After making six Final Four trips in the last decade, Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv aims to get back to its second home in the Euroleague this season. Maccabi has lifted two Euroleague titles and added two other final appearances since 2004, but the fact that Maccabi failed to win the Israeli League for just the second time since 1993 last season means that no team will be hungrier and more motivated this year. Only Real Madrid and CSKA beat Maccabi’s five European crowns and only the former has appeared in more championship games than Maccabi’s 13.
heinnews’s David Hein caught up with Maccabi head coach David Blatt to talk about his return to Israel; his changes within the Maccabi culture; Sofoklis Schortsanitis and Milan Macvan; the Euroleague; the fall of CSKA Moscow; EuroBasket 2007; Princeton nearly upsetting Georgetown in 1989; coaching philosophy; the NBA lockout and Timofey Mozgov.
heinnews: How is it being back in Israel?
Blatt: After seven years of being away, it’s nice to come back, primarily because it’s good for my family and because I’m coming back to the same organization I was with for many years before I left. And obviously it’s one of the top clubs in European basketball. It’s just a real comfortable situation for me. I know the people, I know the culture. I was fortunate to be part of a lot of success while I was there. I really hit the ground running because I didn’t have to assimilate or learn a whole lot about where I was coming to. On the other hand, the professional side in the last three or four or five years was not good. There were a lot of problems. There was little bit lack of direction of the club and the connection between the team and the fans and the public. We really had to work hard to re-establish those things. And I think we have been pretty successful with that.
heinnews: How did you try to do that and seeing that Maccabi have not won the Israeli league in two of the past three years how much pressure was on you?
Blatt: The first thing we did was identify what the major difficulties were professionally and we started by bringing in a target center which we haven’t had in the last three years since Nikola Vujcic left – so a consistent inside target player (Sofoklis Schortsanitis). We also wanted our backcourt with good point guard play. We kept Doron Perkins and we brought in Jeremy Pargo. The next step was to re-establish and re-insert the top level Israeli players back to Maccabi which had sort of been missing the last three years. We brought back Lior Eliyahu, who spent a year in Caja Laboral. We brought back Tal Burstein, who had been injured and then gone to Fuenlabrada last year. And we began to put more emphasis on the Israeli player in order to re-establish the connection between our crowd and the team. And not only to bring in those players but to give those players and the Israeli players that we had had before a bigger role in the team, which they have taken and run with in a good way. That not only helped us with our identification issue but also professionally as those are top level players.
After that we tried to create a little bit more of a team environment and team culture which was something that we had before which had been missing the past few years. A lot of individuality, a lot of selfishness, a lot of issues off the court. So we tried to bring in key guys, character guys to make our locker room better and as a result hopefully make the team better. And finally we wanted to start to create a vision for the future and that means not necessarily taking the most famous or highly priced foreigners but bring in guys we could work with and develop for the future and years to come. I think we’re laying the groundwork for that as well. Those were our major goals, and up until this point I think we have been right on as far as all those things and our results you know show but that’s not the only thing.
heinnews: Also that you have a feeling that there is a real difference.
Blatt: Yeah, I would like to think that we reinvented the Maccabi culture that we want to have here.
heinnews: Was that a major reason why they brought you in because you?
Blatt: I think there’s probably a pretty big possibility of that, but I don’t want to speak for them myself. But I feel that was truly a big part of their decision. They wanted an experienced guy who was at a high level who not only had basketball experience but also Maccabi experience and an understanding of how things are done here. And I think I sort of answer that for them on every account. I could have come back before but it just wanted right for me or for them or both of us at the same time. This year was sort of the time where it all fit.
heinnews: You mentioned the dominating presence in the middle, obviously you have faced Schortsanitis plenty of times at the club and national team level. Maybe talk about what it’s like to have him on your team now and how pleased are you with his at times downright dominating performance over a good 20 minutes both in Israel and the Euroleague?
