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Wednesday, September 14, 2011
David Blatt's long, wonderful journey

By Mark Woods
Special to

David Blatt
David Blatt's Russia squad is giving up a tournament-low 63.6 points per game.

KAUNAS, Lithuania -- On a cold winter's night in New York City, the stranger held out his hand to Princeton's young sophomore point guard as he awaited the bus that would take him and his teammates from the gym at Columbia University back to their hotel.

Through his parents, and through the influence of his high school coach, David Blatt had been raised to be polite and to listen.

"Are you Jewish?" the man asked. What of it, Blatt wondered. "Well, I saw you play. Would you like to come and play in Israel?" For a kid from Framingham, Mass., the idea of traveling halfway across the world seemed wholly alien.

He gave the idea to spend the summer on a Kibbutz called Gan Schmuel as a volunteer-slash-player some consideration before signing up.

"It was a chance to experience life there and I felt it was a great idea," he recalls. Little did he know that that encounter with Bob Goner, who ran a number of outreach programs in the country, would propel him on a personal and professional journey he could never possibly have predicted.

Two initial months there led to return visits, then an opportunity to continue playing as a professional in the Israeli League. In turn, it delivered a chance to become a coach, the profession that would represent his true vocation. He still expected to return home one day. Life kept getting in the way, then a wife, then four children and an emotional attachment that extended beyond the sideline.

"It was the best decision I ever made," Blatt says of committing to a nation which is now full of friends, not strangers. And as each further unexpected twist and turn arrived, Blatt learned to embrace it rather than flee in fear.

Just as well, because a call came five years ago tempting him to go on another fresh adventure. In need of someone to restore its international luster, Russia decided to look for the brightest and the best overseas rather than within. Blatt knew the country from a season-long stint at the helm of Dynamo St. Petersburg, but he was wary of the implications of sleeping with what he had once been taught to regard as the enemy.

A sense of curiosity, once more, compelled him to accept.

"For a child who grew up in the Cold War, and to be Jewish and American and Israeli all at the same time, when you find yourself as head coach of the Russian national team, it's not just ironic, it's downright amazing when you think about it," he says. "But for me, it's been a great experience on a cultural level, a human level and a political level."

When Blatt guided Russia to the European title in 2007, it was the high point of his career. Andrei Kirilenko was outstanding but there was a unity that had been absent since the demise of the great Soviet sides.

"Being part of that country, with my background, and feeling I have contributed is amazing," he says. But last fall, after a world championship in which Russia lost to the United States in the quarterfinals, he came close to calling it quits.

There was talk of interference from the oligarchs who control Russia's largest clubs, allegations that they were ordering their players to sit out rather than represent. "I threatened to leave but that was to make a point and to try and engender some change," he says. That he is still in charge here in Lithuania as the latter stages of this year's EuroBasket begin indicates that the issues have been resolved.

Still, he grins knowingly and says: "Coaching Russia is a very different experience."

It is certainly not Framingham, where as a young boy, under strict orders to be in bed by 8 each weeknight, he would tune out the crackles on the airwaves and lie spellbound as the voice of Celtics announcer Johnny Most conveyed the action in Boston Garden, some 20 miles away.

He fell in love with the team -- and the game. On the hoop his father erected on the roof above the family's garage, he would challenge his elder sisters to games of two-on-one, night after night. Such dedication caught the attention of his high school's coach, Phil Moresi, who approached him one day as he stood beside the football field, making him the very first offer of his basketball career.

Joining up was a big deal. But there was a string attached.

"Cut your hair," Moresi said.

"It was the best piece of advice I ever had," Blatt says. "It's not the idea that you can't play with long hair. It's the idea of having discipline and you follow the rules. You had to sacrifice to be part of Coach Moresi's team. And he became a mentor to me. He taught me how to appreciate the game and a lot about life. So the roots of my coaching came from him."

He would learn more from Pete Carril at Princeton, about systems and pressure. More still when he served as assistant in Israel to Pini Gershon, a legend in European circles, and from other coaching peers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Through Carril's extensive network, and also his own, there have been exchanges of ideas and insights with brethren in the NBA. It is a league, Blatt observes, where there is a genuine feeling of fraternity.

