Tel Aviv — Maccabi Tel Aviv’s fan-appreciation night was packed with kids, dunks, chants and breakdancing cheerleaders — a feel-good send-off before a pair of exhibition games next week in Cleveland and then Brooklyn.
The swing will be a belated American victory lap for the reigning champions of European basketball. But thanks to a series of off-season moves by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Maccabi’s exhibition in Ohio has become part of the coming-out party for NBA great LeBron James and David Blatt, the coach that the Cavs hired after he led Maccabi to an unlikely Euroleague basketball title.
“It’s going to be a celebration for them, and we’re going to be part of it,” said Maccabi Tel Aviv coach Guy Goodes, a protégé of Blatt who took over his job.
The serendipitous turn of events has put Blatt — an oleh (immigrant) from Massachusetts and the first European coach to transition directly into the NBA — into arguably the hottest seat in all of professional basketball. For Blatt, James and Cleveland the stakes are enormous: Can a coach with successes with teams from Russia, Italy and Tel Aviv — but no NBA experience at any coaching level — adjust to the NBA? And can he handle the glare of the LeBron spotlight?
Goodes said he expected Blatt to make a fast adjustment — a skill that he’s honed over the last 10 years moving between so many teams in Europe.
“There’s lots of expectations in Cleveland because of all the superstars they’ve brought to the team — there’s pressure,” said Goodes. “From my knowledge of David, he’s dealt with tons of NBA players. He’s worked with players in Russia who have returned to the NBA. David’s interpersonal relations with the players are really good. I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.”
At the Cavaliers media day, James acknowledged hard work would be required of himself and his teammates to learn the new offensive and defensive schemes Blatt is putting in place.
“We have a new coaching staff; it’s a new system for all of us,” James said. “It’s not going to be easy at all. If we are patient, and everyone buys into coach’s system, and the staff system, it will help us out a lot.”
All eyes will be on Blatt not only in the U.S, but in Israel as well, where his celebrity status has already surged after making the jump to Cleveland. He’s featured in a men’s soap commercial as a paradigm of success. After an Israeli beachhead was established in the NBA several years ago with the arrival of Omri Casspi — now a forward for the Sacramento Kings — and expanded last year with the guard Gal Mekel, Blatt becomes the third “Israeli” to reach the elite league. Israeli sports news reports will no doubt follow the Cavs now steadily throughout the season.
“We’ve got two representatives who are playing, and now a coach,” said Goodes. “It’s a badge of honor for Israeli basketball. [Blatt] is someone who made aliyah to Israel at a young age, and gotten to where he is with a lot of hard work and motivation. He represents everyone.
“He can understand the mentality of U.S. players, European players and Israeli players,” Goodes continued. “That’s the whole package for success.”
Blatt reached the pinnacle of a two-decade-long coaching career last May when he successfully guided Maccabi Tel Aviv — an underdog on paper — to consecutive victories in the Euroleague final four. The first of those victories saw the team engineer a Hollywood-like miracle comeback against Ceska Moscow, claiming its sole lead of the second half with just five seconds left in the game. In a post-game press conference, Blatt acknowledged that Ceska and Real Madrid, the team Macccabi defeated in the finals, had better individual talent, but that Tel Aviv proved it was the best team of the tournament.
Blatt was also an assistant coach at Maccabi during two Euroleauge championship runs. He led professional teams in Russia and Italy, and led the Russian national team to a bronze medal in the 2012 Olympics. He was also tapped to lead the Israel National Team.
Alongside Blatt’s European successes, his resume is enhanced by his pedigree as a former player for the great Princeton University basketball coach Pete Carril.
Blatt was hired by the Cavs at the end of June within weeks of winning the Euroleague title. A few weeks later, James, who had won two NBA titles in his four years with the Miami Heat, announced he had decided to return to Cleveland, where he started his career. The spotlight now shone on Blatt.
A Sports Illustrated profile of Blatt noted that his sabra spouse — a veteran of the Israeli women’s basketball league — and their kids reside in a Tel Aviv suburb. The story also suggested that one of the reasons why he got the Cavaliers job was because his experience coaching in the pressure cooker that is Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball — which has a fan following with the zealotry of a college program.
Zvi Sherf, who did several stints as coach of Maccabi, concurred.
“The pressure that is put on the coach is very big,” he said. ‘It’s pressure from the management, from the fans, from the media, from the entire country. If you learn to work under this pressure, you can deal with almost anything.”
Blatt will have to adjust to a much quicker game in the NBA, and a league in which the coach must struggle to establish his authority with very handsomely paid NBA stars. On the other hand, there’s more margin for error during the 82-game regular season as opposed to the Euroleague, where pressure is much higher because there are fewer games, Sherf said.
For Maccabi’s American-born players, the swing through Cleveland and New York (the game against the Nets at the Barclay Center is on Oct. 7) will offer something of a homecoming and a chance to play in front of NBA scouts. Several of them are Jewish and have even become Israeli citizens during their professional careers.
Sylven Landesberg, an African-American Jew from Queens who made aliyah and joined the Israeli army, says he’s expecting friends and family to show up for the game in Brooklyn. Landesberg, a former Mr. Basketball of New York state, and a forward at the University of Virginia, has a tattoo in Hebrew on his arm — “Nivhar” — meaning chosen.
He says he expects to have to defend LeBron James in the exhibition but said he plans to talk some trash as he usually does during games. “I don’t care what your name is, I’m a competitor,” he said.
With a broad smile, Landesberg said he’s looking forward to playing against his old coach, but said that Maccabi will be seeking a win despite the fact the game is only an exhibition. Landesberg said Blatt’s genius lies in his defensive schemes tailored to each opponent.
“Coach Blatt has one of the best defensive minds. Every game is different, and he just comes up with a way to hold them and stop them. That’s what he’s big at,” said Landesberg. “Bringing that mentality, especially with the athleticism the team has, I think he can help change the game.”