David Blatt, the man whom franchise player LeBron James openly disregarded — often ignoring him in team huddles and calling his own plays instead — is out.
At least we were warned about the impending storm that brought 21 or more inches of snow — depending where you live — to the area this weekend.
For basketball’s two most celebrated Jewish coaches, David Blatt and Larry Brown, the figurative blizzards they encountered were also extensively predicted and covered, with ramifications that will be felt long after the season’s first snows have helped shore up local water tables.
Just hours before the first flakes began to fall, the 56-year-old Blatt learned that guiding the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals his first year and following that up by going 30-11 this season simply wasn’t good enough. The man whom franchise player LeBron James openly disregarded — often ignoring him in team huddles and calling his own plays instead — is out.
Cavs’ general manager David Griffin, clearly dismayed by the 132-98 embarrassment his team suffered at home vs. the reigning champion Golden State Warriors on Martin Luther King Day, said the team didn’t have the identity he wanted and “for each step forward, we’re taking two steps back” in the team’s pursuit of a championship. And while James insisted he had nothing to do with the ultimate decision to jettison his coach, it certainly wouldn’t have happened if he’d had Blatt’s back.
As for Brown, whose 18-0 SMU Mustangs were the last unbeaten standing in Division I, well, not anymore. Back in Philly, nearly 15 full years since leading the Sixers to the Finals — largely accomplished by coaxing an MVP season out of Allen Iverson — the legendary coach’s latest squad fell victim to an old friend. Temple’s Fran Dunphy, whom Brown has frequently extolled even while consistently beating him (three times last season, in fact) finally got him back.
In a Jan. 24 game pushed back a day due to the weather, which still kept the crowd down, the Owls would not be denied, putting on a three-for-all — particularly sixth man Devin Coleman — to knock off the Mustangs 89-80. While any loss stings, this one had to hurt more than most.
That’s because, due to a series of NCAA violations which resulted in Brown being suspended the first nine games of the season for what the perennially beleaguered organization termed “unethical conduct,” SMU is on probation and ineligible for post-season play. While his players had used running the regular-season table as a rallying cry, Brown insists that was never his motivation.
“I never used that,” he said, after the Owls tamed the Mustangs with deadly accuracy from behind the 3-point line, shooting 14-for-29 beyond the arc, with Coleman a perfect 7-for-7. “I’ve been hearing that a lot. But our motivation has been to try to get better every day and make this a special year for our seniors. This loss is not going to take it away.”
That’s a dramatic contrast to what took place in Cleveland two days earlier, where one loss, maybe two or three factoring in the Cavs’ 89-83 Christmas Day loss to the Warriors in Oakland, along with a 99-95 loss in San Antonio — the other elite team in the West — brought about Blatt’s dismissal. Not only has it led to his NBA coaching brethren universally condemning the move — it’s knocked stories of Palestinian attacks and other Middle East issues off the front page in Israel.
There, Blatt is a favorite son, even though he was born in Framingham, Mass. A Lot of the love stems from Blatt’s having guided Maccabi Tel Aviv to the 2014 Euroleague championship. Having married an Israeli woman and raised four children there, his decision to come back to the United States to coach the Cavs in 2014 — prior to Akron native James, then a free agent, announcing he was coming back “home” — caught them off guard.
But Israel remained in his corner, even while reports persisted the Blatt-Cavs’ marriage was doomed, even though Blatt made it a point to never publicly disrespect James the way LeBron was publically disrespecting him. Once the hammer dropped
Friday. Israel’s affection for James and the Cavs’ dropped, too.
Now he’s being regarded as a pariah, a modern day Goliath, who betrayed their David, the difference from the Biblical story being they removed the slingshot from Blatt’s hand before he could strike back.
“It’s never easy, but Nietzche said ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,’’ Blatt told the Jewish Exponent before the start of the season “You have to remain open and willing to learn everyday and understand like anything else, it’s a process.
“Nothing comes easy.”
Speculation is already mounting that Blatt will return overseas to coach. Others believe he’s proven his mettle at the NBA level — and will be in demand when a number of teams are expected to make coaching changes after the season. Traditionally, between six and 10 coaches hit the unemployment line after every season.
Ironically, Blatt’s successor is a name very much tied to Larry Brown’s Sixers on their 2001 run to the Finals. Pesky Lakers’ guard Tyronn Lue hounded Iverson all over the court in that series. But the signature moment etched in everyone’s mind came in the final minute of overtime in Game 1 when Iverson drilled a jumper from the corner to give the Sixers a 103-99 lead, then emphatically stepped over the fallen Lue.
Of course that turned out to be the only game Philadelphia won and the Sixers haven’t come close to reaching the Finals since. Brown, however, did go on to win the 2004 title with the Detroit Pistons, while Lue, after playing for six other teams during his 11-year career, went into coaching. Following a four-year stint as director of basketball development in Boston and a year with the Clippers, he was hired by the Cavs three days after Blatt arrived.
Now it’s Lue’s job to get them to the finish line after management decided Blatt couldn’t do it. At the same time, down in Dallas, Larry Brown already knows the finish line comes 11 games from now, March 6 in Cincinnati.
“Our goal was to help the seniors have a terrific year, because we’re on the rise with the people we have hurt right now and sitting out” — transfers who are ineligible this season — “and the people we’ve signed” as recruits, said Brown, who’s compiled an 87-35 record since landing at SMU. “We’re trying to value the things we do. But I love the fact on any given night any team can win a game regardless if it’s home or away.”
That’s what happened to basketball’s most celebrated Jewish coach in snowy Philadelphia last weekend. A few hundred miles away, the NBA’s only Jewish coach since Brown — in a league where half the owners are Jewish — was left wondering what more he could’ve done.
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