Blatt: There was some skepticism on the part of a lot of people when we signed him. We recognized in him the exact things we needed for our team and I think Sofo has really embraced the situation and has taken responsibility and been very accountable for himself and his actions. We play him a lot more minutes than any of his Olympiacos teams he’s played on in the past. He knows that he has to stay in top shape and be ready to perform without nearly the kind of support that he had around him before as far as the number of big guys or his role within those teams. And he faced up to that and really given us top level performance. And we’ve asked of him a lot of things that maybe he hasn’t given before. And he’s answered the bell on that as well. We’ve been really happy with him. He’s a special guy, and as a team and organization you have to give him the feeling and the environment that makes it helpful for him to function well. And I think we’ve done that.
heinnews: I have seen Chuck Eidson play in the past in Germany and he’s a joy to watch with all his versatility. How fun is it as coach to have him on the floor for you?
Blatt: Your description is the perfect one. The first thing you think of with Chuck is his versatility. He can just do so many things on the court to help the team and help you win. Chuck struggled last year with the lack of continuity and teamwork which went on. And I think that the way that we play is very suitable for him. And obviously his skills and performance speak volumes. He’s had a great season thus far. Having seen him yourself in Germany you know full well what he’s capable of. Here he has to be more submissive to others at times because we have more good players. But he’s a facilitator as well as a scorer and a guy that touches all the bases on the basketball court. He really helps you in a lot of different ways.
heinnews: Onto Doron Perkins, one of the nicest things you see I’m sure is that he doesn’t even have 1.5 turnovers a game despite running the team for that amount of time.
Blatt: Doron has really, really upgraded himself every year. He’s played in smaller places and smaller leagues and upgraded himself over seven years. Now he’s one of the top guards in Europe and deserving of a lot of credit on his part because Doron has confidence. And he works to justify that confidence in himself and the fact that he has his game more under control helps him to stay on the court and help the team function smoothly. I think the big thing with Doron is that – he’s a good offensive player – but he’s a flat-out stopper on defense. He really takes people out of the game because he plays both ends of the court. He’s a great two-way player who is willing and able to make guys disappear. There are very few guys who can do that and there are no substitutes for that.
heinnews: The only winter signing was Milan Macvan. Obviously European scouts and lovers of European basketball have watched him for years with the Serbian youth teams and in those Serbian-based teams. Obviously huge talent, but what was the thought in bringing him in and what are your expectations of him and how soon do you think he can contribute?
Blatt: That’s really a good question and remember when I was talking about the things that we identified this summer, one of them was the vision of the future that we wanted to build Maccabi with the right system and the right kind of player and people for the future of the club. We have followed Milan in the past and at 21-years-old he is one of the most talented players at his age level in Europe. We really, really put a premium on signing him to help us this year and in the future. He’s already stepped in some games and done very well even though he’s been here for less than a month. And the team remember was doing very well before he came. On paper it may have been a difficult insertion but he’s just such a smart guy and such a team player and such a good kid that he’s just fit in here beautifully like he’s been here all year. We really expect big things from Milan. I think the one thing if I could put my finger on it was that Milan is a guy that can make the team work together. He’s just so basketball-smart and so unselfish but he has so much ability to do things the game moves very easily and effortlessly when he’s on the court. He just makes the game easy with his passing, his positioning, his decision-making, his effort. He’s kind of a special guy in that respect. It’s easy to play with him and he makes the game easier for other guys.
heinnews: He makes the game easy and fun to watch as well.
Blatt: Yeah, I agree with you. I find myself with the coaches a lot of times in practice just smiling and laughing a little bit because of the things he does that are so just basketball-smart and basketball-friendly.
heinnews: And at that age.
Blatt: Yeah, that’s hard to believe he’s only 21 years old.
heinnews: To the Euroleague, the team lost the first game and then reeled off nine straight wins. I’m sure you are happy the team won two tight road games (two and three points) and then took care of business at home (four wins by 11 points or more at home). Maybe talk about the group stage.
