"GET IN THE LANE!" David Blatt shouted, halting practice. The coach was running a defensive drill last winter with his Maccabi Tel Aviv squad, and guard Ricky Hickman wasn't rotating far enough to the middle of the floor. "You can stand in the lane," Blatt said, reminding the American that in European basketball there is no three-second rule on defense. "This isn't the NBA. You're not there yet."
Hickman shot back: "I ain't there yet, but what about you?" And with that, everyone in the gym cracked up -- Israelis and Americans, Australians, Greeks and Croatians -- but none harder than Blatt, the man charged with molding those disparate characters into a cohesive unit.
Hickman's joke was a nod to the rumors circulating that Blatt, who had coached in Europe and Israel for the past 21 years, could be headed home. That's if the States could even be considered home anymore for the 55-year-old native of Framingham, Mass., given that he'd spent 31 of the past 33 years overseas, mainly in Israel. That's where he'd met his wife, raised a family and won championships with Maccabi.
But Hickman's joke would prove to be prescient: On June 20, a month after Maccabi won the Euroleague title, the Cleveland Cavaliers hired Blatt as their new coach, making him the first to leap directly from Europe to an NBA head job. Three weeks later, LeBron James announced he was coming home, and six weeks after that, the Cavs completed a trade for Kevin Love. With Kyrie Irving already a fixture, the Cavs became instant NBA Finals favorites. That isn't a transition from the top Israeli league. It's another life.
To throw someone who has not spent a day on an NBA bench into that cauldron seems foolish, perhaps even sadistic. About 30 seconds after LeBron's announcement, hoopheads were already clucking that he hadn't bothered to meet with Blatt before signing. If the Cavs struggle early, Blatt's job could be ... well, let's just say it could be a short honeymoon.
Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert and GM David Griffin are betting, though, that Blatt is exactly what the Cavs need. It's been 50 years since Cleveland has toasted a champion in any sport, and Blatt is nothing if not a winner. He's won in Israel and Italy, with clubs in Russia and Greece, and with the Russian national team. Gilbert and Griffin believe that he may just have the perfect combination of swagger, basketball smarts and -- most crucially -- emotional intelligence to pull this thing off.
Blatt's former players universally rave about his ability to relate to them, a skill he began to hone at a young age. Watching his mother teach learning-impaired and physically challenged students helped Blatt understand the importance of handling each individual differently. "I learned empathy from my mother," he says. "Not everybody can achieve the maximum. Some people can achieve what their maximum is. It's not always the same."
By the time Blatt landed at Princeton, he'd developed a knack for relating to teammates. "When we would get separated a bit too much," says Steve Mills, Blatt's backcourt mate with the Tigers and now the GM of the Knicks, "he would always find a way to bring us all back together."
Blatt started as a sophomore and a junior, but coach Pete Carril benched him in favor of a freshman in his final season. Blatt never confronted his coach, instead demonstrating his frustration by playing pickup ball across campus before practice and games. As much as Carril's offensive system -- which emphasized movement, spacing and teamwork -- is recognizable in the DNA of Blatt's teams, much of his approach seems to be a direct reaction to Carril's ways.
Whereas the curmudgeonly Carril used a small number of players at a plodding pace, Blatt utilizes a deep bench to push the tempo. But more important than any strategy or system, he puts a premium on building relationships with players. He is almost pathologically honest with them; it has worked because of his knack for lacing straight talk with humor, often self-effacing. In practice, Blatt has become known over the years -- much to his players' delight -- for stumbling and falling when demonstrating concepts on the court. The reaction was similar when the coach once chided his players to work on their games instead of watching "Yo! MTV Raps," a show that had gone off the air a decade earlier.
"That comes from my English literature background," Blatt says. "In Shakespeare's biggest tragedies, he always interjected some humor. It's a well-known literary technique: comic relief."
Coaching in Europe, with its diverse rosters, was like a master class in learning how to relate to all types. When Blatt was coaching in Russia, half his team couldn't understand a word that came out of his mouth, so he focused on communicating with tone, and he implemented a buddy system in practice, pairing English speakers with those who couldn't recognize the word "dribble." As for the blank stares he'd find after diagramming a play? "Hell, I've had that happen here too," he says.
Off the court, families would gather -- the coach's and those of his players. These social calls were, in fact, routine, so it's no surprise that his first meeting with LeBron was in a New York City hotel this summer. The James family briefed Blatt's wife and daughters on life around Cleveland, as LeBron and his new coach chatted casually.
Establishing a rapport with the game's best -- and most powerful -- player will be Blatt's most crucial task. Igor Kokoskov, a native of Serbia, has been an NBA assistant coach for 14 seasons, most recently with the Cavs last year. He also coaches the Georgian national team, and while he doesn't see major differences between the NBA and Europe, "we all know this league is run by the players," Kokoskov says. "It's no secret. They have a lot of influence on decisions franchises make, and that's not seen in Europe yet. The coach is still the main person there.
"[Blatt's] not a rookie coach, though, and he's an American. So I believe he will adjust to how the league works."
It is possible that Blatt's unfiltered bluntness could get him in trouble. His willingness this past summer to opine to a reporter on Israel and Gaza was downright shocking compared with, say, the typical response from an athlete or coach. On the other hand, that type of candor is just as likely to help him connect with LeBron, who routinely exchanged frank views with Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Anthony Parker, who played for Blatt at Maccabi and with James in Cleveland, expects their unlikely marriage to flourish. "Dave's going to respect LeBron enough to know to give him some freedom and input, the same way he's done all his top players," Parker says. "And LeBron is smart enough to know that not everything clicks right away."
In any case, Blatt is unlikely to be overwhelmed. "Listen," he says, chuckling, "I've been doing this for a long time." The trace of laughter trails off, and he speaks slowly, emphasizing each word. "The address has changed, but coaching is coaching."