By Achilleas Mavrodontis/ firstname.lastname@example.org – Special to The Sports Rabbi
David Blatt sat down with Eurohoops looking back on his coaching career and discussing future plans. The conversation moved beyond basketball and to the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic to the whole interview.
The former NBA coach, EuroLeague and Eurobasket champion and most recently former Knicks consultant is one of the brightest minds on basketball and has experienced almost everything on sporting and also on a personal level.
It was a lengthy interview that includes important life messages shared by Blatt, a personality that can be bigger than sports and still has big ambitions for the future.
– Let’s start with the Maccabi title you won in 2014. It was a difficult season for Maccabi, but everybody supported you from the management of the team, and you achieved greatness. How was this experience for you this year?
“Well, I don’t know how difficult this season was. At the beginning of the season, it wasn’t great. But I thought from the middle of the season on we really really found our way and came together. I think that is the normal process. People too quickly lose sight of what the season should be like. The important thing is where you finish not how you start. Only that you set and have the proper principles in place and plan in place, and then develop it over time. One of the great mistakes that teams make is they put the goal in front of the commitment, and they put the result in front of the process. Because particularly for your case, you have to go through things in order to get to the level you need to be yet to take and find great results. So regarding your question up this particular team, we really went through and the process of growth and development. It ended up being a top top-level team. And for me, that has always been the right way to do it. Certainly, this year proved that.”
– It was a great year for you and after that a great step or maybe a great jump for you to go to the NBA and coach a team that has goals to win a ring, the championship. The first year you had a great season but did not achieve the goal at the end. The second year, the team that you built won the championship. Would you change anything at that time on the way you thought the game in the NBA, some things that you did? At the end of the day, your team was successful.
“First of all, I didn’t go to the NBA because of the 2014 EuroLeague championship only. I had been a part of many very successful programs before that. The fact I went after the EuroLeague title, that was not the only reason. Secondly, when I first came to Cleveland the team I was originally going to coach was not a championship-caliber team, it was a team we hoped to build with certain pieces in place but the opportunity to add many additional quality pieces in order to gradually build ourselves into a playoff and hopefully down the line a championship-caliber team. All of that changed very quickly when we were able to bring LeBron back as a free agent and also to make the trade for Kevin Love giving up our first-round draft choice and a few other players. And suddenly and quickly become a contending team for the title. Still, this required a process. New teams generally in their first season do not win championships. We went through that first season and did make the playoffs of course and ultimately in the playoffs played our best basketball even beating Atlanta in the Eastern Conference championship, 4-0, despite having them have a 60-win season and home-court advantage. And of course, we went to the finals and played without Kyrie (Irving) and Kevin (Love) due to injuries, which made it very difficult.
Although the series was still competitive. The next year, at least until I left, we were in first place in the Eastern Conference and very much in a position to be a championship-contender again and ultimately the team did win the championship. What I learn from the experiences in the NBA is that the game in the NBA is a very very different game than the European game. And that the game outside of the game, it’s so much more important and dominant then what it is in Europe. This really required a different kind of coaching on my part. Our situation went from being one of development to one of win today. It was very challenging and forced me to make many changes in approach and in philosophy. When I look back at it, it probably wasn’t the best thing for me personally but certainly, from what the demands of the organization were I provided them with a winning team. For me it’s all good, it’s all OK. I had a wonderful experience in the NBA. I have nothing to be sorry for. I can look back and say that I had the opportunity to coach some of the best players in the world, that I was part of NBA finals, that to get there with many wonderful special glorious European titles that I was fortunate enough to be a part of. I have an NBA championship ring too. So that’s not bad.”
– We talked about Cleveland and the whole experience. This experience, how important was it for you at the job you had to do at the Knicks?
“This was not the most important part of my career. But it was a nice way to stay involved in basketball after I, unfortunately, had to retire from coaching. This was not an easy moment for me at all. A difficult one actually. But by my physical issues really made it so clear to me that this was the best move for me. It’s not the way I wanted to stop because coaching has been such a big part of my life. But the need to stay healthy is even more important. So having the opportunity to come in to consult for an NBA team for a period of time was very interesting for me and very rewarding. For me to have that experience. If I want to continue in that field, I put myself in that position. I’m not sure that I will because I have so many plans going forward that I sort of having to choose where and what I want to do and where I want to go. But I’m very fortunate to have had that experience and see the game from another side, outside of the court.”
– You talked about your future plans. What does the future hold for David Blatt?
“Well, there’s a lot of things that I am already working on and they have to do with diplomacy outside of the sports world. I am also writing a book. I am preparing to offer online courses for coaching and for leadership in all fields. And I am considering also possibly doing some work on TV. That may be the last of the options, the last of the things, but it’s all in the mix. Or continuing of course with the type of work that I did this year with the Knicks, consulting. The final thing I will tell you that is a very real possibility but I am not closed on it would be to work in management as a general manager, particularly in the European market or other markets in the world. But I’m still not sure if that’s going to happen.
– How was this trip for you?
