“31 Masterminds of European Basketball” was released in 2019 to profile the greatest coaching minds the game has seen on the European continent. The limited-edition book, written by EuroLeague historian Vladimir Stankovic—who began covering many of those greats in 1969—and published by Euroleague Basketball, pays tribute to the stars on the sidelines who have led teams to countless titles. Stankovic tells the stories and digs into the strategies of each of the 31 profiled coaches and in doing so paints the path to trace greatness among European basketball coaches to the 1950s. However, it’s not just about the history of European coaches; five of them will coach in the EuroLeague this season. Enjoy!
David Blatt, A multiple Euro-champ from America
Random circumstances in life can sometimes decide the future.
In the life of David Blatt, one of the greatest of the current generation of coaches, there were two moments that heavily influenced his future. The first was his participation in the 1981 Maccabiah Games, a sports competition regarded as the Jewish Olympic Games. That’s when he got to know the land of his ancestors. The second moment, even more important, was a lost war with the Israeli federation.
Maybe his “true story” started with the second of those incidents in 2005, when Blatt was named head coach of the Israeli national team. He was already a coach with some reputation, but still a long way from his current status. However, Blatt’s nomination coincided with a rule in Israel that required national coaches to be certified. It would be no problem for Blatt to obtain the document after a brief course, but he was coaching Dynamo St. Petersburg at the time and could not take the course due to being in Russia. A case was built in which some media accused the federation of “not respecting its own rules”, so Blatt, angry at the situation, rejected the job.
A few months later, in March 2006, the Russian federation was not looking for documents, but rather a good coach for its national team. And it chose David Blatt. In some way, the Israeli bureaucracy paved the way to glory for Blatt. Who knows what would have happened if Blatt had coached Israel instead of Russia?
The Russians noticed Blatt when he managed to take the modest Dynamo to victory in the FIBA EuroChallenge with a 20-0 record. In the final, played on April 28 in Istanbul in front of 7,500 fans, his team defeated BC Kyiv by 85-74. Kelly McCarty scored 24 points, Ognjen Askrabic 14, and Ed Cota had 15 plus 8 rebounds and 6 assists. Granted, it was not the biggest competition in the world, but a 20-0 record is something to be taken seriously! Holden’s golden shot
Blatt’s first goal with Russia was getting the team to the 2007 FIBA EuroBasket, to be played in Spain. In a qualification group with the Czech Republic, Hungary and Belgium, Russia advanced without major difficulties thanks to a 5-1 record. The only loss came in Hungary, 76-70. After that, the path to glory started in Granada, Spain, with group wins against Serbia, Israel and Greece. In the second phase, in Madrid, Russia defeated Portugal and Croatia and then lost to Spain (69-81). In the quarterfinals, the victim was France (75-71), and then in the semis it was Lithuania’s turn (86-74). An overconfident Spain was waiting again in the title game.
During the half-time break of the final, with Spain leading 34-31, volunteers started handing invitations to the press for the Spanish title celebrations … but Blatt and his boys were not having any of that. With a three-pointer by J.R. Holden at the start of the last quarter, the Russian team was back in the game, 51-49. With 27 seconds to go, and with Spain leading 59-58, Holden made a steal. Blatt didn’t have any timeouts left, but he could still talk to Holden. And with 2.7 seconds left, Holden scored a basket that gave Russia the win and the gold medal.
A while later, Blatt told me some of the details about one of the most famous baskets ever in EuroBasket history. “When Spain missed its play, I didn’t have another timeout, so I just shouted to J.R. to wait a little and finish off the play by himself. What he did reminded me of that famous play by Michael Jordan in the sixth game of the NBA Finals in 1998. Holden almost did the same,” he said.
That win in Madrid finally opened all doors for David Blatt. He became a valued coach and was at the top of the wish lists of many big clubs. He coached Efes Pilsen, Dynamo Moscow and Aris Thessaloniki, but his dream was to go back to Maccabi Tel Aviv, where he had been Pini Gershon’s assistant for some years and even head coach for a couple seasons, reaching the EuroLeague Final Four in 2002.
Finally, in 2010, the call came from Tel Aviv. Blatt was back at Maccabi and stayed on that bench for four years, sharing the job with that of the Russian national team until 2012. With Russia, Blatt won more medals: a bronze in the 2011 EuroBasket in Lithuania and another bronze at the 2012 Olympics in London.
Miracle in Milan
In the 2010-11 season, Blatt managed to take Maccabi to the EuroLeague title game at the Final Four in Barcelona, but Panathinaikos Athens was simply the better team that evening. The next two seasons, Maccabi fell in the playoffs, but Blatt felt he was on the right path. He was proved to be right by reaching the Final Four again in 2014, this time in Milan, and then doing what nobody expected: becoming EuroLeague champion.
Maccabi did the tough part in the semifinals. CSKA Moscow was leading by 55-40 late in the third quarter and everything looked done. But then Maccabi started to come back, little by little. With 20 seconds to go, CSKA was still leading by 4 points, 67-63. During a timeout, Blatt called for a hopeful play that put the ball in David Blu’s hands for a three-pointer. It worked, and Maccabi was within 1 point now, 67-66. CSKA still had the possession to win, but mishandled the ball, Blu came out of nowhere to pick it up and pass ahead to Tyrese Rice, who with 5.5 seconds to go scored a bucket that was worth a place in the championship game.
