David Blatt, the coach of the Cleveland Cavs, recently told the Jewish Exponent in an exclusive interview leading up to the Cavs’ Nov. 2 trip to Philadelphia to take on the Sixers that he hopes to win it all this year.
Friedrich Nietzsche won’t score a single point or grab a rebound this year for David Blatt’s Cleveland Cavaliers. But if Blatt can figure out a way to get LeBron James & Co. to the NBA mountaintop next June — after being stopped just below the summit last season — the descendants of the late, great German philosopher might well be deserving of a playoff share.
After all, his words have already had a profound impact on the man who’s coached all over the world — including Maccabi Tel Aviv — before taking on this test. “It’s never easy, but Nietzsche said, ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’ ” Blatt recently told the Jewish Exponent in a exclusive interview leading up to the Cavs’ Nov. 2 trip to Philadelphia to take on the Sixers. “That’s what you get from one of those situations.
“I think that was Philosophy 101. I didn’t see myself as an NBA coach. I didn’t see myself as a professional basketball player.
“I was going to play for some years professionally, then go on to other things.”
It didn’t pan out that way. After growing up in Framingham, Mass., then attending Princeton — where his three seasons playing under Pete Carril were recently chronicled in the Exponent’s June 18 edition — Blatt headed overseas to play hoops. He never imagined — other than periodic trips back home — it would be 33 years until he returned.
So has the return been what he expected? “Yes and no,” said Blatt, who signed on to coach the Cavs in July 2014 — prior to LeBron’s stunning announcement he was leaving the Miami Heat and coming back home. “When I came back, I was a changed person. I spent so many years overseas. I spent part of that time in Israel and in other countries. So I don’t know if the U.S. has changed as much I changed.”
While there were plenty of times in their first season together where James openly clashed with his new coach — leaving many to wonder if Blatt was long for the job — most of his players and his fellow coaches have nothing but respect for him.
“It was a great year for him to learn and understand how the game’s played here and how the NBA works,” said veteran center Anderson Varejao, who still winces at the memory of his Brazilian national team’s last-minute loss to Blatt’s Team Russia in the 2012 London Olympics. “To me he did an unbelievable job. I could tell there were days had a lot on his mind, but he didn’t let that influence him. He was as professional as could be. Not a lot of coaches in this league went through what he did last year, but I’m pretty sure he learned a lot.”
That’s come as little surprise to Sixers’ coach Brett Brown, whose history with Blatt goes back to the 1980s, when Brown’s former Boston University teammate, Glenn Consor, became Blatt’s roommate at the Maccabiah Games and later played for him. “I thought he did an amazing job all over the place,” said Brown, when the Cavs — minus stars James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love — dropped a 113-112 preseason game here Oct. 8. “To have to go through all the things we heard and read about and not blink and deliver that team to the Finals under very difficult circumstances.
“But he’s an intelligent man. He’s a helluva coach, and if you look at his history and the wins he’s been a part of, it shouldn’t have surprised anyone.”
Certainly not the folks back “home,” which for the 56-year-old Blatt means Israel, where his family still lives. During the playoffs last June, he was constantly being informed how the entire country was counting on the Cavs, with many Israelis staying up until near sunrise for the games.
In retrospect, did that any add additional pressure? “No, I don’t think I was carrying the weight of the country,” replied Blatt. “In the grand scheme of things, what I do is not as important as the things happening in Israel.
“I do know from a sports standpoint and from a feelings standpoint a lot of people took interest in what was going on. I hope I contributed to some good feeling.
“I felt a great deal of happiness and support on the part of the people. I don’t think you let anybody down when you make the NBA Finals.”
They may be inclined to disagree in Cleveland, but nobody’s openly taken out any of their frustrations on Blatt, who’s felt welcomed within the local Jewish community. “Cleveland has a very active and involved Jewish community,” said Blatt, who follows a rich legacy of Jewish head coaches in the NBA that includes Hall of Famers Red Auerbach, Red Holzman and Larry Brown. “I’ve had a chance to meet and experience many people there. “They’ve been just great.”
But like those Clevelanders, it took the new guy quite awhile to get over losing to the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. Despite playing woefully undermanned due to injuries to Irving, Love and Varejao, the Cavs managed to make it interesting before being eliminated in six games.
“It was tough to get over,” admitted Blatt, who maintains regular contact with his family, even though there’s a seven-hour time difference. “It took me the whole summer. But with time, you realize you did a pretty amazing thing the first year to get to the NBA Finals.
“You have to remain open and willing to learn everyday and understand like anything else it’s a process. Nothing comes easy or automatically, so you try to enjoy it along the way when you can.”
With the process just underway in Year Two, Blatt is eager to see how it unfolds. As for his relationship with LeBron, who consistently undermined his authority, he’s taking the high ground. The low point of that disdain came during Game 3 of the Conference Finals vs. the Chicago Bulls when Blatt called for James to be a decoy on the final possession of a tie game. LeBron blatantly ignored him, hit the winning shot, then bragged how he’d taken it upon his own to save the day.
As the postseason progressed, James was seen griping about Blatt’s player moves, disregarding him during timeouts, even telling other coaches who to put in the lineup in an open sign of disrespect. But Blatt has never called him on his insubordination then or now.
“I’d say he’s an even more unique guy than I expected,” said Blatt, “He’s a phenomenon. I really enjoyed working with him and I feel lucky I get a chance to coach him. “Coaching in the NBA is very different from the European game,” added Blatt, who’s hopeful other Israelis will soon be able to make the transition like Sacramento’s Omri Casspi and former Dallas/New Orleans guard Gal Mekel. “The whole setup and environment is different.
“The personalities are varied and different. The schedule is different. The game itself is different. And there’s so much attention paid to every little thing that brings a whole other dynamic to the lifestyle.”
But thanks to Nietzsche, his players and perhaps, grudgingly, LeBron James, David Blatt, the pride of Princeton, Team Russia, Maccabi Tel Aviv and now Cleveland, has learned to better deal with it. No, it hasn’t yet killed him.
Meaning it’s finally time for the rest of the NBA to find out if he and the Cavs are, indeed, stronger.
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