Blatt: People did not know what to expect from us. There was a lot of doubt about this team – both because of past performance and also because the team was so new and without any big, big names from a European standpoint. Even though we played pretty well in the pre-season we went into that first game against Caja Laboral and they just played outstanding basketball that day and shot the ball so well that we never really had a chance in the game. And it was looking kind of bleak for some people – but not for me because I knew we had played well. I think the big thing about us was that defensively we stopped people. And not only did we stop people but we forced a lot of mistakes, a lot of turnovers. And from that we create a lot of easy offense. And we’re able to force people out of what they like to do – home or away. Also we’re kind of fun to watch the way we play. We do some things other people don’t do. There are other things that we don’t do as well as other teams. But there are some things that nobody is doing. And that helps us because people are not always ready for what we are doing. And I think we use the fact that we are young and hungry to parlay itself into a team identity and to be able to win games comfortably at home and also on the road. It’s not going to stay that way forever. People are going to catch up and we’re going to have to be much better to maintain that kind of winning record. But we’re sure as hell going to try.
heinnews: Looking at the Top 16 you have Barcelona, Lottomatica Roma and Union Olimpija. Talk a bit please about each of the teams in the group.
Blatt: Let me tell you this, both Lottomatica and Olimpija are very good teams. But they’re not better teams than we had in our first group. Our first group was very competitive and very difficult. People don’t want to recognize that because our group top to bottom had so many teams that can win on any given night as opposed to the other groups where there were maybe three strong teams and then there were three teams that were considerably weaker, in my opinion. This group we’re going to see two teams which are similar to teams we have in our first group. And that makes them dangerous but also beatable. On the other hand we have Barca, who despite the fact that they were not at their best in the first round, we all know that on paper that’s a team that’s built to win the Final Four again. So I believe that that team is a cut above any of the other teams in Europe and will be extremely difficult to beat. But all the games will be difficult. We have to try and win at least one game on the road, if not two. And you have to win all your home games. That’s how it works in the Top 16.
heinnews: Before the Top 16, Lottomatica went out and signed Saso Filipovski as head coach. What are your thoughts on that?
Blatt: I know Saso very well. He’s a friend. I think it’s a great signing for Lottomatica. He’s a great coach. With Xavi (Pascual at Barcelona)Jurij (Zdovc at Olimpija) and now Saso, our group has really great coaches. That’s a challenge for me and for us. Our group is going to be very competitive no doubt about it.
heinnews: Sticking with Filipovski and a team you know so well, what are your thoughts about the end of CSKA Moscow’s run and early exit from the Euroleague?
Blatt: My feeling is a combination of three things. I think that that team already last year had passed its apex, had passed its highest level. I think they didn’t do anything significant or correctly to really improve that team. And sometimes you have to take a step back in order to take a step forward. For a good reason, I’m not saying they shouldn’t have, but they did not recognize that point, that high, at the right time. They were on their way down and didn’t really take the right steps to renew and rejuvenate that team and that program at the right time.
The second thing and no less significant and maybe more and it speaks volumes for all the rest of their players was that they were missing Viktor Khryapa and Sasha Kaun – two players who played for me with the Russian national team last year – to injuries. And they could not make up for that. They suffered. Khryapa is their all-around guy who does so many things for them – both in the statistics and not in the statistics – that make that team run. And they could not make up for his loss. Sasha Kaun had a breakout season last year in Russia and the Euroleague. And they could not make up for his loss either. His numbers are never big but he’s another guy that helps the team go because he has unbelievable energy for a center who runs the court and plays defense for screens multiple times during the course of any offensive set and defensively who plays very smart basketball. They miss him greatly, even to this day. They couldn’t make up for the loss of those two guys.
And finally when you’re that kind of team that has been up for so long and the other teams see that you’re suddenly a little bit vulnerable, boy they go after your hide. They smell the blood and go after you.
heinnews: You’ve been beating down on us for so long, it’s time for a beatdown of your own.
