LAS VEGAS — 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.
Blatt liked the experience enough that he returned after college to play there professionally. He came back to the United States after three years, worked briefly for Xerox and then went back to Israel to keep playing.
While there, he met his wife, with whom he has four children, and he went into coaching when he tore his Achilles tendon at age 34. In the two decades since, he has coached professional clubs in Israel, Turkey, Italy, Russia and Greece, in addition to the Russian national team.
This past May, he won the prestigious Euroleague title with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and now, said Danny Federman, the general manager of the club, Blatt is a “rock star’’ throughout Israel.
In the United States, though, he is essentially unknown outside basketball circles. Blatt said it was perfectly fair to point out that he lacked experience coaching in the NBA, and he acknowledged that he had catching up to do. On the other hand, he said, he has dealt with adversity that the great majority of NBA coaches will never encounter.
He has, for instance, coached players in Russia who wanted to boycott because they had not been paid. He coached players who would not play in Belgrade, Serbia, because they were concerned for their safety. He has coached Americans — a number of them — who were in Europe grudgingly, and he has grappled with executives from other countries who did not always agree with his methods.
Even this past season, there were calls for him to be fired at Maccabi Tel Aviv before he quieted everyone with a championship.
“You’ve got to understand, I have a plethora of experiences where the expectations are higher than many of the teams that are here,’’ Blatt said. “At Maccabi Tel Aviv, if you lose a game it’s a national story for a week. The idea of pressure and expectations? Man, I’m so far ahead of the game.’’
Federman said what distinguished Blatt was his ability to relate to his players, wherever they might be from.
When Alexey Shved, now a guard with the Minnesota Timberwolves, showed up one summer to play for Russia, he was told by Blatt to cut his shoulder-length hair or leave the team. Shved complied.
The next summer, before the 2012 Olympics, Shved again showed up with long hair. When Blatt again told him to visit the barber, Shved said no.
This time, Blatt, relented. After all, he needed Shved. And deep down, he did not really care how Shved looked, anyway.
“He cares how you play, how you work,’’ Shved said.
This week, Blatt was on the sideline in Las Vegas, coaching the Cavaliers’ promising young players in the NBA’s summer league. He rarely sat, instead cajoling, correcting and clapping as he stood watching.
After one game, Blatt mentioned that if he had not gone into coaching he would have wanted to pursue a career as an ambassador because he likes working with people of different backgrounds. As for coaching, he said he traced his interest to when he was 12 and his mother, a special education teacher at the time, dragged him into her classroom to help.
“At first I hated it,’’ Blatt said. “But after six months I so much fell in love with the fact that I could help kids a little bit. Even helping a kid write his name is something that stayed with me. It gave me a sense of ethos and pathos and compassion. If you want to work in this business, you’ve got to have that.’’
Exactly what he will need in Cleveland, of course, remains to be seen. Much attention will be paid to how the Cavaliers, just 33-49 last season, will do on the court now that James is back and teaming with Kyrie Irving, a talented young point guard, and perhaps, too, with high-scoring forward Kevin Love, whom Cleveland would like to acquire from Minnesota.
Blatt will have to figure things out quickly and without any previous NBA success to lean on. Those who know him say they think he can do it, that he has already shown he can win with different types of teams playing different styles.
“I think he’s extraordinarily clever offensively,’’ said Philadelphia 76ers coach Brent Brown, who formerly coached Australia in international competitions. “He’s always been very gifted at putting his players right where they should be placed to highlight their strengths.’’
Ultimately, though, Blatt will have to sell James on his own vision of what will work. That’s what the best coaches in the NBA have done with their players. That’s what Blatt, with his Princeton, Israel, Russia, you-name-it résumé, will try to do as well.
If he can, it will, no doubt, be an international story.