A Former NBA Coach, David Blatt Is Teaching Basketball Despite Battling MS

The Israeli-American coaching legend is making an impact on and off the court.

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
David Blatt coaches the Cleveland Cavaliers against the Golden State Warriors on December 25, 2015, at Oakland, California. Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

An Israeli-American basketball legend, David Blatt, watched from his home in South Carolina last week as Maccabi Tel Aviv played an elimination basketball game at Athens, Greece, for the right to go to the EuroLeague Final Four.

Maccabi, a team etched in Mr. Blatt’s soul as a player, coach, and consultant, clashed in the do-or-die battle with rival Panathinaikos in the deciding game of their best-of-five series in the quarterfinals of the EuroLeague playoffs. A victory would have advanced Maccabi to the coveted Final Four and a chance to win their first championship since Mr. Blatt was the head coach in 2014.

“It was really tough to sit and watch,” Mr. Blatt told the Sun. “But I also had a great source of pride and inspiration because I’ve coached in those particular kinds of games and those particular kinds of series. It was a bit of déjà vu.”

Maccabi played without its best player, Wade Baldwin, yet stayed competitive deep into the fourth quarter before losing 81-72, ending a Euroleague season thrown into chaos following the October 7 attacks by Hamas. Based at Tel Aviv, the Maccabi team, which includes Mr. Blatt’s son Tamir, was forced to leave Israel abruptly and play its “home” games at Belgrade, Serbia, in an arena without fans due to safety concerns. Despite the displacement and upheaval in their lives, and the constant concerns about the safety of family and friends, Maccabi persevered, piecing together a season more successful than most thought possible.

“In my mind, it was an enormous success,” Mr. Blatt said. “Not only because of the result going to the quarterfinal and a five-game series, but given the particular set of circumstances they had to go through in order to finish the year, I just thought it was exceptional.”

Mr. Blatt, 64, played on a professional level mostly in Israel for a dozen years and coached at a professional level for three decades. One of the most successful Israeli-American coaches in European basketball history, Mr. Blatt coached in Israel, Russia, Italy, Turkey, and Greece, and was the Maccabi head coach between 2001 and 2003 and 2010 and 2014. He was named the Israeli Super League Coach of the Year four times — 1996, 2002, 2011, and 2014 — the Russian Super League Coach of the Year in 2005, and the EuroLeague Coach of the Year in 2014.

Many Americans remember Mr. Blatt for his brief tenure as the head coach of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. He became the first international head coach hired by an NBA club in June 2014 and guided the Cavs to the NBA Finals in 2014-15, losing to Golden State in six games. The Cavs fired him in January 2016 despite owning the best record in the Eastern Conference at 30-11. A disconnect between Messrs. Blatt and James, the team’s star player, was later attributed to the firing.

 Mr. Blatt was replaced by Tyronn Lue, who coached Cleveland to the NBA title.

“When they hear my name they think of me and the NBA,” Mr. Blatt said. “But that was really such a small part of my career.”

Mr. Blatt’s ability to continue his decorated coaching career changed dramatically nearly five years ago when he was diagnosed with Primary Progressive Multiple Sclerosis, a disease in which the immune system eats away at the protective covering of nerves. According to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, more than 2.8 million people are living with MS worldwide.

“It had already become more advanced than I would have liked,” Mr. Blatt said. “I was able to push through and continue coaching on the floor, but it became too difficult due to the kind of MS I had and how it manifests in my body.”

He stays involved in basketball by serving as a consultant, something he did with the New York Knicks and now with Maccabi Tel Aviv and the Canadian National Team, which is preparing for the Paris Olympics.

“I spend a lot of time with the coaches, being someone that can be a sounding board for them as well as give them any feedback or pointers that I have or see in terms of the team and the makeup of the team and what we’re doing on the floor,” he said. “I also interact with the players as someone who has experience in both worlds, this side of the Atlantic and the other side of the Atlantic.”

Does Mr. Blatt miss being on the sidelines? “Absolutely,” he said without hesitation. “I didn’t retire because I wanted to. I retired because I had to. On the one hand, I could tell you it’s extremely difficult and almost depressing that’s the way it happened. On the other hand, I played at a professional level for 10 years. I coached at a professional level for 30, and I’ve got no regrets.”

His extensive resume also includes working with some of the biggest and best programs in Europe, developing basketball in Russia, playing on seven national teams, and participating in two Olympic Games. He also compiled an 83-40 record coaching in the NBA.

“I do miss the competitive nature of the game and the positive messages of the game that we can spread,” he said. “I’m grateful I can still do something, but I miss the day-to-day sweating and fighting and competing for excellence. I do miss that.”

Mr. Blatt openly shares his experiences as a coach and dealing with MS with those seeking his knowledge. He offers advice not only about Xs and Os, but navigating life.

“I still see my greatest source of pride and joy as being able to build bridges and foster a greater sense of tolerance and acceptance amongst people from different places, backgrounds, races, and religions,” he said. “These are things to me that are lasting elements of my career.”

Born and raised in America, Mr. Blatt attended Princeton and played point guard for the legendary Pete Carril. He served as team captain his senior year in 1981, when the Tigers won the Ivy League and qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Upon graduating, Mr. Blatt went overseas and became a dual citizen of Israel. Despite stops all over the globe as a player and a coach, he still considers Israel “home for me for 35 years.” In 2023, he enjoyed the honor of lighting the torch for Israel’s annual Independence Day celebration.

Mr. Blatt said he is troubled by the war in Israel and what he sees happening on the college campuses of America. “It’s not an easy time at all and I’m worried about where society is going,” he said. “I’m thankful some progress has been made from a societal standpoint, a racial standpoint, and a religious standpoint. But on the other hand, every time I look up, I see very significant examples of those very things we’re not making progress in, and it disturbs me. We’re not making the progress we should.”

His advocacy for patients and families affected by MS is more personal than public. When first diagnosed with MS, he issued “a very long discourse on my situation” to reduce any misunderstandings of the disease and reduce any fear people might have. He remains willing to talk to anyone searching for support or knowledge.

“I literally spend time each day speaking with people about MS,” he said. “I try to personalize it instead of taking an official position. I just try to let it be known I’m here for people who want to talk or just share their experiences. I just want people to know there’s someone out there who cares.”

He recently became a grandfather and is proud of his son, Tamir, who is living out his professional dreams during a difficult season. “It’s a tremendously satisfying and happy thing when you can see your own child competing at the highest level and know what that young man has gone through to get to that point,” Mr. Blatt said.

Although its EuroLeague season is over, Maccabi advanced to the Israel State Cup Final where they play Hapoel Jerusalem on Thursday night. Mr. Blatt will be watching.


The New York Sun

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