For David Blatt, It’s the Finals Countdown


The Cleveland Cavaliers rookie head coach, who has single-handedly made the Cavs into a preoccupation in Israel, took a circuitous route to the NBA Finals

David Blatt said, “not every story has a happy ending,” moments after his Cleveland Cavaliers were eliminated 105-97 in Game 6 of the NBA Finals by the Golden State Warriors late last night.  “That doesn’t mean it was a bad story. This was not. This was a good story.”

Thus ended the rookie season of the 56-year-old Princeton grad who’d spent his entire previous coaching career in Europe, where his most recent achievement had been leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to the 2014 European championship.  Folks back in Israel will finally be able to catch up on their sleep rather than waking up in the middle of the night to watch LeBron James and the rest of Blatt’s Cavs play.

Even though he didn’t get that storybook ending which would’ve brought Cleveland its first professional championship since the 1964 Browns, those who know him best insist he’ll live with the result.

After all, this isn’t the first time Blatt — the kid who used to be the first to practice when he played for Pete Carril’s Princeton Tigers more than three decades ago — has been under the gun. The stakes have been high for him before — though perhaps not quite this high.
“Dave’s in a very challenging situation,” said Gary Walters, the longtime former Princeton athletic director who, as a Dartmouth assistant coach back in the late ’70s once tried to convince the Framingham, Mass., native to join him there. “It comes down to the fact if Cleveland wins LeBron gets all the credit,” he explained. “If they lose, Blatt gets all the blame. I don’t think that’s right.’’
No, but it’s reality. The 56-year-old Blatt, a surprise choice to take over the reins of the Cavs even before the news broke that James, an Akron native, would be coming back home to play for him, endured a tumultuous rookie season. While he received little more than token credit for guiding Cleveland into the Finals — especially considering the staggering number of injuries that forced Blatt to constantly re-invent his lineup, including the loss of all-stars Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving — that comes as no surprise to the men who knew him back at Old Nassau.
Speaking of Israel, where Blatt also holds citizenship and where his family still lives, the 84-year-old Carril said, “In that country, they have fighter pilots who shoot down planes and they’re never heroes. Generals aren’t heroes — and they have some of the best generals around. That’s why he stays grounded. He knows the next day’s as important as the last day. That’s why I root for him.’’
So does Walters’ next-door neighbor and fellow ex-Tiger, Howard Levy, who stayed with Blatt during a 1981 recruiting visit, which sparked a lifelong friendship. “He’s a wonderful coach,’’ said Levy, who accompanied Carril on a 1990 trip to Israel, where Carril and Blatt conducted coaching clinics — and where Levy met the woman who would become his wife. “He made a lot of adjustments throughout the season. He’s had to face adversity, but he’s succeeded everywhere he’s been — and he knows the game.
“Where he’s had probably more of an impact this year has been on the defensive end. Watching his teams play in Europe over the years, he was always creative in what they’d do defensively. It’s been quite a ride.”
“When the season’s over, I’ll call him — win, lose or draw,’’ said Carril, who last saw Blatt a year ago in Europe. “He’s held onto his principles very well, gotten them to play hard. I think they’re starting to like him more and LeBron’s starting to see this guy is a legit coach. Hopefully, he can stay out there and have a good career.’’
There were signs this was Dave Blatt’s destiny — no one at Princeton then or now refers to him as David — back in his Princeton days from 1979 to 1981. The 6-foot-4-inch Blatt averaged 5.0 points while shooting at a 45 percent clip during his three seasons, which included winning the 1981 Ivy League title, while displaying many of the traits that would later mark his coaching career.
“He was a hard-working kid who kept himself in decent shape,’’ said Carril, whose clubs went a combined 47-37 during Blatt’s playing career. “He was very sound fundamentally, but a little slow, which made it hard for him to get past his man. But he knew the game inside out. Besides that, he was a team player. He was always at practice on time. Always working out and helping other guys.’’
Those teammates still remember and appreciate it. “As a teammate, he was terrific from the first day I met him,’’ recalled Craig Robinson, Blatt’s teammate for two seasons who went on to become a coach himself at Oregon State, though he is also known for being Michele Obama’s brother. “He had no ego and was just a consummate team player.
“I was surprised when he became a coach — 30 years ago, nobody went into coaching,” Robinson added. “It wasn’t the type of profession you’d be in training for when you went to a place like Princeton. People had other aspirations. I figured he’d play overseas for awhile, but once that was over he’d be like all of us and come back home, get a job and start a career.’’
Blatt’s coaching success in Israel and later with the Russian national team, which he led to the bronze medal at the 2012 Olympics, has been well documented. Still, in NBA circles, he was a relative unknown when the Cavs made him their man after going 33-49 in 2014. Around mid-season, when Cleveland was 19-20 and seemingly headed nowhere, there were rumblings he was unprepared for the NBA and should be sent back to Israel.
But Cleveland’s management, led by owner Dan Gilbert, ignored that and stayed patient, eventually seeing that patience rewarded with a team that finished the season 53-29, then rolled through the Eastern Conference playoffs into the Finals. Through it all, Blatt has managed to keep his head on straight. Even facing elimination that won’t change now.
“He’s used to all the scrutiny,’’ said Levy, who got to visit with his friend — whom he texted with throughout the playoffs — when the Cavs played the Nets in Brooklyn back in March, two years after they watched their sons square off in the 2013 Maccabiah Games. “Coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv is like coaching the Yankees. He’s used to getting beat up in the press. Two years ago, the team was struggling and he probably could’ve gotten fired. He pulled the team together to win the championship.’’
“The first thing that comes to mind for me is, it’s really exciting to see someone with a Princeton pedigree at the highest level of coaching,’’ said Robinson, currently a college analyst for ESPN. “Second, and much more important, it’s great to see good things happening to good people. The NBA is such a different animal. To see the challenges he’s had to face and overcome in getting them to the finals has been pretty impressive.’’


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