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Identity Politics on the Court

‘Where does David Blatt end and Jewishness begin?’

Bethlehem Shoals
January 26, 2016
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Former Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt during a game against the Phoenix Suns, December 28, 2015. Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
Former Cleveland Cavaliers coach David Blatt during a game against the Phoenix Suns, December 28, 2015. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Last Friday, the Cleveland Cavaliers fired head coach and Israeli basketball legend David Blatt. During the Cavs’ first post-Blatt home game, two women in the stands triumphantly unfurled a Palestinian flag in the second quarter. These people weren’t just happy to see Blatt go, they were dancing on his grave in a way that explicitly invoked his identity.

It also seemed to serve as confirmation of what some—primarily the Israeli press—had been saying since the news leaked, which was that Blatt’s firing was tinged with anti-Semitism. Certainly, the optics of it were startling. Cleveland had the best record of any team in the East and the fourth-highest winning percentage in the NBA. Despite the absence of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in last year’s NBA Finals, the Cavs managed to give the mighty Warriors a good scare. This season, they were without Irving until a little over a week ago. On paper, no one coaching this well in the NBA has ever lost their job. As pragmatic a decision as this was, it also felt oddly incomplete. Rick Carlisle, President of the NBA Coaches Association, called the incident “bizarre” and “an embarrassment for the league.”

As I wrote for GQ, it’s easy to make sense of Blatt’s dismissal from a basketball standpoint. The Cavaliers simply weren’t performing at a level anywhere near the West’s top teams, which is what it was going to take for Cleveland to win a title. It also didn’t help that Blatt and LeBron James never really got on the same page. There was speculation that James pushed out Blatt, which is only a problem if you believe that coaches hold an intrinsic authority that must be respected at any costs in order to preserve the hierarchies that keep athletes in their place. Blatt’s immediate replacement was Cavs assistant and James’ favorite Tyronn Lue; LeBron James may have, in effect, demanded the right to pick his own boss. For NBA franchises, landing a top-tier player also means ceding to them a certain amount of power and influence. These larger structural questions are what Carlisle seems to have found so alarming.

But from the general public, there something at least a little strange about the almost total lack of sympathy for David Blatt. Blatt was often painted him as a hapless and at times off-putting weirdo struggling to adjust, not a capable coach negotiating a high-stakes situation. The narrative of Blatt-as-outsider, awkward and unloved, was practically textbook. You can read between the lines and easily find a stereotypical Jew unwilling to assimilate to the dominant culture. The incessant talk about Blatt’s inability to adjust had a subtext to it: He was foreign, alien, and just didn’t fit into the NBA. And he either wouldn’t or couldn’t do anything to address this problem—if he even saw it as such. There’s also the matter of Blatt’s strained relationship with LeBron James, whose program of empowerment has an explicit racial component to it. At what point do we let identity politics seep into these situations? Where does David Blatt end and Jewishness begin?

Anti-Semitism is a matter of interpretation, so it’s worth noting that there was very little stateside furor about L’Affaire Blatt. Unlike Israeli forward Omri Casspi, who caused a mild sensation when he entered the league with Sacramento in 2009, Blatt never really captured the Jewish popular imagination. While it’s hard to quantify social media sentiment, I’ve only seen a few American Jews suggest that anti-Semitism may have played a role in Blatt’s dismissal. And in the broader context of the NBA, Jewishness is largely unremarkable. To even suggest that the “culture” of the NBA is hostile ignores just how much American Jews have invested in this league as our sport, or how many Jews play prominent roles in it. Even during the most acrimonious stretches of David Stern’s tenure as Commissioner, there was only ever the slightest hint of rhetoric that could be construed as Jew-related. Now under the well-liked Adam Silver, Jewishness is just an accepted fact of the NBA landscape.

In contrast, the ouster touched a raw nerve in Israel. Israelis take a special interest in Blatt because of what he means to them as a countryman, not a fellow member of an ethno-religious group. Because of his popularity, his ties with the Israeli National Team and Bibi himself, and his status as a prominent export, a fail for Blatt is a fail for Israel. By some accounts, LeBron James is now a reviled figure among Israelis and both the Cavs and the NBA as a whole may have cost themselves fans. The cries of anti-Semitism among Israelis are rampant. After all, what else could explain firing a coach this successful mid-season? Then there was the flag incident.

The truth is, we have no insight into the intention of those two women. (If David Blatt was run out of town simply because he was Jewish, wouldn’t a swastika flag have been more appropriate?) But the mere fact that Blatt’s ethno-religious identity came into play is alarming. Whatever your view is of the relationship between Israel and American Jews or your personal feelings on Israel, seeing that flag in the stands had to provoke a visceral reaction: Blatt was being called out as something and, if not openly mocked for it, at least mocked through the lens of it. Blatt’s firing, and this moment in particular, opens out onto a much larger discussion about how various identities are intertwined. American Jews may not have cared much about David Blatt before now. But after that Saturday night game, maybe we should be asking ourselves—should we at least have been paying attention?

Bethlehem Shoals is a founding member of He has contributed to GQ, Salon, and Slate. Follow him on Twitter @freedarko.