach. You know what I mean?"

Said Nelson: "Here's a guy who not only has all the experience from all the places he's worked, but all the influences domestically. Born and raised right here in the good ol' U.S.A. but his passport is as thick as a Bible. As is his knowledge."

Griffin and Gilbert looked at a number of other candidates, several of them coaching heavyweights: John Calipari, Lionel Hollins, Alvin Gentry, Tyronn Lue and a few others. But Blatt reportedly wowed them in his interviews, seizing the moment and convincing them that the relationships he builds with players would work in this league, beyond all the X&O stuff and whatever rabbits he might have up his sleeve from his overseas career.

So, is he ready to coach an insta-contender, maybe even the Eastern Conference favorites to reach The Finals?

"The question is, is anybody ready?" Nelson said. "I remember when my dad was first thrust in. Or Phil Jackson or any of these guys. George Karl is the patron saint for this. He played overseas and he coached overseas, and I think there's a lot of guys who followed in his footsteps and were better coaches for it."

Some have compared Blatt and his spot on an NBA coaching curve to where Miami's Erik Spoelstra was when the Heat's Big Three came together in 2010. Spoelstra had to earn James', Dwyane Wade's and Chris Bosh's faith by actually helping them win games, and Blatt surely will face the same tests. Already there have been murmurs in Cleveland that the four-time MVP's skepticism is wrestling with trust for his head coach, maybe more than some front offices would like. But James has said more than once this preseason that these Cavaliers will need to be forged by fire and go through some tough losses and testy conversations to come out on the other side.

David Blatt On Teamwork

New Cavaliers head coach, David Blatt, explains how he is working with his players to buy into a team first mentality.

Blatt doesn't go so far as to claim that basketball players are the same everywhere, but over the years he has learned to bridge gaps -- cultural, ethnic and language.

"There are a lot of really good players from [the U.S.] who can't go to Europe and play," he said. "And there are a lot of really good European players that can't come to the United States and play effectively in the NBA. It has a lot to do with your personality, your ability to adjust, your willingness to accept different things. Your understanding of the game or your position in it with the team you would go to."

Looked at that way, Cleveland's players -- from the high-powered to the bench guys -- aren't all that different from those Blatt has coached elsewhere. Nor is his job, spotlight be damned.

"It's my job to make them comfortable and successful and to make this team work," Blatt said. "I think we can do it. I'm not nervous as much as I am excited."

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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