LOS ANGELES (JTA) — In 1981, David Blatt moved to Israel in pursuit of a path of lifelong worship – to play professional basketball.
Now, more than 30 years later, Blatt is leaving Israel to make a different, and totally unprecedented, form of aliyah – to leave the ranks of Israeli basketball to coach in the NBA. According to news reports, the Cleveland Cavaliers have offered Blatt the position of head coach, and the two sides are now negotiating terms.
“I’m leaving my home, but not my family,” Blatt announced at a press conference on June 12th. “I’m not necessarily leaving for a better place. I’m leaving to follow my dream.”
If Blatt does sign with the Cavaliers, he would become the first coach in the history of European basketball to move directly to an NBA head coaching position. Blatt’s journey from the Boston suburbs to Israel and now back to the United States marks a triumph not only for Blatt but also for the small but storied world of Israeli basketball, and particularly for the Maccabi Tel Aviv team, famous for its underdog victories.
The most recent of those victories, which seems to have catapulted Blatt into the upper echelons of professional basketball, took place in the Euroleague Final Four in mid-May when Blatt led an undermanned Maccabi Tel Aviv squad to consecutive victories and the championship, a feat that impressed even NBA executives.
“Maccabi was outgunned at every position except coach,” one NBA general manger told ESPN. “David took down two Goliaths in a weekend. He belongs in the NBA.”
It has been a long journey for Blatt, who grew up in Framingham, Mass., as an avid Celtics fan. Blatt attended Hebrew school at Temple Beth Am and later recalled putting money in jars to plant trees in Israel, but he never connected his passion for basketball with his Jewish background. Instead, he established himself as a top basketball talent, and also had the good fortune to play for top coaches – first at Framingham South High School for Phil Moresi, now in the Masschusetts High School Basketball Hall of Fame, and then at Princeton University for Pete Carril, famed as the inventor of the “Princeton offense.”
During his sophomore year at Princeton, a coach for an Israeli kibbutz team recruited him to play in Israel for the summer. Blatt loved Kibbutz life and found that he was hooked. By the time he competed for the U.S. team in the 1981 Maccabi Games, winning a gold medal, he knew he was coming back.
“From the time that I came here in ’79, I knew that I wanted to play in Israel professionally for some years,” he told Haaretz. “I realized that I wasn’t making the NBA, and I wanted to continue to play basketball professionally, in terms of money, but more than anything – to keep playing.”
He played 9 of the next 12 years in Israel, before retiring in 1993 to become a coach.