When I made aliyah 15 years ago, Cleveland wasn’t on the radar for most Israelis. But when LeBron James joined — then infamously left — the Cleveland Cavaliers, my hometown became known to my fellow citizens.
When the Cavs tapped Israeli-American David Blatt as head coach in 2014, and then LeBron returned shortly thereafter, recognition of our NBA team skyrocketed. Cleveland was suddenly every Israeli’s favorite city and we natives became minor celebrities.
Now, with Blatt’s firing last Friday, Cleveland has become notorious in Israel.
LeBron may be the NBA’s biggest star, but Israelis love Blatt, who is best known for leading Israel’s beloved Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team to the 2014 Euroleague championship.
Blatt was the first Israeli to become an NBA head coach. Blatt, after graduating from Princeton, made aliyah to play professional basketball in Israel, and elsewhere, until a career-ending injury.
For the first half of this season, it was unusually easy to find Cavs games live on Israeli sports channels (with the Israeli color commentators speaking in Hebrew right over the Fox or ESPN feed). Israelis, my family included, wanted to see those camera shots of Blatt on the sidelines, leading the team with the best record in the NBA’s Eastern Conference.
I expect that to change. The Cavs, especially LeBron James — who was rumored to never like Blatt — are public enemy No. 1 here. Israelis, like many Cavs fans around the world, are wondering how the team’s front office could fire the coach of a team that made it to the NBA Finals last year and has among the winningest records in the league.
The Cavs had won 11 of their last 13 games when Blatt was unceremoniously sent on his way, though the Golden State Warrior’s 132-98 blowout of the Cavs, at home, on Jan. 18 probably helped make up their mind.
While Israelis are content to lay much of the blame on James, for me, it’s complicated. As a Cleveland native, I want to see — actually, I need to see — my Cavs go all the way (just once in my lifetime, please!).
As an Israeli, I hope that Blatt finds a new NBA team to coach that will appreciate him and treat him with the respect he deserves.
But do I want Blatt to find wild success elsewhere? After all, Bill Belichick, after five seasons as head coach of the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, led the New England Patriots to six Super Bowl appearances and four victories. That still stings.
A similar victory for Blatt would sting even worse — but I’d be proud, too.
For now, I think I’ll keep my collection of Cleveland sports team T-shirts and sweatshirts in the closet. At least until a new team offers Blatt another dream job. Or the Cavs win an NBA championship. Whichever comes first.