Blatt: Exactly. That’s right.
heinnews: Because you never know, they’ll probably be back soon. You might as well get them while they’re down.
Blatt: Exactly right. I think those are the three factors that caused that failure.
heinnews: Going to you and your history now, I’d like to ask you about the coaching position with St. Petersburg, which was the first time coaching a team outside of the U.S. or Israel. How difficult was that for you?
Blatt: It was my introduction to another country and another culture. If you think about how difficult of an adjustment that can be, that was about as difficult as possible – an American-Israeli-Jewish guy going to Russia and coaching a Russian team. It turned out to be one of the best years of my career. It was a new project, a brand new team. We did extremely well in the Russian league and we also won the FIBA Europe League. Not only did we win, but we were 20-0. I don’t know if that had ever been done. But it was just a great season and I loved it. I would have stayed another year because I really enjoyed my experience in St. Petersburg, which is an unbelievable city, and I enjoyed my season in Russia and breaking all the myths of growing up with the Cold War in the United States. I really had fun with the team and the whole situation.
And of course that ultimately led me to coaching the Russian national team and we know where that finished. That was just a great experience for me. But Benetton came my way and that was just an offer that was too good to refuse – to coach Benetton after (Mike) D’Antoni and (Ettore) Messina. So I bought out my contract and went to Benetton for two great years, which I really, really enjoyed because we had a lot of success. Italy of course is beautiful and I really loved my time there. At that point I also started spending my summers with the Russian national team. That added a whole other level to my career and myself personally. That helped my growth as a coach and also had historical significance. Once again, a guy with my background coaching the Russian national team probably was the last thing that anyone had ever envisioned. But I’m a lot better for it and I hope the Russian national team too.
I went through a couple of difficult seasons. At Efes Pilsen, our team was actually quite good but in March three of my players decided not to go to Belgrade because of a governmental warning due to a killing outside the American embassy. We lost our season and ultimately I lost my job as a result of that because I brought in those guys. That was a tough experience. I learned that certain places are just not good for me. And that was one of them. Although I have to say that the club until they released me was very fair to me. My family enjoyed the experience – I much less so. And then I came to Dynamo Moscow (in 2008), which I thought was going to be an ideal situation. And very, very quickly because the money that was promised was not forthcoming in the middle of the year again I found myself without three of my main players as they never knew if they were going to get paid or not. The year was miserable even though we went into the final of the cup and even though we went into the top eight undefeated. The money ran out and my players just stopped playing. That was very difficult to maintain any kind of real atmosphere. And then the season finished really badly. I had a two-year contract but I had to leave because the team had basically fallen apart.
In between all of that and before my year with Efes, with the Russian national team we won the EuroBasket in 2007, which was really a highlight with a team that – okay after the fact everybody recognized us a being great – but going into the tournament no one was even sure we were going to qualify for the next round. But to go on and do what we did and go 9-1 in the tournament and beat Spain on their home court with all their fans in their own country with the team which was probably their best ever – a healthy Garbojoa, Calderon, the Gasols, Rudy, Navarro, Rodriguez when he was an NBA player, everybody – that was just an enormous moment.
heinnews: You’ve been around a while now, where do you place that game as far as the greatest upsets of all time?
Blatt: It’s got to be one of the top five accomplishments in EuroBasket history, in my opinion, without a doubt. One of the top five accomplishments.
heinnews: What else do you see up there?
Blatt: You know, I’m not an expert about all the EuroBaskets. I think … umm … shit, I’m pretty hard pressed to think of anything that was more surprising and spectacular than what we did that year. I really am. I guess I would have to let other people be the judge of that.
heinnews: Talk about that team a bit.
Blatt: We played great basketball and not necessarily with the best players. We had good players and we had some great performances from Andrei (Kirilenko). I think Viktor (Khryapa) was spectacular in the tournament. I think JR (Holden) had some great games. We were definitely better as a unit than we were as a group of individuals. And we played like that.
heinnews: Let’s go back even further, and this is going to be something that I have no idea about, but what would you say was your defining moment as a player?
