INDEPENDENCE, Ohio (AP) — Like most kids growing up near Boston, David Blatt lived and breathed the Celtics. They were his team, the only team.
Pressing a transistor radio against his ear, Blatt listened as legendary announcer Johnny Most described how Bill Russell grabbed rebounds and when John Havlicek “stole the ball!”
At an early age, he was hooked on hoops.
“I kind of had that NBA dream in my ear and in my heart,” Blatt said.
And now, it’s back in his life.
Blatt was introduced Wednesday as the new coach of the Cavaliers, a team in transition as it prepares to select first in the NBA draft and make a strong run at LeBron James, the soon-to-be free agent who has several other teams making moves to try and get him.
Blatt spent the past two decades in Israel, where he developed into a top international coach. Now, after winning numerous titles across Europe and guiding Russia to a bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics, Blatt is ready to take on the challenge of coaching on pro basketball’s biggest stage.
It was time to make the jump, and the Cavs helped Blatt’s overseas leap.
“Absolutely it’s a challenge,” Blatt said of his upcoming transition. “But I’ve got to tell you, the game is not so different as people think it is. It’s a little bit longer here. Perhaps the level of athleticism and speed all around the court is different. But it’s not like playing baseball and soccer. It’s still the same game.”
Blatt isn’t hung up on labels or perceptions. He doesn’t consider himself an Israeli coach, European coach or any type for that matter. He doesn’t favor offense over defense.
“I’m a basketball coach,” he said, “someone who through teaching and working with people and getting the most out of my players and staff has always seen the success of the team as paramount.”
The Cavaliers spent nearly six weeks looking for their third coach in three years before hiring Blatt, who recently resigned as coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, a squad he led to this year’s Euroleague title. Cavs general manager David Griffin said Blatt was one of “five or six” candidates who had full-blown interviews and the club contacted as many as 11 coaches.
“He’s truly the embodiment of every characteristic we most sought in a coach,” Griffin said. “He’s a guy who has passion, creativity and intelligence. As a coach, he’s able to adjust in ways that make him special because of those things. He lives those things as a man as well. Because of all that, the players all feel him in a very powerful way. David is an authentic leader.”
The team hired finalist Tyronn Lue as an associate head coach under Blatt.
Blatt understands there’s a responsibility that comes with being the first at anything. He believes other European coaches are as qualified to coach in the NBA, but he’s the one getting the chance.
“I know I’m carrying the torch, and I hope like hell I don’t drop it,” he said. “I don’t plan to. It does mean a great deal.”
Blatt was charming, convincing and self-effacing during a 30-minute news conference at Cleveland Clinic Courts. Blatt said he had previous chances to come to the NBA, but the timing wasn’t right.
“Somebody told me the reason I did it is because I missed Boston lobster and macaroni and cheese,” he cracked. “There’s something to that, honestly.”
Blatt is taking over a team that went 33-49 last season and underachieved for Mike Brown, who was fired on May 12, ending his second stint in Cleveland. Blatt believes the Cavs have the pieces to be a contender, and that it’s up to him to put them together.
And that would be the case in any country.
“I find a group of guys that want to be coached, that want to learn, that care about winning,” he said. “Those are things I have to emphasize with them, that I have to strengthen and help them understand the right way to do it.
“I’ve coached enough great players in my life to know when guys are happy playing together and are seeing that doing it the right way brings and fosters the spirit you need to win, it doesn’t make a difference where you coach.”
Blatt feels he’s finally where he belongs. He had a great run overseas, but it was time to come back to where he started. It was time to come home.
“I was happy and fulfilled in what I was doing,” he said. “But I never, for a moment, lost the hope that I would come full circle and make my way back to the places where I grew up and to be part of something that was so much a part of me.”
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.