Published by: NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Jun 15, 2015 at 9:51 am
Economists will look back at the month of June 2015 in Israel and see that productivity was down significantly. And thankfully it would not have been due to some sort of geopolitical crisis or a natural disaster.
It is because millions of Israelis are waking up at 3 or 4 a.m. and become glued to their television sets to watch the NBA Finals between Cleveland and Golden State. Basketball in Israel is huge, but for teams from Cleveland and Oakland? That’s not why Israelis are getting out of bed before sunrise.
It’s because of David Blatt, the American-Israeli head coach of the Cavs — who after spending more than 20 years coaching in Israel and throughout Europe, has led LeBron James and the Cavaliers to the brink of an NBA championship in only his first season in the league.
Under the leadership of Commissioners Adam Silver and David Stern, the NBA has exploded into a global brand as American culture throughout the world has become increasingly popular. An astonishing 37 countries were represented among 101 international players in the NBA this season (around 23% of all players on opening night), while the Association now operates 18 international versions of NBA.com.
Israel is proud to take part in basketball’s growing success, becoming one of the top destinations for American players who play overseas and a perennial threat to produce a European champion.
But Blatt’s story stems from an even deeper tie between American basketball, Israel and Europe that dates back decades.
The trajectory of Blatt’s career is one that Dr. James Naismith could never have imagined when he invented the sport in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1891. Some historians have documented that basketball spread across the Atlantic in the early 20th Century thanks to many YMCA programs.
During World War II, the game really took off overseas when American troops brought basketball with them wherever they were stationed throughout Europe.
In North Africa, the game was introduced in large part through members of the Peace Corps. And many Egyptian Jews and American coaches who had come through the U.S. and Europe brought the game to Israel, where it has continued to grow exponentially.
In the 1960s, former first-round NBA draft pick Tal Brody, a native of Trenton, N.J., gave up a career in the NBA to play for Maccabi Tel Aviv. He would later lead the team to its first of six European Championships. Brody and others like him helped revolutionize basketball in Israel, putting it on the fast track to becoming a major professional sport, while opening doors for others from the U.S. and Europe, such as Anthony Parker and Will Bynum, to establish legitimate professional careers in Israel that in many cases have created a path to elongated careers in the NBA.
Blatt is the product of this fascinating phenomenon of basketball’s development as a global sport. Born in the same state as the game itself, he captained Princeton’s basketball team while playing for the legendary Pete Carril from 1977-81. After college, Blatt moved to Israel and played professionally there from 1981-93, before starting his coaching career with Hapoel Galil Elyon.
Blatt started a family with his wife, and by 2002, he was a two-time Israeli coach of the year, had won every possible title in Israel, reached a Euroleague Final Four and had ascended to become an assistant on Israel’s national team and the head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, the country’s most prolific sports franchise.
Blatt would later coach some of Europe’s most competitive club teams in Italy, Turkey, Greece and Russia. In 2007, Blatt was head coach of the Russian national team that won the FIBA EuroBasket Championship, and in 2012 led Russia to the Bronze Medal at the London Olympics. Last year, back in Israel as head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, he won the Euroleague Championship.
And now, Blatt and the Cavs need just one win at home tomorrow night to force a Game 7 in the NBA Finals.
Some story: An American game brought overseas nearly a century ago produces an American-born coach who learned his trade in Israel and Europe and is now leading an NBA franchise on the sport’s grandest stage.
Blatt, who I am proud to call a fellow Israeli citizen, is the most successful sportsman in our nation’s history. His 16 championships as a coach in Israel, his Olympic bronze medal coaching Russia in 2012 and now his trip to the NBA Finals represent unprecedented successes.
And it’s Blatt’s experience beyond the NBA, despite most mistakenly calling him a rookie head coach, which has helped lead the Cavaliers to where they are now.
Blatt’s story proves the value of the many opportunities that this global game has to offer worldwide. It is a testament to us in Israel that experience in our leagues and in Europe can lead to success at the highest level of the sport. Watching it all play out makes it worth the sleep deprivation.
(Photo credit: Mindaugas Kulbis/AP)