By Bob Jacob/Cleveland Jewish News/JNS.org
When David Blatt was hired as head coach of the National Basketball Association’s Cleveland Cavaliers last June, he was not often recognized when he walked the streets of downtown Cleveland. What a difference a year makes.
Now, Blatt can go few places without being recognized. For good reason. The Jewish coach has the Cavaliers in the mix to win the city of Cleveland’s first championship in a major sport since the Browns won the National Football League title in 1964.
After leading Israel’s Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv to a stunning upset in the Euroleague basketball championship in 2014, the expectations were that the 56-year-old Blatt would utilize his vast overseas coaching experience with a Kyrie Irving-led rebuilding Cavaliers team that one day would return to the NBA playoffs. All that changed on July 11, when Ohio native LeBron James announced that he was coming home again after four years with the Miami Heat. Suddenly, the odds-makers installed the Cavaliers as the favorite to win the title – even before Blatt coached his first NBA game. The expectations for Blatt had changed overnight. Soon, Kevin Love was en route from Minnesota and Blatt was the coach of a new “big three” – James, Love, and Irving.
The season began slowly – the Cavaliers had a 19-20 record on Jan. 13. Talk persisted that the coach might not make it through his first season in the league. But Blatt would have no part of that. The team started to improve, and then came the trades that brought J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, and Timofey Mozgov to Cleveland. Within a few games, the team began to click.
The Cavaliers won the Central Division championship. They locked up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 53-29 record and lead their first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics, 1-0. Blatt was named the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month for March.
But, in mid-January, amid the Cavaliers’ struggles, the media questioned whether the Boston-area native was in over his head. It didn’t help when Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao went down with a season-ending injury and other players missed games due to injury. It seemed Blatt was coaching a different starting lineup every game. Then came the trades for Shumpert, Smith, and Mozgov – and more adjustments for Blatt. He was able to quickly right the ship. The Cavaliers began the season 18-10, but then James got injured and missed eight games. The team floundered during its star’s absence – and Blatt found himself on the hot seat.
“I knew I was an easy target being new, and being unusual in the NBA world, so I was an easy target. I never paid any attention to all that stuff,” Blatt said.
As a Jew who has lived in Israel for more than three decades, the way Blatt treats others is always foremost on his mind.
“Just in terms of the basic respect that I try to show the people here and the human aspect of treating others that you would want them to treat you” is how Blatt described his attitude. “And loyalty to purpose and to one another. I think those are very Jewish principles; certainly, I live by them here,” he said.
Blatt had hoped to immerse himself in Northeast Ohio’s Jewish scene, but so far he has done little other than lighting a public menorah during Chanukah, speaking at the Shaw Jewish Community Center in Akron, and spending holidays with friends.
“There’s just not a lot of time,” said Blatt. “I have mixed in with the community. I have met a lot of wonderful people. Great thing about the Jewish people is they’re always there.”
Since becoming the Cavaliers’ coach, Blatt has made one trip back to Israel to see his wife Kinneret, twin daughters Shani and Adi, daughter Ela, and son Tamir. “[During the] All-Star break, I went home for four days and three nights, and it was wonderful,” Blatt said. Blatt’s son Tamir, a high school basketball standout, is a chip off the old block.
Blatt is unsure when his next trip to Israel will be because of the playoffs, NBA draft, free agency, summer league, and more.
“Cleveland is a wonderful place and the people here have been so warm and so accepting and so generous toward me, and I love the community, but it has not been easy for me… when you’re away from the things you know and the people you love [in Israel], it’s not easy… I’m hoping my kids will be able to come over and see some playoff games,” he said.
Meanwhile, he says, “It’s a great time to be in the city of Cleveland. No question – if we can keep this kind of performance and this kind of excitement going, I can only imagine what will happen in the city.”
Bob Jacob is managing editor of the Cleveland Jewish News, where this article originally appeared.