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Did Israel Prepare Coach David Blatt To Handle ‘King’ LeBron James?

Many of the logos belonging to the Cleveland Cavaliers basketball team feature a sword: in one case a flag with a ‘C’ on it flies from the sword, and in two others the sword slides through the Cleveland ‘C’ as if into a scabbard. But the warlike images could go the other way. The sword could be cutting the Cleveland flag or running the Cavaliers’ name through. It’s always that way with sports in Cleveland. Our sword is looking good one second and the next it’s looking like the sword of Damocles.

Every Cleveland coach feels that figurative sword dangling over his head, in part because the title drought in Cleveland, which recently passed the half-century mark, has created enormous impatience for victory in the fan base. With the return of LeBron James, Cavs coach David Blatt has perhaps felt his neck under that dangling sword more than anybody. Blatt came to Cleveland after a distinguished career coaching in Israel and Europe but is a first year coach in the NBA.

LeBron’s superstardom attracts attention and expectations and everyone says LeBron has just five more years left to his prime, marking out a short window for landing a title. Before the season began, the Cavs traded number-one draft pick Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota for power forward Kevin Love in order to lay tracks down immediately for the LeBron James “freight train” to victory.

It didn’t look good at first. Halfway through the season, the Cavs had a losing record. Cavs GM David Griffin stood up for Blatt publicly and traded for three key players, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov (whom Blatt had coached on the Russian Olympic team, winning a bronze for Russia). The Cavs incorporated the new personnel seamlessly, seemed to pull together as a team, and started winning. In fact, they never dropped another regular season home game.

Still, there were rumors that LeBron did not respect his coach, stoked in part by reporters trolling for easy headlines, and those rumors have dogged Blatt all the way into the playoffs, past a first-round sweep of the Boston Celtics, and into a second-round dogfight with the Chicago Bulls. In game 4 of the series, Blatt tried to call a time-out with no time-outs remaining and could have been assessed a game-losing technical had assistant coach Tyronn Lue not pulled him back to the sideline. After the game LeBron told reporters that he had “scratched” Blatt’s final play call and decided to take the last shot himself. He made the third buzzer-beating game-winner of his playoff career and saved the must-win game for Cleveland. But he also re-aggravated all the rumors about his disrespect for his coach. Both LeBron and Blatt have attributed the rumors to the nonsense of the media circus.

James scored 38 points in Tuesday’s Game 5 to give the Cavs a 3-2 lead in the series.

Whether or not there is some discomfort to that relationship—and it stands to reason there would be since even married couples are known to bicker—and whether or not the Cavs advance past the Bulls this year, it would be a shame if Blatt’s job were really in danger. The Cavs’ tenacious defense has more than any other factor put the injury-battered team in position to take a 3-2 lead over Chicago tonight, and Blatt deserves a lot of the credit. Blatt has made key defensive re-assignments and key time-outs to recharge the defense. Center Timofey Mozgov’s rim protection has been a game changer, and he owes a lot of his success to Blatt.

But perhaps the most impressive thing about David Blatt is the very way he’s handled the sword of Damocles, a sword that pretty much anybody in his position is going to see dangling above him on occasion. It’s hard to know exactly what goes on behind closed doors, but Blatt appears to bring to the job a rugged adaptability and a comfort with life under the sword of big expectations and job insecurity.

One wonders if his perspective as an Israeli didn’t help to prepare him for the moment. Life in Israel demands that even when faced with existential threats from near and far, and when faced with simplistic, defamatory rumors, one finds a way not only to survive, but to thrive and enjoy anyway. Blatt seems to be able to do that. He’s welcomed in senior assistant coaches like Tyronn Lue who could have been seen as threats, adjusted his own style to the NBA’s, has deferred to LeBron in many cases, and also seems to have made his own views clear. He’s maintained his own morale and the morale of the team even when doubts swirl around him. When the heat is on, he sometimes asks the team to rise to the occasion and sometimes he gives them a day off and takes them bowling. I’d seriously hope that for all their initial doubts, and despite a cultural divide, Blatt’s players have come to respect him and learn from him. Israeli ruggedness, indefatigable morale under a sword of Damocles, and adaptability to whatever life throws your way could be exactly what the Cavs need to prevail.

For all LeBron’s famous self-reliance, he’s also a famously voracious student of the game. Forgotten in all the media bluster is the interest LeBron took from the beginning in Blatt’s versatile offensive schemes, which the Cavs’ Mike Miller has called “borderline genius.” Those schemes always demanded that players read and react, so maybe a collaboration between Blatt and James was part of what made them the league’s best offense down the stretch. The Cavs will need to show some Israeli true grit to beat the Bulls in this series. As a Cleveland fan, a LeBron fan, and a David Blatt fan, I hope they do.

Austin Ratner’s novel The Jump Artist won the 2011 Sami Rohr Prize. He grew up in Cleveland.

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