LOS ANGELES (JTA) — In 1981, David Blatt moved to Israel in pursuit of a path of lifelong worship — to play professional basketball.
Now, more than 30 years later, Blatt is leaving Israel to make a different, and totally unprecedented, form of aliyah — to leave the ranks of Israeli basketball to coach in the NBA.
On June 20, the Cleveland Cavaliers announced the hiring of Blatt as their head coach.
“I’m leaving my home, but not my family,” Blatt had said at a June 12 press conference as he explored his NBA options. “I’m not necessarily leaving for a better place. I’m leaving to follow my dream.”
He becomes the first coach in the history of European basketball to move directly to an NBA head coaching position. Blatt’s journey from the Boston suburbs to Israel and now back to the United States marks a triumph not only for Blatt but also for the small but storied world of Israeli basketball, and particularly for the Maccabi Tel Aviv team, famous for its underdog victories.
The most recent of those victories, which seems to have catapulted Blatt into the upper echelons of professional basketball, took place in the Euroleague Final Four in mid-May when Blatt led an undermanned Maccabi Tel Aviv squad to consecutive victories and the championship, a feat that impressed even NBA executives.
“Maccabi was outgunned at every position except coach,” one NBA general manager told ESPN. “David took down two Goliaths in a weekend. He belongs in the NBA.”
It has been a long journey for Blatt, who grew up in Framingham, Mass., as an avid Celtics fan. Blatt attended Hebrew school at Temple Beth Am and later recalled putting money in jars to plant trees in Israel. But he never connected his passion for basketball with his Jewish background.
Instead, he established himself as a top basketball talent, and also had the good fortune to play for top coaches — first at Framingham South High School for Phil Moresi, now in the Massachusetts High School Basketball Hall of Fame, and then at Princeton University for Pete Carril, famed as the inventor of the “Princeton offense.”
During Blatt‘s sophomore year at Princeton, a coach for an Israeli kibbutz team recruited him to play in Israel for the summer. Blatt loved kibbutz life and found that he was hooked. By the time he competed for the U.S. team in the 1981 Maccabi Games, winning a gold medal, he knew he was coming back.
“From the time that I came here in ’79, I knew that I wanted to play in Israel professionally for some years,” he told Haaretz. “I realized that I wasn’t making the NBA, and I wanted to continue to play basketball professionally, in terms of money, but more than anything — to keep playing.”
He played 9 of the next 12 years in Israel, before retiring in 1993 to become a coach.
His coaching career eventually brought him to Maccabi Tel Aviv — a team for which he had never played — where he served as an assistant under legendary coach Pini Gershon. When Gershon took a break from coaching in 2001, Blatt stepped into the head job for two successful seasons. Blatt went back to the job of assistant coach when Gershon returned.
Blatt then bounced around Europe, coaching several teams as well as the Russian national team, which he led to an Olympic bronze medal in 2012. In 2010, Blatt returned to Maccabi as head coach.
Among Israeli basketball teams, Maccabi Tel Aviv has long been dominant, winning the Israeli Championship 51 times and the European Championship six times since the team’s inception in 1932. That history, along with the city’s famed weather, culture and English-speaking population, has made it one of the most desirable international locales for top players, including Jordan Farmar, a Jewish hoopster currently with the Los Angeles Lakers who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2011 NBA lockout.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, in turn, has used that desirability to its advantage, offering low salaries to match a payroll that is relatively small by European standards.
“It’s known to be what is called among players a low-ball organization — they’ll lure you and low-ball you into signing with them because of tradition and history,” said David Pick, a senior basketball correspondent for Eurobasket.com and Israeli sports channelOne.co.il. “They’re expecting players to take pay cuts to play for Maccabi, and for the most part it works.”
However, despite that edge in attracting talent, this year’s Maccabi Tel Aviv team was widely considered weak and unlikely to advance far in the playoffs. Three of their five projected starters at the beginning of the season had been injured, and the team entered the Euroleague’s Final Four as a severe underdog. When Maccabi took the championship in a pair of nail-biters, the victory was hailed in Israeli newspapers as a “miracle.”
Shortly after the victory, Blatt announced that he was interested in pursuing options in the NBA. When he flew back to the United States last week for his father’s funeral, he reportedly met with new Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr for 45 minutes during an airport layover in Los Angeles, and Golden State subsequently offered him a position as one of Kerr’s assistants. He also interviewed with Cleveland, first by phone, and then in person on June 18. They offered him the job the next day.
It is an open question, of course, whether Blatt’s success in Israel will carry over to the NBA, although the increasing success of European players in making the jump suggests that talent can transfer. And it certainly doesn’t hurt that the San Antonio Spurs just won an NBA title by dominating the LeBron James-led Miami Heat with an international roster and style of play.
A number of Blatt’s former players and coaches think he can do it. Ex-coaches Carril and Moresi have both expressed their belief that Blatt can make the transition, and former Maccabi and NBA player Anthony Parker, subsequently a scout for the Orlando Magic, has repeatedly stated that Blatt is one of the best coaches in the world.
Blatt will be leaving behind a country that has not only become his home but which has embraced him as a superstar.
“David Blatt doesn’t want to walk out in the street because he wouldn’t be able to,” Pick said. “David can leave the coaches’ facility at 1, 1:30 in the morning just to avoid the mob.”
But, as Blatt has proven before, he’s willing to travel a long way from home to pursue his dreams.