J.R. Holden was furious with himself as he headed to the bench for a timeout. Here he was, late in the finals of EuroBasket 2007 – the tournament to determine the champion of Europe – and Holden, a naturalized Russian, was wondering if his citizenship might be revoked.
He had missed his previous three shots, the last of which was an air ball, and Russia trailed by 5 points with a little over a minute left against Spain, the reigning world champion and tournament host.
Before Holden arrived at the bench, the Russian coach, the American-born David Blatt, stopped Holden with a question.
What did he eat for breakfast?
“I’m like, What?” Holden said. “Then he said, Don’t eat that no more.”
Holden is not sure the exchange, colored with a few expletives, helped him strip the ball from Spanish star Pau Gasol, pump fake against Jose Calderon and, with a kind bounce, sink a last-second, winning jumper.
But Holden said it explained something about Blatt.
“That’s probably the biggest moment in Russian basketball history,” Holden said. “They had been good as the Soviet Union. But since the breakup, Russia had never won anything, and they’re a very prideful people. So it was a big deal. But for him, it was just: We’re playing basketball. Live in the moment. It’s a close game. Enjoy it.”
Now the question is whether Blatt can live by that same Zen-like creed as he steps into the spotlight, with LeBron James, of all people, by his side.
After establishing himself as one of international basketball’s best coaches, the Boston-bred, Princeton-educated, Hebrew-speaking Blatt is returning to the United States not as an end-of-the-bench assistant, as he had long envisioned, but as the first-year coach of the Cleveland Cavaliers. As such, he will be a central character in what is certain to be the NBA’s most compelling story line next season – James’ decision to return home and try to win a title for Cleveland.
Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said that when Blatt was hired, nearly a month ago, James was not a big factor in the conversation because, at that point, the team did not know if James might leave Miami. Gilbert said the Cavaliers interviewed over 100 people about Blatt and not one had a negative impression of him. But Gilbert acknowledged that hiring someone who had never coached in the United States to lead an NBA team was a risk.
“You look at the whole big picture, and that’s certainly part of the debate,” Gilbert said. “The fact that he didn’t have any experience here is something you raise a question about. But the guy has won 18 championships, and he got Russia to a bronze at the Olympics. It’s always a risk doing something different, but based on our interactions, we thought he’s really going to be successful.”
Gilbert also saw in Blatt something of a kindred spirit. Beyond their Jewish roots and their ties to Israel, Gilbert and Blatt can be viewed as mavericks, Cavaliers general manager David Griffin said, with neither afraid to express an opinion, although doing so has famously caused Gilbert some grief.
Gilbert, a billionaire who founded the online mortgage company Quicken Loans, posted a petulant letter directed at James when he left for Miami four years ago. For that, Gilbert has apologized.
Blatt is no wallflower, either. He annoyed U.S. coach Mike Krzyzewski at the 2010 basketball world championships when he said the Soviets deserved to win the 1972 Olympic gold medal, which they captured in a controversial game against the Americans..
And in response to a Serbian coach’s comment that Russia’s basketball forefathers must have been spinning in their graves at the thought of an American-Israeli Jew as the national team’s coach, Blatt walked into a news conference after beating Serbia and suggested that the Serbian patresfamilias were now doing the same.
In each instance, Blatt felt no apology was necessary.
“I’m going to say what I think,” Blatt said. “I’m certainly not looking to get into conflicts with anybody, but I’m a grown man. I’ve been doing this for a long time and you can be sure that I’m going to be myself. Every day I come to practice and I ask my players not to back down. I’m the last guy who’s going to back down from anybody.”
Blatt, 55, learned to follow his own path at an early age. His parents divorced when he was 8 and living in Framingham, Massachusetts, a suburb west of Boston. His father, a doctor of biochemistry, moved to Europe a few years later, with Blatt’s two older sisters.
Blatt stayed in Massachusetts with his mother, became the senior class president of his high school and went on to Princeton, where he became an English literature major. It was there that he was approached about spending a summer playing basketball in Israel. Why not? he thought. So he went.
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