Richard Simkus ’83 had been following the tournament on television, and he had watched his former teammate lead timeouts in games prior. NBC often had Blatt miked up during timeouts, and Simkus was impressed by the command he had over the Russian players.
“He clearly was in charge, and it was clearly his team, and he clearly had their respect,” said Simkus, currently an investment adviser in Lawrenceville, N.J. “What more do you need to know?”
But when Blatt was hired in 2006 as the first non-Russian head coach of the national team, he found he had to earn that respect. As a Jewish American who has lived in Israel for much of his adult life, winning people over was a challenge. But through a self-described desire to bridge cultural divides through sports, Blatt turned around a struggling basketball team and won the respect of a nation.
Blatt’s leadership capabilities, in terms of both on-court strategy and connecting with people from different backgrounds, were on display during his years at Princeton, where he served as captain his senior year and led the Tigers to two Ivy League championships. Former teammate Craig Robinson ’83 said Blatt took him under his wing during his recruiting trip and made him feel much more comfortable transitioning into Princeton.
“We were from different parts of the country, but we shared a love for the game first and foremost,” said Robinson, the head coach of the Oregon State University men’s basketball team and brother of First Lady Michelle Obama ’85. “He always made me feel like I was better than I thought I was.”
After playing guard for four years at Princeton under Pete Carrill, Blatt began his playing career in Haifa, Israel. Three years later, he returned to the U.S. to work in sales for Xerox in Atlanta.
“I wanted to go play for a few years before I started, let’s say, my normal life,” Blatt said.
He kept up his game by playing in amateur leagues on the side, but it just wasn’t the same.
“I missed professional basketball, I missed the lifestyle, and I missed being in Israel,” he said. “I decided to go back for some more, and I’ve been there ever since.”
He returned to Israel and bounced around from club to club before transitioning into coaching in 1993. After successful stints as both head and assistant coach for teams in Israel and elsewhere in Europe, he was hired to coach Dynamo St. Petersburg in Russia in 2004.
The club was brand new, and under Blatt’s leadership it won the FIBA Europe League championship in its first year. That instant success raised eyebrows, and in 2006 he was brought on to coach a Russian national team that had been unable to replicate the international success it had seen before the fall of the Soviet Union.
While the decision to bring him on as head coach may have been logical from a basketball standpoint, Blatt said it was not popular at the time.
“I’m a child of the Cold War, and I’m an American. I’m an Israeli, and I’m Jewish, and somebody with that background coaching what was at one time one of the flagships of Soviet Union sport has an enormous historical significance,” Blatt said. “I wanted that challenge, and I wanted to be a person who broke new ground in a way that I always dreamed about, which was bringing people closer together through sports.”
Blatt says he brought a different philosophy to the team, which he calls “a Western approach to coaching the game.” The Russian Ministry of Sport previously required players to be on the team, but Blatt released many of the “old guard” players and made membership on the team completely voluntary.
On the court, Blatt focused on speed and defensive tactics. It paid off just two years later in 2007 when Russia won the European Championship, but Blatt had his eyes set on an Olympic medal. After failing to advance past the group stage in 2008, the team surprised many in 2012.
During the timeout, Blatt called for a play that would give guard Alexey Shved a quick three-point shot off a high screen. Shved sunk the shot, and Russia would go on to win the bronze, its first medal in post-Soviet history.
Having won a medal, Blatt said he is now seriously considering stepping down. He said it would help him spend more time with his family — his wife and four children live in Israel — but he said it’s also about his legacy and how he wants to go out.
Blatt will retain his position as head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv, considered one of the strongest club teams outside the United States. He said he is happy with his position there, and though he could see himself coaching in the NBA or NCAA, working as an assistant coach in America is not an attractive option for him.
But a head coaching offer in the United States is not off the table.
“He would be a fantastic NBA coach,” Robinson said. “All it’s going to take is one guy who thinks outside the box and gives him a shot.”
Russia did that already and now has an Olympic medal to show for it.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2012/09/13/31088/