Blatt outlines a play for his new star, Brad Wanamaker (No. 11), on a team full of American ex-pats having the time of their lives, despite turbulence in Turkey. (Courtesy of Darüşşafaka Doğuş)
Thinking of Blatt moving from the jocular nothingness of the Midwest and back into the tempest of the Middle East seemed, at first, telling: For all of the melodrama that had come with coaching LeBron James inside the "enormous machine" of the NBA, Cleveland was still America, and so it was still blanketed by the numbness of American stability. Leaving it behind, Blatt found himself again face-to-face with the pricklier, more existential crises with which he'd been surrounded for decades.
And then Donald Trump was elected president, and that famous American stability seemed a whole hell of a lot shakier. Stuck in famously nightmarish Istanbul traffic on the way from Atatürk Airport, my cabdriver smoked and delighted himself in the election results. "Trump Tower number one! Trump Tower number one," he chanted. "Clinton, down, down!" Seeing my less than enthused reaction, he play-acted calling in a tip to the chief and having me arrested. Wrists over the steering wheel, he made a clicking noise and let out a mighty, rasping laugh.
A life here in Europe, after all, does provide its own singular experiences—particularly a life in hoops. Wanamaker, originally from Philly and a one-time star at the University of Pittsburgh, told me lovingly of eye-opening trips to Milan, to Venice, to Pistoia. He called a charming boat trip down the Amalfi "the best thing I've done in my life." While playing in Germany, he watched his young son pick up the native tongue: "They go to the playground, and he's out there playing with his friends speaking nothing but German—when I see stuff like this, it's crazy."
Blatt and his family are decades into just that kind of rich, representatively multicultural European experience. Coaching in Europe also made Blatt rich, way before the NBA came calling. And his dispassionate realpolitik is one more peculiar gift that Europe has provided him. It is the knowledge that the world as you know it is always, always liable to slip out from under your feet.
"People ask me, 'Are you frightened here? Are you worried now,'" Blatt said to me, back in his office. "I've lived that life for 30-something odd years. You can't live in fear. That's my response."
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In 2014, after leading Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euroleague title, Blatt held an emotional press conference. Speaking in his accented but nimble Hebrew, he announced his return to the U.S. "Since my childhood in Boston, following the Celtics, the NBA was my dream," he explained. "It's also the only challenge in which I haven't yet succeeded, that I haven't yet conquered." He shouted out beloved players, recounted cherished memories, smiled with knowing joy. "I want everyone to know that I'm leaving the home but not the family," he said. "My heart is heavy but full. I love you all."
While in Cleveland, Israeli hoops fans kept a close eye on their adopted son through the eight-hour time difference. A popular commercial for the sports channel featured Blatt rustling drowsy fans in the middle of the night: LeBron mechake! LeBron's waiting! "People were waking up at 2 a.m., 3 a.m., 4 a.m. in the morning to watch Cleveland, to see David coach," says Guy Goodes, Blatt's assistant coach at Maccabi. "It was one-country support." And when he was fired, the flip was switched. "It was funny—children saying, 'That's it, we don't wanna see any more Cleveland! We pissed off!'"
When Blatt officially returned to Israel this summer for a preseason Darüşşafaka-Maccabi matchup, "the game was sold out completely," says David "Dubi" Pick, a veteran Euroleague reporter based in Tel Aviv. "He's really a superstar—like LeBron James when he comes out here."
After years of covering him extensively, Pick developed a relationship with Blatt. But after Cleveland, Blatt never quite fully opened up to him—something the reporter never expected him to do. "If David was anything but a basketball coach, he'd probably run for president. He's a great politician. Every word that comes out of his mouth is calculated."
"You can't do anything without LeBron's blessing; it doesn't take Albert Einstein to figure that out."
— KEITH DAMBROT, LeBron's high school coach
Keith Dambrot, the head basketball coach at the University of Akron, coached James at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, and the two are still close. I called him the other day on the road, to ask about working with the greatest player in the world. "You can't be afraid to coach him," Dambrot says, in a charming twang. "Like all great players, he wants to be coached. I still tell him the truth whenever I talk to him. I think that's what you do with people you care about: tell 'em the truth. And whenever he's had any slippage, I know he's got in his heart, and in his mind, goodness."
"You can't do anything without LeBron's blessing; it doesn't take Albert Einstein to figure that out," he says of Blatt's firing. "But LeBron's never said a negative thing to me about Coach Blatt. And that's the honest-to-God truth."
Back in the Darüşşafaka office, I'd poked and prodded Blatt about Cleveland until getting shut down. As a fan, I understood Blatt's decision to not risk one slip that might come back to doom him professionally. As a reporter on deadline, there were questions I had to ask. Once I'm back home in the U.S., Blatt gamely agrees to one more interview, this time over the phone.
Do you think LeBron James is coachable?
Hey, listen: How many championships has he won? Obviously, he's coachable. I can name you 30 NBA coaches right now that would love to have him.
Do you think LeBron James fired you?
I don't think that. Of course he didn't fire me. He's not the one to do that. That was the management decision.
David Blatt celebrates with LeBron James and Kevin Love of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the first half against the Miami Heat at Quicken Loans Arena on October 30, 2015, in Cleveland, Ohio. (Getty Images)
Why do you prefer not speaking about working with LeBron in detail? Is it out of respect for your career? Out of respect for his?
Well, I think it's the media's idea and effort that it should be all about that. But it's not all about that for me. MY experience was not all about that.
