The NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, pitting the Atlanta Hawks against the Cleveland Cavaliers, began earlier this week. If you want to understand what animates the series, you’ll have to understand Cleveland’s coach, David Blatt. And if you want to understand Blatt, the best thing to do is to think of him not as a basketball genius, which he most certainly is, but as something wildly different. You’ll have to think of him as an American Jewish cultural archetype—as a character dreamed up by Philip Roth.
Precocious and energetic, young Blatt attended Princeton University, where he played good basketball and read great novels. Like a young Nathan Zuckerman at the feet of E.I. Lonoff—the celebrated writer at the center of Roth’s finest work, The Ghost Writer, and most likely a stand-in for Bernard Malamud—Blatt found the old literary lion irresistible and wrote his thesis on Malamud’s The Natural. The book’s themes resonated with the ambitious young athlete. Ball games, Blatt realized instinctively, were nothing short of mythological battles played out by men with humbler uniforms and grander bank accounts. These were great men, and like all great men they arrived with great flaws. We looked up to them as our redeemers, but modernity, sadly, was just too cramped to accommodate a bona fide hero.
These are Malamud’s themes; they soon became Blatt’s as well. Recruited to play in a summer league at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel, east of Hadera, Blatt traveled to Israel and never left. He soon became a coach, starting out at a prestigious Jerusalem high school. Gavriel Hajdu, an Israeli sports commentator, was 16 when his high school’s team played Blatt’s. Hajdu and his colleagues were losing badly, and they were frustrated; under his breath, Hajdu cursed Blatt out. Enraged, the coach charged at the teenager, shouting and shoving him violently. “It felt as if he was stepping out of his personality and into some survival-based place,” Hajdu recently recalled, “some place that wasn’t willing to put up with this bullshit.”
It was the perfect attitude for the sort of career he was about to forge. By 2001, Blatt was coaching Maccabi Tel Aviv. To call the team Israel’s champion is to call the Hulk intermittently angry, a statement that, while technically true, misses all depths of splendor and rage. Maccabi isn’t just the country’s best team; it is, really, its only team, having won 51 championships in the Israeli league’s 62 years of existence. Coaching Maccabi is unlike coaching any other team in any other sport. Coaching Maccabi means you cannot ever lose. It means you are constantly being built up—You’re the greatest ever! You’re unstoppable!—only to be cut down mercilessly. It means constantly hearing a nagging, overbearing voice in your head, doubting your every decision. It’s like having Sophie Portnoy as your mother.
But Blatt prevailed. Like Sophie’s son, he of the famed Complaint, Blatt was driven, intelligent, obsessed, systemic, the outsider no matter where he went. With Maccabi and later with Russia’s national team, he won a Eurobasket title in 2007, a Euroleague title in 2014, and an Olympic bronze medal in 2012, a trifecta achieved by only five other coaches in basketball history. And then, he was selected by the Cavaliers and arrived just a short while before the return of the greatest living basketball player in the world, LeBron James.
Any coach would have had a tough time handling an ego as monstrous as that of King James, but read some of the reports about the relationship between LeBron and Blatt and you’d be forgiven for thinking you were tuning in to scenes from a marriage. “What typically happens,” opined one analyst, “is LeBron will take the ball, and LeBron will call the play. David Blatt will see what play LeBron calls, and he will repeat it to the team. That happens on a regular basis.” The roles could not be clearer: In one corner is the nice Jewish boy with the post-bar mitzvah buzz cut, in the other the paragon of physical prowess, a non-Jewish embodiment of perfection for which Philip Roth characters perpetually pine.
Such a pairing is too good of a story, and the media soon gave Blatt the kind of attention very few newcomer coaches ever receive. For each column that praised his energetic offense, three were written decrying him as an embarrassment. Often, Blatt did little to help his own cause: In game 4 of the semifinal series against Chicago, for example, he took four steps into the court and raised his hands to ask for a time out. There were 9.4 seconds left in the game; the teams were tied with 84 points each; and Cleveland, unbeknownst to its coach, had no more time outs at its disposal. Had anyone noticed Blatt’s erroneous request, his team would have been penalized with a technical foul, which would have meant a free throw plus loss of possession. Fortunately, associate Head Coach Tyronn Lue jumped in and pulled Blatt back the sidelines. With 1.5 seconds to go, Blatt then called for James to pass the ball rather than take the game’s last shot. James ignored him, and, with the buzzer going off, won the game for Cleveland.
It wasn’t Blatt’s finest moment, and it drove some to call for his head. The critics are missing the point: Blatt is the coach who, earlier in the season, called off practice and took his team bowling to calm them down and refocus after a losing streak. He’s the coach who excels at adapting his system to fit the reality, making players that have flunked elsewhere—see under: Smith, J.R.—shine. He’s the coach who knows about wild ambition and grudging respect and heartbreak and unrealistic expectations and letting it all out. He’s a Philip Roth character, and those, even when they lose, always somehow come out on top.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.