"In Europe," he says, "there's less communication of that kind, and that's one of the negatives. There are groups of coaches that do talk with one another and share. But you see it more in the NBA and I really like that."

There have been approaches to return to America and try his luck on a different stage. Now 52, Blatt confesses to a sense of wariness at the prospect of leaving his current role, at Maccabi Tel Aviv, for the unchartered waters of the NBA. Now an assistant with the Sacramento Kings, Carril provided Blatt a telling insight of the likely pitfalls: "In the NBA, it's not what you're saying but who is saying it."

"That's not necessarily a bad thing," Blatt says. "But the reality is that, in many cases, you have to have a certain background and a certain understanding of the NBA way before you get the credibility that a European coach can get simply by his basketball [knowledge].

"I've been approached [by NBA teams] but never for the kind of position that I would need in order to make the jump. ... If someone feels I can lead an NBA team, or be a guy who might ultimately down the road be a head coach, then that would be of interest. Otherwise, coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv is too good a job and too satisfying to walk away from. I'm at the top of the world with the guys I work with, the organizations I work for, the international competitions I participate in with Russia. Where do I need to go? I'm as happy as I can be."

This summer in Europe, more have arrived than departed as players have sought backup plans during the NBA lockout. While Blatt is engaged with Russia, his staff with Maccabi Tel Aviv has already begun its preseason in his absence, with Jordan Farmar now into his third week with the team.

The reports on the New Jersey Nets guard -- who is Jewish with some ties to Israel -- have been positive. Blatt only wishes that there were less uncertainty over how long he will stay. Impressed by the player's attitude and his knowledge, he expects Farmar to flourish on the court. Not everyone who has traded the NBA for overseas will make the transition, Blatt says.

"It's not easy. It's a different game, with different looks on offense, less space to play in, and a much more physical defensive game. Some people can't adjust. But Jordan will do great because he understands the environment."

Despite some reservations, the influx of NBA names such as Deron Williams has created a buzz about the forthcoming Euroleague campaign, when Maccabi -- which lost to Greece powerhouse Panathinaikos in last season's final -- will again be a strong contender, whether Farmar remains on the roster or not.

And, Blatt hopes, there may be another spinoff: that players will enjoy the experience and erase any preconceptions that to leave the NBA is to disappear into the wild yonder.

"People are always writing about the horror stories of Europe, where teams aren't paying or other stuff," Blatt says. "There are stories like that. But if you come to Maccabi Tel Aviv, you are in an NBA environment, in a beautiful country. You'd be hard-pressed to find a single player who has come who doesn't rave about the place. And there are many situations like that."

The reality, though, is that many players never see their paychecks, as teams either go bust or simply stop answering the phones.

"There are some unfortunate situations," Blatt concedes. "But there are a lot of situations which are life-enriching and give you experiences that you will carry with you all your days."

Like winning a European Championship for a second time. Or coaching once more in an Olympic Games. Ideally, Blatt would like the latter next year and the former by next weekend. The Russians, despite a perfect roll through the group stages here, are not heavily favored. The talk in Kaunas surrounds others, not them.

Flying under the radar suits their coach fine. There are holes in the armor, he says, but his team is not 8-0 through mere good fortune.

Having gotten to know the country from within, he senses a certain spirit that can cope, and even flourish, in times of adversity. It may yet serve the team well here.

"I don't know if you're a student of history, but the people of St. Petersburg withstood the blockade of the Germans for three years with very little food and water left," he says. "There is a toughness in that survival instinct, being able to deal with incredible challenges all the time."

In 2007, the Russians were not expected to become the EuroBasket champions but were the ones with gold around their necks at the finish.

"If you were a betting man, we're not the kind of team you want to bet against," Blatt says. "I don't know if you want to bet for us. But I wouldn't go the other way."

From Framingham to far away, life has taught Blatt that the unexpected is often a road more enjoyably traveled.

Mark Woods is a freelance writer based in Edinburgh, U.K., whose work appears regularly in British publications.