David Blatt, The Hybrid European Coach

23 June 2014

Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach David Blatt with his two assistants Guy Goodes and Alon Stein (photo: Oded Karni)
David Blatt bid farewell to Europe winning the triple crown of Euroleague, domestic league and domestic cup with Maccabi Tel Aviv (photo: Oded Karni)

By Dimitris Kontos

Friday, 20 June 2014 will be remembered as the day when the appointment of an American coach at the helm of an NBA franchise made bigger headlines in Europe than in the USA itself.

The more rigorous will correctly point out that David Blatt, the man who was handed the reins of the Cleveland Cavaliers on that day, is in fact Israeli-American.

Blatt's dual citizenship and the genuine excitement the news produced around Europe notwithstanding however, there was, also correctly, not a single report proclaiming him to be the first European coach to take charge of an NBA team.

The former Maccabi Tel Aviv boss was born and raised in Boston and to claim him as out-and-out European would be as inaccurate as stating that Gregg Popovich is Serbian-Croatian or that Joe Arlauckas is Lithuanian.

To suggest that Blatt's appointment is a triumph of European basketball would also be completely inaccurate and even self-demeaning.

Such a claim would be symptomatic of an inferiority complex with regards to the NBA that Europe has abolished long ago, as for the past two decades players and national teams on this side of the Atlantic have been increasingly competing with their American counterparts like equals and not as if they were mere mortals battling superhuman mythological creatures.

To report the Friday news as 'our' triumph would also cross out with one stroke the accomplishments of European legends like Tony Parker, Dirk Nowitzki and Pau Gasol, or the victories of European teams in World Championships and Olympic Games after Barcelona 1992, when the USA realised that the era of fielding NCAA players in international competitions had come to an end.

In other words, it would presuppose that collecting both the EuroBasket and Euroleague trophies, winning an Olympic bronze medal and a EuroBasket bronze (not to mention the EuroChallenge and numerous domestic silverware) and being in charge of a storied club such as Maccabi Tel Aviv somehow holds less merit than coaching the Cleveland Cavaliers.

This is a notion that exists of course but European fans who have the ability to measure just how extremely competitive and demanding a field the top-flight of European basketball has become in a world context, would reject it.

Yet the news of Blatt's appointment deservedly made the headlines on every basketball website in Europe at the weekend and was reported as affectionately as if he were 'one of us'.

Blatt is an American, but his case is completely different to that of George Karl, Mike D'Antoni, Scott Skiles or Vinnie Del Negro for example, Americans who also worked in Europe before becoming head coaches in the NBA.

First of all, the 55-year-old Israeli-American arrives back in his native country with the titles of Euroleague and EuroBasket champion as his most precious professional baggage.

Blatt left the USA for Israel when he was only 22 years old and he became a coach and lived his entire career on this side of the Atlantic.

Russia Head Coach David Blatt
Blatt coached Russia from 2006 to 2012, steering the team to EuroBasket gold in 2007

Had he not served as an assistant to Pini Gershon, had he not coached Maccabi, Dynamo St. Petersburg, Benetton Treviso, Aris Thessaloniki, Efes Pilsen, Dynamo Moscow and steered the formidable Russian national team of 2007 to their only EuroBasket gold medal since the break-up of the Soviet Union, David Blatt would not have become the David Blatt the Cleveland Cavaliers hired on 20 June.

"David Blatt is going to bring some of the most innovative approaches found in professional basketball anywhere on the globe", Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert commented to that effect on Friday.

"Time and time again, from Russia to Israel and several other prominent head coaching jobs in between, David has done one thing: Win."

Blatt's appointment as the new boss of Cleveland is not a badge of honour in itself for European basketball.

But European basketball can feel satisfied that an exceptional coach like Blatt contributed to its development but also because it created the conditions that helped him perfect his skills and develop his talents, to the point where he has now fulfilled his professional aim of becoming an NBA coach.

So it's not pride, but joy for a fantastic coach and excellent communicator which we've come to know so well and appreciate so much who has made his dream come true, that Friday's headlines reflected.

There is little doubt that the vast majority of European fans will be following Blatt with the same interest that they follow any player who comes from the old continent and will be cheering for him to be as successful as he can be, with the quite satisfaction of having spotted his enormous potential long before anyone in Cleveland or in the USA.

Blatt is not European, but he is one of us.

We can only wish him the best with his dream and thank him for the memories.



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