Blatt: As a player? I was never a spectacular player. I was a good team player and a guy who was dependable and viable player who could help the team function. Regarding a defining moment, geez as a player in Israel for about 11 or 12 years I never won a championship. I was never on those Maccabi teams. So I think the most defining thing about me as a player was that I played like a guy that was going to become a coach. I played right, played hard, played together as a team and played to win – whether we were good or not. That was probably my motto, which is more or less my philosophy as a coach. When I was younger when I played at Princeton and I played in high school, I had some big years – bigger than I ever had as a professional. I think as a player at the professional level I was just a good team guy.
heinnews: I know you weren’t there but I know you have a great memory of it, so what do you think of when I say Georgetown, 1989, NCAA first round.
Blatt: Georgetown-Princeton. I still see the play they ran. It was the backdoor layup. I know the Princeton offense well. I lecture on it. It’s something we used to call weak side-spin where we look to play the weak side but spin dribble and draw the strong side center up and suck the defender up on the weak side wing and then back-cut ‘em and throw a bounce pass for a layup. I remember seeing the play and getting really excited about seeing it work, which I know it can. And I recognized that things that are practiced and understood and believed in by the players work. From an offensive standpoint Pete Carril was the best guy I ever saw. But his whole philosophy was predicated on reading a defense and taking what the defense gives you at the right moment. And that was just the epitome of what he was teaching. I almost laughed when I recognized and knew where that came from. There was a certain joy in realizing that that stuff works when you run it.
heinnews: Obviously Carril won a number of Ivy League championships and had other great accomplishments, but do you think that game eventually got Carril his job in the NBA?
Blatt: No, what got him the job in Sacramento was that Geoff Petrie, who was his captain in 1970 and went on to be the co-Rookie of the Year with Dave Cowens in the NBA after that, I’m sure that job in Sacramento. You asked about defining moments, maybe Pete’s defining moment was the NIT title he won in 1975 or a game like that. But what defined him was his legacy and his offense. That’s going to outlive him. And that’s his thing. But the idea of playing together and of being so team-orientated – giving a little bit more than you take when you play – and providing a certain brand of basketball that appeals to the better sense of the playing as a team will define Pete Carril.
heinnews: One would think that your defining moment as a coach would be the EuroBasket title in 2007. So maybe give us a second one.
Blatt: There are two things – one you would maybe be less aware of and one very aware of. My third year in the Galil where I started my coaching career, my first year I finished with a pretty good record and the second year they brought back Pini Gershon, who won the championship the years previous and I was his assistant at Galil, and then he left and the whole team left and I became the head coach. He brought in a whole group of young players – 17, 19, 21 years old. And everyone thought that we were going to drop leagues. And we ended up finishing in third place and made the final four and went to the semifinals of the cup. And I was the coach of the year. For history that was sort of the defining moment that got my career off for the direction it veered.
And then of course the Russian championship – even though I was part of many championships in different places – and winning the EuroBasket was definitely a defining moment as well. That’s kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
heinnews: Club level, there were domestic titles but really only the one European title with st Petersburg. Does that irk you at all?
Blatt: Well, I was a pretty big part of Maccabi’s European titles, of which there were a few. My role in that team was very, very big. I really feel an equal and active part of those championships as much as anyone else. And I think I was recognized for that. I think people know the work that I did. I think there are people in basketball who would be happy to have one title anywhere at any level. I have multiple at multiple levels. So, no, I don’t feel any sense of regret or disappointment. I have had some less successful years. But you can’t be a coach and not have that.
heinnews: What part of the game excites you the most?