“I’ve been very lucky to live in different places, to meet wonderful people, to share ideas and knowledge, and most importantly friendships. For me, in general in basketball, in particular, is the answer to all of our problems and to all of our prayers. It’s the way that we can communicate across the borders without fear and without reservation. And I know I am so lucky to have lived in six different countries and experienced so many different cultures and made such great friendships that will last forever with people from all over the world. That will be the message of my book.”
– You just told us the message of your book but coming from you we will have to ask for another message. The whole planet was put into a difficult situation because of the coronavirus pandemic. Do you believe that we can gain something positive to change the way that we communicate? Your opinion in this particular situation is really important.
“Sure, I absolutely do. If people are paying attention and I believe they are certainly. Suddenly the news is not about war, not about fighting, not about disagreements, not about confrontation. It’s about working together, about helping one another, about making sacrifices for the better going forward and it’s about finding solutions to very difficult problems. With the idea in mind that if we do those things together we will all be better for it. This a very important and significant message. I believe that sometimes from the worst of things much better can be found. I hope and believe that this is what we will all take from this.”
– One more thing about the coronavirus and sports. The NBA is trying to resume. The EuroLeague is trying to resume. What is your opinion about that? Do you believe that it could be possible and what are your thoughts?
“Of course it’s possible but what’s important is that we don’t over-rush it. And that if sacrifice in the short-term even the season is necessary, then we go through it. We all hope for the best going forward. But you mentioned the NBA and sports, in general, has always been one of the driving forces in society. It has and should be an example and inspiration for people. So in this case, if inspiration comes from the sacrifices that have to be made in the interest of good health and well-being, that’s what needs to be. Now does that mean that we don’t play at all this year, so be it. Does that mean we wait until June or July or even August to resume, so be it. What’s important right now is the health of the people and the planet. That’s what I think the important message is.”
– I have to ask you one more thing about your situation. How difficult was it for you to talk about it and what was the impact the messages that you got after that?
“It wasn’t easy to come out and speak openly about the situation but on the other hand, I felt the responsibility to do that. I hoped that by doing so I could help others, which gave me great strength. The messages that we are not alone and we can be comfortable to include others and be open and honest about ourselves and our situation and that you know there is help to be found and that the goodness of people makes you stronger, it doesn’t take away from you. The feedback I received has been just wonderful. Knowing that I accomplished something that helped others, it helped my in a great way. The situation for me is not always easy. Leaving the job that I loved and having day-to-day challenges from a physical standpoint, it’s tough. On the other hand, knowing what I can do and have to do and having the support of others around me, that makes it much easier.”
– You developed many players during your career. Players giving their best excites you?
“One of the great things about coaching is not only the titles that you take but the ability you have to help players further themselves in their careers and lives. I don’t think there’s anything more important. That serves you just as well. When the team does well, the individuals profit and benefit. This is always one of the answers I give people that ask how I handle the locker room or the teams with stars or the that don’t get to play as much because of the stars. The answer is that when a team wins or succeeds, everyone succeeds. Having the opportunity to help players develop and succeed in a great way is certainly to the benefit of the coach as well to the benefit of all. I have personally always taken great pride in seeing my players move on or move up or move out to even better situations. I hold that every bit as much of value as I do with successes of my own teams.”
– Let’s go to Russia. Your journey is amazing. We went from Israel to the NBA to Turkey and now Russia. How was this experience with the national team? You won the EuroBasket trophy and an Olympic medal. How was it?
“You forgot a medal in Lithuania as well. This was one of the true highlights of my coaching life. The opportunity to go to Russia and really step outside of the expected or the common thread of my own life. There is such a historical and social significance for me to go to Russia and coach the former Soviet Union national team. It had a wonderful kind of significance in a changing world, in a different sports environment. I was very fortunate and very happy to have had the opportunity to make this experience part of my own personal philosophy of crossing borders and bridges and experiencing and contributing to very different cultures, in very special environments. For me, this was a thrill, one of the real true highlights of my life and my sports career. Together with that and being a part of such a successful and significant seven years was like a prize. We had wonderful teams with wonderful players and people. For me to share that with the people of Russia as an American-Israeli was just so unique and so thrilling.
– The three top moments of your career?
“The top three things in my career are different from the top three moments. The top three was the ability to do what I loved, to help many people progress in their lives and their careers, and finally to share and contribute to so many different cultures and experiences with so many wonderful people. Those are the three most wonderful things for me. From a basketball standpoint, to say one over another is not easy for me. It would be easy to say winning EuroBasket, winning EuroLeague, and going to the NBA finals. There are so many other things that to me aren’t less significant.”
– The three things that you would like to change in your career?
“You can read the three things in my book.”
– You coached against Giorgos Bartzokas who returned to Olympiacos. What to you expect from the Reds?
“Olympiacos was a wonderful place, but the timing perhaps was not so good. It was a wonderful and special place. I am happy I was there. I was lucky to work with many great players at Olympiacos. The situation in Olympiacos is improving overall. I think this will be very good for the club going forward. Certainly, Bartzokas knows the environment and had great success in the past. I believe he can do very good things there.”