Although I have rooted for the New York Knicks since the 1970s, this year I become a Cleveland Cavaliers fan. My attraction to the team stems from an even deeper connection than the childhood bond I formed with the Knicks.
Please don’t accuse me of jumping on the King James bandwagon. I switched loyalties before LeBron James signed with the franchise.
In fact, I have no attachment to any of the Cavalier players. Rather it’s their coach, Dave Blatt, who drew me to the team. More specifically it was Blatt’s Israeli background that made me a Cleveland fan.
My introduction to Blatt took place last year when I visited Israel. This was during the Euro League Basketball playoffs and I watched a first-round game on television between Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv and Emporio Armani Milan.
Maccabi Tel Aviv, which was coached by Blatt, is the New York Yankees of Israeli basketball. They fell 13 points behind Milan with two minutes left, but made a furious rally, to tie the game in regulation, before winning in overtime. The grit they showed in their comeback hooked me on the team.
When I returned to New York I followed their march to the Euro League title, which included an upset win in the championship game. I knew from reading Israeli newspapers that the entire country celebrated the improbable win, and I felt a sense of pride in the Israeli team’s triumph.
A few months later the Cavaliers hired Blatt, which, as a Zionist, made me feel vested in his success. I somehow felt that if he brought long-suffering Cleveland a championship, it would reflect well on the Jewish state. But if Israel’s greatest coach fell short of expectations, the Jewish state would be exposed as second rate.
My gut reaction linking Israel to the fate of Coach Blatt is, of course, nonsensical. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement won’t lose steam if LeBron James hoists the O’Brien trophy at the end of the playoffs. Nor will anti-Semitism spike if the Cavs are eliminated.
Moreover, I know nothing about Blatt. Perhaps he is supporter of the West Bank settler movement, which I disdain. Maybe he isn’t even the type of guy I would want to have a beer with.
Still, the realization that nothing of importance for me or the Jewish people rests on Dave Blatt’s success doesn’t shake my sense that the Cavaliers’ playoff run has an impact beyond basketball. My irrational identification with Blatt and his team is of a piece with how many fans acquire their loyalties.
We root, root, root for the home team even though we get nothing in return for their victories, except higher ticket prices. In most instances the players on the court or the field aren’t even natives of the city represented on their jerseys (LeBron, an Akron, Ohio, native, notwithstanding).
This same phenomena holds true in Israel, where the best players on Maccabi Tel Aviv and other top teams come from the United States and Europe, and aren’t even Jewish. That fact, however, doesn’t stop the Israelis from feeling a dose of national pride when their teams defeat European rivals.
Israeli nationalism was on full display this January when I again visited Tel Aviv and went to a Maccabi Electra game against Spain’s FC Barcelona.
By this time Blatt was in Cleveland and Barcelona was heavily favored. The 11,700-seat arena was sold out, as the raucous spectators sang the Israeli national anthem, and repeated a series of soccer-type cheers throughout the contest.
The game was tight throughout, as Maccabi pulled off a last second victory, with an African-American, Jeremy Pargo, leading the way. While cheering alongside the Maccabi faithful I felt a bond with them, which made it even more important to me that their former coach succeed and show the basketball world what an Israeli could do.
Maccabi Electra was eliminated from this year’s Euro League playoffs, but Blatt and the Cavs live on. They are underdogs in the Eastern Conference finals, but I am hopeful that Blatt can coach them to an upset, just like he did with Maccabi in their unlikely championship run.
If a Jew indeed leads Cleveland to the NBA promised land, this Zionist will rejoice as much as any of the Cavalier faithful — even while knowing that the immense challenges facing the Jewish state are impervious to the sense of empowerment I associate with fast breaks and blocked shots.
Ben Krull, a regular contributor to this space, is an attorney who works in Manhattan Family Court.