May 9, 2007: Features
By Tim Warren
It was the first question asked after his Benetton Treviso team had beaten a good Eldo Napoli squad in an Italian league basketball game, so you couldn’t blame coach David Blatt ’81 for being taken aback. He had walked happily into the Benetton media room, bantering with reporters and basking in a hard-fought 74–64 win on a late-January night. And then: How important was this victory, one Italian reporter asked, especially in light of the recent rumors that Blatt’s job was in jeopardy?
Blatt’s ebullience was quickly tempered. “That question makes me a little angry,” he answered. Picking his words carefully, he looked squarely at his questioner and said in a pointed, since-you-asked tone: “I was not aware of that. The media can put out whatever rumors they want, and I have no control over them.” He paused for a moment. “But I believe that I’ve done too good a job for that to happen. Given the injuries we’ve had and that we lost three of the best players in Europe last year from a team that won the Italian league, I think we’ve done a hell of a job,” he said.
Minutes later, driving to the Benetton sports complex for the ritual post-game team dinner, Blatt ruminated on the reporter’s question. “No question the leash is a lot shorter when you coach here,” said Blatt, 47, a former professional player in Israel who has built a reputation as the most successful American-born coach in European basketball. “You play fewer games than in the NBA, so every game is important. A two-game losing streak is like a 10-game losing streak in the States.”
A few days earlier, in a long interview, Blatt had considered the lessons learned in becoming one of the top coaches in Europe: “Number one: Accept the uncontrollables. There are some things you just can’t control. As a coach, sometimes you lose perspective and think you are running the world. Well, you’re not.”
Clearly, an overheated Italian media is one of the uncontrollables. Within minutes the uncomfortable question was forgotten (and, a team official said later, Blatt’s job was never in danger). Blatt showed a visitor proudly around the sports complex, making several references to being part of the Benetton “family.” In Italy, even among the well-established basketball teams, sponsors come and go; one year it can be a food company, the next a maker of optical wear. Clothing-maker Benetton, which has its headquarters in Treviso, outside Venice, is a notable exception, having sponsored a top-flight basketball team since 1982. The first European player to be drafted No. 1 by the National Basketball Association was 7-foot forward Andrea Bargnani, picked by the Toronto Raptors last June after a stellar season at Benetton. Blatt is credited with playing a key role in his development.
The man who hired Blatt in 2005 to lead one of the storied franchises in European basketball was Mauricio Gherardini. “I liked the way [Blatt’s] teams were playing, and I liked the quality of the guy, outside basketball,” says Gherardini, who left his job as Benetton’s general manager last summer to become an assistant general manager with the Raptors. “I had a chance to see him closely at the helm at Maccabi Tel Aviv and in Russia. He’s a passionate student of the game, always ready to compare ideas and discuss them.”
Blatt made his mark with Maccabi Tel Aviv, another of the great European-league teams. He began as an assistant and had two successful seasons as head coach before stepping back to an assistant role when his Maccabi mentor, Pini Gershon, came out of retirement. With Blatt helping to recruit key American players, Maccabi won European championships in 2003–04 and 2004–05. Blatt was gone the second year, having taken the head-coaching job at Dynamo St. Petersburg in Russia. His success there — St. Petersburg won a second-tier European title — led not only to the Benetton job but also to a wholly unexpected plum: He was named head coach of the Russian national team last summer. Culturally, athletically, and politically, it was a surprise.
“Can you imagine — an American Jewish Israeli?” Blatt says, with a note of incredulity. “I was amazed. The Russian team had had an unsuccessful European campaign. They were looking for somebody who could bring some new ideas, and I had had a really good season coaching in St. Petersburg. But I’m sure it was shocking for so many people on both sides of the old Iron Curtain. I had many interviews, and I was pinching myself the whole time. Forget about the basketball aspect — all I could think about was [Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev] ... saying, ‘We will bury you!’”
Blatt’s selection was “a surprising choice in some ways, but not in others,” says Dan Peterson, an American who came over to Italy in the early 1970s to coach and today, as a television commentator, is recognized as an astute observer of the European game. “David is seen as having one of the really top basketball minds on the continent.”
The feel-good aspect of the Russian job went only so far: Blatt was told that if the team did not qualify last summer for the European Championships in September 2007, he would be out of a job. The team qualified, and Blatt remained.
Asked about coaching the national team, Blatt shrugs. “Coaching over here, you get used to the pressure,” he says. “As for relating to the players, most of them speak English and some of them have NBA experience. It really wasn’t much different from my other jobs.”
After more than a quarter-century of living and coaching abroad, Blatt has become thoroughly international. His squads invariably include players of several nationalities. He attributes much of his success to his time at Princeton, where he was a point guard. Some of it is basketball-related: Blatt stresses unselfish play on offense and team effort on defense, though he says he doesn’t really run what is known as the Princeton offense. But he believes his time in the classroom was just as important.
“I got at Princeton an experience and ideas on a very deep level,” Blatt says after practice, a few days before the Napoli game. “They brought me to the understanding that being a basketball coach is more than teaching X’s and O’s. I’m convinced that you have to also be a sociologist; you have to be a criminologist sometimes; you have to be a psychologist; you have to be an anthropologist, because you’ve got to understand where people came from and where their people came from; and you certainly have to be an ideologist at times. You have to have all these elements in order to understand all these different cultures you’re dealing with.”
Blatt’s international basketball experience began in 1981, when, after graduating from Princeton, he played on the gold-medal-winning U.S. team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel. He stayed on to play for Israeli club teams for more than a decade until rupturing his Achilles tendon. The path to the European leagues is not uncommon for men’s basketball alumni; some players build careers in the pros (recent examples include Mason Rocca ’00 in Italy and Judson Wallace ’05 in Germany), while others return to the United States after a season or two. Few Americans stay in Europe as coaches, as Blatt did, but those who had watched him play were not surprised.
“Dave was one of the most dedicated, hardest-working, well-prepared players I ever had,” says Pete Carril, the legendary former Princeton coach. “He did a heck of a lot for Princeton. He was a good team player, and was smart as a whip. Whatever it takes, he’s going to do it.”
Carril points to a time late in Blatt’s senior season that reflected both his aptitude as a player and the seeds of a future coach. Though Blatt had been a good point guard, making second team All-Ivy his junior year, “I had to bench him and put in a freshman,” Carril recalls. “It was one of the hardest decisions I had to make. But instead of pouting, Dave worked even harder. And in the second-to-last game of the season, we were losing and my freshman wasn’t doing anything. Dave scored six or eight points in a short time, made a couple of steals, and we won the game.”
As well as things have worked out in Europe, the thought still nags: What about the NBA? Would Blatt’s coaching success translate? One of Blatt’s hallmarks as a coach in Europe has been recruiting American players for his teams. He still follows the NBA closely and is respected by team officials, particularly since Andrea Bargnani’s emergence.
“Obviously, [working in the NBA] is in my mind and it’s something that I would like to do, but I’d have to find someone who was interested in me for a substantial position,” Blatt says. “I’ve been fortunate to have two of the premier jobs in Europe, with Benetton and with Maccabi. The status and the self-satisfaction and the financial rewards are too much for me to just get up and leave for the NBA [as an assistant]. I would love to go back to the States for a period of time, and more than that I would love for my family to go there, to get the American connection and the culture that I grew up with. But we’ll just have to see where it goes.”
Tim Warren, a copy editor for The Washington Post, has written extensively about European basketball.