David Blatt strolled in to the crowded media room within Cleveland Clinic Courts, led to the dais by Cavaliers general manager David Griffin. Festooned in a press conference-ready navy blue suit, the 55-year-old Blatt carried with him the Trojan Horse of all media maneuvers—a self-written yet typed out statement from which he would read as his opening remarks. His accent, a mix of east coast and Middle East, permeated into recording devices which surrounded him as words like “Cleveland” came out more like “Cleevlinn.” As cameras clicked around him and members of the Cavs ownership team stood off stage right, Blatt would stare down at the paper, looking up just enough to qualify as token eye contact. It was as if he were the valedictorian speaking at a local high school commencement.
Blatt’s remarks were endearing, if not an outright campaign for acceptance and support. He intertwined thank yous with key lines for those seeking filler quotes for their impending deadlines—”Make no mistake: I’ve won everywhere I’ve been…and I plan on doing the same here,” and “I’m not an offensive coach or a defensive coach—I’m a basketball coach” being two of the many that would undoubtedly litter recaps of the day’s events. But it wasn’t until the speech ended, until that piece of nine-by-eleven paper was flipped over to Blatt’s right, that the Cavs’ new head coach arrived, delivering more personality and panache than anyone could have foreseen—save for the few who traveled just to see the man who meant so much to them in a former life take the first step of what would serve to be his dream come true.
As Blatt’s name began picking up serious steam within Cleveland’s head coaching search, which ultimately ran 11 men deep, those with a vested interest in the welfare of the Cavaliers began to do their research. It wouldn’t be long before keywords began being tossed about papers, web pages and local airwaves. Princeton offense. Accountability. Broken barriers. Technician. Motivator. Innovator. Communicator. Griffin, during his introduction, would say that Blatt embodied every characteristic the team desired in their next head coach. Following the press conference, Tamir Goodman, a player who learned under Blatt during the head coach’s first stint with Maccabi Tel Aviv, would say that though he only played for a short time under Blatt, whenever he needed something, he knew he could always call his former head coach.
His name may not have been considered household heading into the Cavs’ 39-day search for a successor to the twice-fired Mike Brown, but any global fan of the game would quickly place Blatt’s name at the top of any highly regarded coaching list. It wasn’t a matter of if Blatt would one day coach in in the NBA a much as it was a when as the highly decorated sideline orchestrator simply awaited for the right opportunity to arise.
Much will be made about Blatt becoming the first head coach to make the leap from Europe, but the stateside stigmas surrounding job titles pale in comparison to the cultural barriers he has already overcome as an Israeli-Jewish American who grew up during the Cold War only to coach basketball—and win—in Russia. And Italy. And Turkey. And Greece. He’s dealt with the high-level stress of coaching one of the most scrutinized teams in Europe—”You can’t get much more pressure than coaching those teams,” said Scoonie Penn, a point guard under Blatt following his days at The Ohio State University. He refers to his voyage back home as the carrying of a torch—one he hopes like hell that he will not drop. He doesn’t buy into questions surrounding the egos of “today’s athlete,” having coached various NBA players1 through much of his career, opposing such thought so much that his beliefs on the matter were conveyed before an inquiry could even be cast.
Yearning to start off with a bang, Blatt has already begun adding to his staff in the way of one of the most-discussed—and now highest paid—assistants in the league in Tyronn Lue. His ball-moving, glass-crashing style of play is one that will unfairly be compared to the Hall of Fame-bound Gregg Popovich. He can talk Xs and Os with the best of them, learning under Princeton’s Pete Carril, extrapolating his studies throughout his career as a coach. He wins slow. He wins fast. His teams play together. He casually drops terms like “negative rebounding” and “systematic coaching” in the middle of a discussion. He’s aware of the culture issue that has plagued Cleveland since July, 2010. He realizes that his job description will entail items with which most of his peers have not been faced, including reparation of locker room attitude and any potential in-fighting. In 2007, the Russians were not expected to become the EuroBasket champions but were the ones draping gold around their necks once the final buzzer rang loud. Seven years later, Maccabi Tel Aviv had nary a chance to do the same—this was, of course, until they rattled off upset victory after upset victory and a championship.
Blatt opened up his address by reminding everyone in the room that he won everywhere he went. His introduction would be no different, dazzling those in attendance with an array of deep-dive basketball acumen mixed with one-liners about travel and missing Boston’s lobster and mac-and-cheese. Many before him have won the press conference, only to fall on their face and be the next on the long list of failed attempts and achieving glory. The true test will begin following the completion of the impending NBA Draft as the free agent season begins. Once the pieces are put in place, it will be up to him to show that his talk—prepared and read, or ad-libbed—translates into a walk that has been absent for much of the last four years in a town starving for championship contention.
“If gritty and overachieving is a talent, he has that,” said Griffin. “I think that’s something we want to embody as a team. I think it’s what the city represents, to a huge degree. I think it’s a perfect fit culturally for all of us.” He has the first-day support of Kyrie Irving, a player who has been as much of a focal point of the Cavaliers’ future as the turnstile of head coaches. He won’t win a beauty contest against Doc Rivers—”Doc’s a good looking guy.”—but referred to himself as being in the top four of most convincing men in the world.
He may or may not have been joking.
(Tony Dejak, AP / AP)
Andrei Kirilenko and Jordan Farmar, to name a few. [↩]