In May, David Blatt coached underdog Maccabi Tel Aviv to a thrilling Euroleague championship victory over Real Madrid in overtime. In June, the Cleveland Cavaliers hired Blatt as head coach. This month, LeBron James announced he was bringing his talents back home to the Cavs. There will be an enormous amount of pressure on Blatt, who has never coached an NBA game, but the reigning Euroleague Coach of the Year is no stranger to pressure. He was the first American to coach the Russian national team, leading them to a bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics. In a phone interview from Las Vegas, where the NBA Summer League is taking place, the Massachusetts native, who played college ball at Princeton, professional ball in Israel, and coached in Europe for more than two decades, spoke about pressure, coming back to America, and his new team.
Q: When you heard LeBron decided to come back to the Cavs, what was your immediate reaction?
Did you take his decision as an endorsement of your coaching ability?
I took his decision as an endorsement of the city of Cleveland, the Cavaliers organization, and his desire to come back home.
Do you feel a lot of pressure in being a rookie coach in the NBA and coaching the best player in the world?
I’ve been coaching for over 20 years. I am coming to the NBA as a coach for the first time. I’m thrilled and excited because for me it’s a bit of closure, growing up in the United States and playing in the United States and the opportunity to come back is just thrilling. I’ve been living in pressure situations for a long time now. Pressure is part of the game and is part of the competitive environment.
Was it hard to be the first American to coach the Russian national team?
Initially, it was emotionally very difficult. It was very, very different. But it turned out to be a love story on both sides and we had great historical heights that I’ll always treasure and cherish.
After your tremendous Euroleague championship coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv to victory over Real Madrid, there were a large number of anti-Semitic tweets. Did that surprise you?
I don’t read Twitter. But it doesn’t surprise me. I know the world we live in, as unfortunate as it may be. I can’t say I saw it first-hand, but it doesn’t surprise me, no.
Did you ever experience any anti-Semitism as a coach?
In what form?
Verbal. Nearly physical.
What will be your biggest adjustment in coaching in the NBA? Will it be instant replay or rule differences?
I think just the schedule. My team with Maccabi over the last four years played close to 80 games (each season) but it was spread over a longer period of time. The NBA’s 82-game season is more condensed so it requires a special kind of process and a special kind of preparation.
Who is tougher to deal with: the Israeli sports media or the American sports media?
I don’t really care. I know that the media is part of our business. And I respect the media.
You studied English literature at Princeton. What was your favorite book you read there?
I am the son of a teacher. My mom was a teacher. She spent a good part of her life throwing books at me so I didn’t start reading when I got to Princeton. I was always a big fan of Greek mythology and mythological heroes. Probably that’s why I went into sports because it’s the story of heroes. I’d say “The Iliad,” “Instant Replay: The Green Bay Diary of Jerry Kramer,” “The Natural” by Bernard Malamud, and many others.
At the press conference after winning with Maccabi Tel Aviv, you said you could do more with less. Now you have the best player in the world. Do you expect to contend for a championship this year?
We’re gonna compete against every team, and ultimately I hope we’ll contend for a title. Whether or not that’s this year, we’ll just have to see.