In the final itself, Blatt’s Maccabi played a great game to defeat Real Madrid 98-86, but to do so needed a huge overtime (25-13), the first one in a final since 1969, to win the title. Blatt confirmed, once more, that he was a master of dramatic situations. That same season, Blatt won the Alexander Gomelskiy Award as the best coach of the year in the EuroLeague. During his four-year stint with Maccabi, Blatt had won 255 games and lost 55. He had also been Coach of the Year four times in Israel (1996, 2002, 2011 and 2014) and once in Russia (2005).
From Maccabi to Cleveland
We can’t say that Blatt is the first European coach to lead an NBA team, but perhaps it wouldn’t be a big mistake either.
He is American, with the basic foundation of the American school, but most of his playing and coaching careers took place in Israel and Europe. This very fact allowed him to mix his American foundation with the improvisation that characterizes many European players. In Europe, he learned some tricks and perfected others like zone defense. He also understood what it means to coach in super-intense arenas, where fans support their teams with a bigger repertoire of chants than “defense, defense”. His experience on the Old Continent completed his resume as a coach.
When he went back to the United States to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014, Blatt was “an American who made it in Europe.” The job on an NBA bench was a prize for a great coach and, in his first season there, he took Cleveland to the finals. For the first time since 1947, two debut coaches met for the title: Blatt and Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors.
Cleveland had finished second in the Eastern Conference with a 53-29 record, behind only the Atlanta Hawks (60-22). In the playoffs, Cleveland got rid of Boston (4-0), Chicago (4-2) and, in the conference finals, Atlanta (4-0). But the final series did not end up so well for Blatt as the Warriors triumphed, 4-2. Less than a year later, on January 22, 2016, Blatt was fired during his second season, despite Cleveland leading its conference.
Before long, he was back in Europe after accepting the challenge of leading ambitious Darussafaka Istanbul. Blatt was a major success in Turkey, taking Dacka into the EuroLeague playoffs in his first season and then claiming more silverware the following year with the EuroCup title. In 2018, he moved to another new country, taking over at Greek powerhouse Olympiacos Piraeus.
As a coach, Blatt is very dynamic. He never, ever, sits on the bench. Sometimes he’s nervous, but he always controls his emotions. He thinks fast and also decides fast. He once defined his work as a coach with these words: “A basketball coach makes 150 to 200 critical decisions during the course of a game, something that I think is paralleled only by a fighter pilot.”
Our “fighter pilot” also asserts that basketball is a collective game that requires a team-first mentality:
“Basketball is a game of sacrificing yourself for the next guy, being a team that takes a good shot, and taking the right shots.”
Many of his pupils had those good shots and also the right shot, and when that situation happens time and again, you cannot talk about luck. A lot of the credit must go to the coach, and Blatt surely deserves it.
His love affair with basketball started at an early age, as he recalled once for the EuroLeague website. “The first memory I had was a very, very young age, probably six or seven years old, going to a basketball gym where the kids were playing in some type of organized fashion, and getting the ball and making my first shot – only it was on the wrong basket! Which taught me the value of knowing you have to understand what you are doing.
“It is good to do the right thing, but you have to do the right thing in the right place and the right time. And you cannot allow disappointment to cause you to lose your love for anything. My older sisters were basketball players, and they used to play outside of my house, and I began to practice because I saw them practicing all of the time. Very quickly, I became competitive about it because I wanted to be better than my sisters, and that is what really caused me to begin to commit to improving myself and catch up with them.”
After those early experiences, but before becoming an idol in Israel and a celebrity of European basketball, Blatt was also a modest player between 1977 and 1993. He studied at Princeton University from 1977 to 1981, and there he played as a point guard whose best quality was game vision. After the aforementioned 1981 Maccabiah Games, Maccabi Haifa offered him a contract. There he met with Pini Gershon, and it was with one of Blatt’s baskets that Haifa defeated Maccabi Tel Aviv for the first time.
He had retired from playing once, at just 25 years old, and went back to the States to work for a technology firm, even if he kept playing on a semi-professional team. The work didn’t suit him and Blatt, still young, decided to go back to Israel two years later. He signed for Haifa again, but midway through the season, after coach Arik Shivek’s resignation, Blatt became a player-coach. The following season he got his first full-time coaching job with Netanya of the Israeli women’s league, winning his first title. He also met his future wife.
His following coaching stints were with Hapoel Jerusalem, Maccabi Netanya, Elitzur Netanya, Hapoel Galil Elyon, Ironi Naharia and Maccabi Hederra. Muli Katzurin, the national team coach in 2004, said in an interview at the time: “Blatt is the best coach in Israel nowadays.”
Unlike in St. Petersburg, Blatt was not very lucky in Istanbul with Efes or with Treviso due to factors unrelated to him, but as the coach, he was the scapegoat who paid the price. The other side of the coin was his time with the Russian national team and his last stint at Maccabi.
On his resume, for now, there is one EuroLeague title as head coach (2014), another as an assistant (2004), and the FIBA SuproLeague title (2001), again as an assistant, five Israeli Leagues and six national cups, plus one Adriatic League title, all with Maccabi; the Italian League and Italian Cup with Benetton; the FIBA Challenge with Dynamo St. Petersburg; the EuroCup with Darussafaka; and three medals with Russia, including EuroBasket gold in 2007 and Olympic bronze in 2012.
“What satisfies me the most about my job is the ability to make an impact,” he concludes, “by talking to a class in a school about education, about values and about the correct perspective in life.”