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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. He then bounced around the European, 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, this time as head coach.
Of the Israeli basketball teams, Maccabi Tel Aviv has long been dominant, winning the Israeli Championship 51 times and the European Championship 6 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 NBA player Jordan Farmar, a Jewish hoopster who played for Maccabi Tel Aviv during the 2011 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 channel One.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 nailbiters, the victory was hailed in Israeli newspapers as a “miracle.”
Shortly after the victory, Blatt announced that he would not be resigning with Maccabi Tel Aviv so that he could pursue his options in the NBA. When he flew back to the US last week for his father’s funeral, he reportedly met with new Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr for 45 minutes during a layover at LAX, 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.
NBA executives, needless to say, are optimistic, and 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.