Blatt: I know it sounds a little cliché, but I’m kind of a day-to-day guy. I really enjoy the day-to-day work, the team building, the practicing, the week-to-week struggle. That’s really my favorite part of the game – working with the guys, understanding and trying to get the best out of people you’ve chosen as a unit. Starting at one point and then rising to hopefully a better place. And knowing that the road travelled if travelled well will bring you somewhere.
heinnews: With the player movement between the continent and the national team performance where do you see the game of basketball right now in Europe?
Blatt: It appears to me – and a lot of people – that the talent level on the whole is down. But I’m not sure if that’s true. I think things go in cycles and I think that new and young talent is coming up. A lot more guys have gone into the Draft and going to the NBA or left their own countries. I think there is an identification problem in most of our leagues. On the other hand, I still think that the competition is good and strong. And I think that the marketing side has become a bit more dominant. I’m not sure that’s a bad thing as it can lead to greater revenues and people know what to do with that. We’re going through a lot of transition right now. And I hope that the leaders of the local leagues and the leaders of the international leagues will work hard to capitalize on that. It’s a great game and I hope that can lead to bigger and better things.
heinnews: The NBA looks like it might strike. What are your thoughts on that and what kind of impact can we expect in Europe?
Blatt: If the NBA strikes, and it looks like it’s going to happen, then the players and the owners are the dumbest people in the world. There is just no way that the amount of time that they’ve got and the stakes that are at hand that any professional league should go on strike. I’m just gonna be shocked. I know it’s gonna happen. But I’m gonna be shocked. There’s just no way it should happen. And it’s very unfortunate.
heinnews: And if does, do you see players coming here to Europe?
Blatt: Sure. In droves. In droves. Not necessarily the big stars who everyone keeps talking about. But more of the borderline guys which we long for in Europe the last few years because they extended the number of contracts that they are allowed to 15. And they can hold these guys. Plus the D-League has also in looser fashion taken away some of the guys who would be great European players. All of those guys on the bubble, in my opinion, are going to come.
heinnews: And what impact will that have on the European guys – especially the younger players?
Blatt: It depends on the rules of your country. I just think the leagues are going to have to take action and make sure that they protect the local players in some respect.
heinnews: Sticking with the NBA, you know Timofey Mozgov quite well, but he has been banished to the bench after starting early on. Have you had any contact with him and what is your reaction to what’s happening with him in New York?
Blatt: First of all, I’m not surprised. I was surprised that he was starting at the beginning of the season. I know Timofey. I’ve worked very closely with him the last couple of summers and I really think his national team performance is what catapulted him to the NBA not his Russian league performance, where he played less and was less recognized. The fact that he was given a starting role so early was very surprising. I just don’t think he was ready for it. And I know D’Antoni and I know he’s a guy who plays with a very short rotation. And if you’re out of that rotation you’re going to have a hard time getting back in. And that’s Timofey’s current situation. Now he’s really, really going to have to work hard and take advantage of every minute that he gets in order to find a way back. If not, he’s going to sit the whole year. I hope he’s able to do that. He’s a good kid. I don’t know how they practice so I don’t know how much of an opportunity he’s going to get to get into the rotation again and have respect. He may have to wait for an injury. I hope he’s able to work his way back in. We’ll where it goes. Otherwise he’ll just have to learn from his experience this year and go back and do better.
heinnews: Please finish this sentence. Maccabi will win the Israeli league, the Israeli Cup and the Euroleague if they do what …
Blatt: Maccabi will win the Israeli league, the Israeli Cup and the Euroleague if God is willing. I don’t know if God is a fan of any team. So the job at hand will be extremely difficult.
heinnews: What is the main thing you think the team needs to do to win it?
Blatt: Honestly, I don’t think this team is a Euroleague winner – this year. You know what, I’ll finish the sentence. Maccabi will win the Israeli league, the Israeli Cup and the Euroleague if they stay together as a unit for more than one season. How’s that.
heinnews: Great. As always, it’s been a pleasure to chat.
Blatt: Yeah, I really enjoyed the interview.
heinnews: I hope to see you in Barcelona in a couple of months.