Every four years the World Cup’s meteor circles around in its grand, billion-dollar orbit and pinches the world’s attention for approximately one month reminding insulated Americans just how globalized sports has become.
Jurgen Klinsmann's appointment as manager for the United States men's national soccer team is evidence of that shift. There's a certain inclination to trust the acumen of a coach who has mentored more talented athletes and immersed himself in more advanced domestic FIFA-recognized leagues.
The USMNT is ranked 13th in FIFA's world rankings while ESPN's Soccer Power Index has the U.S. situated at 20th. Either way, those equate to the characteristics of a middling football side. Klinsmann's German soccer intellect is considered the deux ex machina of our soccer program.
The inverse is true for basketball. The NBA is the apogee of basketball worldwide and while players have made the successful leap from abroad, the best homegrown coaches have all been manufactured and groomed in America. Or so we thought.
Heading into a pivotal season that could define the near future of their NBA existence, the Cleveland Cavaliers caught Jurgen Klinsmann Syndrome and hired an unorthodox international coaching candidate on Friday afternoon. More specifically, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s David Blatt became the first head coach to ever make the direct leap from Europe to NBA.
For years we thought, the NBA's objective has been to spread its talons overseas with franchises that would further incorporate a growing fan base. Instead, the opposite has occurred. It's not quite an actualization of 1984 motion picture Red Dawn's depiction of a Soviet invasion on U.S. soil, but ex-Maccabi Tel Aviv head coach's Blatt's four-year, $20 million deal with the Cavaliers is a close approximation of that fictional history in a basketball context.
The flood reached our knees when the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA championship with a World Cup roster that featured nine international players. However, the boss was still Air Force serviceman Gregg Popovich. The Spurs were just an extension of his bachelor degree into Soviet studies. Blatt is a Boston native, who quoted Steve Jobs' last words in his postgame press conference after beating Real Madrid to win the 2014 Euroleague championship, but after three decades immersed in European basketball he represents the next stage of the foreign invasion.
The mention of Blatt's name has only recently captured attention in the States, but for years NBA insiders have had their eyes on his brilliant coaching across the Atlantic.
Thirty-three years ago, the 22-year-old Blatt departed for Israel seeking to fulfill his dream of becoming a pro basketball player after holding down the point guard spot in legendary coach Pete Carril's Princeton offense alongside President Obama's brother-in-law/former Oregon State coach Craig Robinson and Knicks general manager Steve Mils.
Blatt would embark on a modest 12-year playing career in various leagues including Israeli's Super League before retiring to take his first coaching job in 1993 and realize his true destiny as a clipboard tactician.
"I knew it right from the get-go,'' Carril remarked during a telephone interview with Cleveland.com on June 19. "He's got an analytical mind, sees things, loves the game, loves to teach the game.
The unvarnished truth is that Blatt went searching abroad because he wasn't talented enough to play at the NBA level. Blatt's return as hot NBA commodity is markedly different than his unheralded departure.
Blatt's reputation as a coaching genius has finally reached critical mass on American shores at the peak of his career. He's coached for some of the most distinguished European organizations in the world such as Italian giant Treviso Basket, Turkish powerhouse Efes Pilsen, BC Dynamo Moscow and Maccabi. The Cavs citizen of the world will have his work cut out for him beginning on the wrong end of the NBA’s international sandwich. On the top, staring down are the Spurs. The Cavs are currently situated on the rock-bottom rung of the NBA ladder.
During his final four seasons as head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, Blatt won 222 of 277 games, culminating in an implausible Euroleague title dream turned reality in May.
“Maccabi was outgunned at every position except coach,” one Western Conference general manger told ESPN earlier this month. “David took down two Goliaths in a weekend. He belongs in the NBA.”
During his time overseas, Blatt never relinquished his American dream of reaching the NBA. Days after Tel Aviv reached the apex of European pro hoops, Blatt capitalized on his cache and resigned from in order to pursue a high ranking NBA assistant coaching job on Steve Kerr's Golden State Warriors staff.
It was a risk. After all, it's difficult to report to a peer after being a successful boss for so long. Italian Ettore Messina, who is held in even higher regard than Blatt or any other European basketball mind, took a step down the ladder to join ill-fated Mike Brown's Lakers staff in 2012. One year later, he returned to become head coach of CSKA Moscow, but will reportedly be velcroing himself to Popovich's Spurs staff next season.
However, Blatt seemed poised to take the Warriors gig until Cleveland upped the ante.
In his first NBA head coaching gig, Blatt will have quite an eclectic group of diverse cultures on his roster.
2013's No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett and forward Tristan Thompson hail from Canada. Brazilian vet Anderson Varejao is one of the league's most tenacious rebounders, Kyrie Irving was born in Australia and Cleveland's No. 1 overall pick next Thursday will come down to the choice of either Cameroonian center Joel Embiid or Canadian swingman Andrew Wiggins.
Like a college coach making the leap to a pro bench, there will be a bit of an adjustment for Blatt to make in his rookie campaign.
Irving's sick crossover skills pale in comparison to the crossover Blatt will be making from FIBA's metric system of rules to the NBA's esoteric hardwood laws.
The biggest difference will be the lessened mitigated coaches have on the NBA level. In the Euroleague’s single –elimination format, an exceptional strategy can outwit a more talented team. In the NBA’s seven game playoff series’, teams adjust and talent wins out.
Fortunately, Cleveland's glacial winter climate won't be too much of a culture shock for Blatt, who also moonlights as head coach of the Russian national team, which he led to a bronze medal at the 2012 Beijing Olympics.
There's a compelling story Blatt told New York Times reporter Pete Thamel four years ago about his unofficial introduction to Russian culture that could come in handy assuming control of the moribund Cavaliers bench. After agreeing to become the head coach of the Russian team Dynamo St. Petersburg, Blatt met his assistant coach Kestutis Kemzura at a Russian diner to brainstorm game plans.
Around 9 a.m. a patron took a seat at the bar, ordered 50 grams of vodka, quickly gulped it down, ordered another, consumed it with vigor and walked out with a little extra spring in his step.
When Blatt asked Kemzrua what he'd just witnessed, his assistant smirked and tersely retorted, "Russian breakfast."
That exchange quickly ingratiated the American with dual Israeli citizenship to the Russian empire.
He'll appreciate Cleveland's bar per capita ratio being one of the highest in the nation. Libations are aplenty, however, Cleveland is in the midst of its 50th year of a championship Prohibition. If he thought bringing a Euroleague title to Tel Aviv was big, he hasn’t seen anything yet. Cleveland would proselytize about his feats for decades if he could end the half-century drought by smuggling a Larry O’Brien Trophy and championship champagne into Cleveland.
If Blatt doesn’t, he’ll want to drown his sorrows in a “Russian breakfast”.
Whether Blatt will help or hurt the Cavs in the LeBron sweepstakes has yet to be discovered, but his pedigree and track record can't hurt.
As a proponent of the Princeton offense since his coaching career commenced, Blatt goes against the iso-reliant offensive grain that has proliferated throughout The Association. Blatt's hire doesn't have the looks of a copycat league maneuver, but Popovich's fifth championship highlighted by a ball movement offense that toppled Miami's superstar iso-heavy attack and Oklahoma City's dribble-heavy, "one on two" axiom with a band of generous distributors may turn the tide in a new direction.
Blatt won't change the game anymore than it already has with any concepts, beyond what Pop's accomplished, the inception of the Euro step or the epidemic of flopping, but he's a symbol of a new era. The game's already been changed.