You were on top of the Eastern Conference the day you lost your job. Do you remember how you were feeling about the direction of the team that day?
Look: I understand you're leading toward things, but that's in the past. I've chosen to leave it in the past. I try not to do too much thinking about that anymore. It is what it is, and it was what it was. I have a lot of memories and a lot of thoughts that are tucked away for me now. I've got other things to do. And that's what I've chosen.
When Blatt was hired in Cleveland, the team was a rebuilding project. In the offseason after his hiring, as chatter around James' return to the Cavs picked up, Blatt and the team's executives did not dare to say LeBron's name: They called him That Guy. Ultimately, Blatt coached for a season-and-a-half and took a team and a player—a team and a player he was never meant to have—to NBA records and the NBA Finals.
Circling back, I try again, one more time, and ask a stammering, jumbled version of the same basic question: You've said there were things you would have approached differently. Was one of them your relationship with That Guy?
Here, politely enough, as he did in Istanbul when I pushed, Blatt snaps again.
"Man," he says. "You're just not gonna leave this alone? We went one way down this thing, and you're just not leaving it alone."
Then, with an imperceptible shift, his tone again becomes calm and flat and even. "When I say I could have done a better job, that includes everything. I can't say that I did a bad job, because I didn't, you know? But I certainly believe I could have done more and done better. And for that I hold myself responsible. Not other people."
"He failed miserably with his relationship to LeBron James. But he did not fail as a coach. He did not fail on the basketball court."
— DAVID PICK, veteran Euroleague reporter
There's one uniquely American point of view, and it's a binary take on life: It is the idea that if you have not succeeded, utterly and completely, then you have failed. It's true: David Blatt used to coach the best player in the world, and now he's in Istanbul. But to call that a failure would be to misunderstand Blatt's career. It would be to misunderstand the past triumphs he has achieved and the future triumphs he still intends to grasp.
"He failed with his relationship with LeBron James, I agree to that," Pick, the Euroleague reporter, told me. "He failed miserably with his relationship to LeBron James. But he did not fail as a coach. He did not fail on the basketball court."
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Be! Be! Be! (Clap. Clap.) La! La! La! BESIKTAS! BESIKTAS!
It's Saturday night in Istanbul, and Darüşşafaka is across town, playing its in-city rival Beşiktaş J.K.—a perfect opportunity for 3,200 or so full-throated maniacs to pack full the BJK Akatlar Arena and sing their heads off. Peacefully, though: At the front entrance, fans are encouraged not to keep their chunky Lira coins as potential projectiles but instead to voluntarily deposit them into one clear glass box.
There are club anthems that sound like USSR ground-war march tunes, and elaborate chants. There are the potently shrill hand-in-mouth whistles: Taken in mass, they sound like the battle hymn of the killer bees. More than anything, there's a general dedication to creating cacophony: with foot stomps, with hand claps, by ripping loose metal lining and slamming it back into low-hanging steel beams—effectively, literally tearing the place apart. It is with utmost respect that I would describe these Beşiktaş fans as maximalist.
To watch the stoking of loyalists by Beşiktaş head coach Ufuk Sarıca—a handsome Turk in a Tarantino-esque black suit and tie—is enthralling. He'll leap to his feet and run at the refs fully knowing that, behind him, his five similarly suited assistants will leap and follow. It is a small crush of angry, sweaty, gesticulating men, arms windmilling, moving forward like a wave—a near-physical bulwark against calls not going your way. It is as preposterous as it is effective, and the refs are clearly cowed.
Serbian big man Vladimir Štimac is a very wide body that looks somewhat like if Arcade Fire's Win Butler had been raised a feral child in the wilds of the Šalinac forests. Right now, with putbacks and easy dunks, he is causing Darüşşafaka fits. And Blatt seems to experience pain at each of his new team's blown defensive rotations. Palms up, heart full, Coach looks to his assistants: "What are they doing?!"
The cresting tenor of the whistle-killer-bee shrieks makes the action feel all the more accelerated. And in this hothouse, the musk of ripe fans wafting, humans on top of chairs and one another, it feels like we could all spill onto the floor at any moment.
If the NBA is corporate perfection—complete, at times, with the sterility that perfection connotes—then European hoops is its wilder, woolier, semi-nuts cousin. The way basketball fans look back with fondness at the ABA? With its fistfights and its reckless freedom? That's happening, right now, right here, tonight in Europe. "Turkish people are so emotional," Darüşşafaka's Mehmet Yağmur had told me earlier. "They are looking at you like they want to kill you!"
Brad Wanamaker (No. 11) dribbles past a Beşiktaş defender before during a game Darüşşafaka ended up losing. "You know what a home job is? You just saw one. To the Nth degree," David Blatt would go on to say about the game. (Courtesy of Darüşşafaka Doğuş)
The game seesaws back and forth. On a crucial possession, Wanamaker inbounds, and the rival Beşiktaş fans hang over him, shredding their throats. A piece of winter clothing comes flying out of the stands and bounces off his back; unidentified liquid comes splashing forward, too. Cooly, unfazed, he wipes the drops off the side of his face, looks at his hand, then inbounds the basketball.
A few possessions later, Wanamaker has the ball in his hands with Darüşşafaka down a point and 15 seconds left. Dribbling to his left, he pulls up for the win. The Beşiktaş fans surround him with another fever pitch—Be! Be! Be! La! La! La! BESIKTAS! BESIKTAS!—and soon enough, discarded bank-sponsor giveaway scarves pile up on the court.
Afterward, Blatt claps me on the back and says, "You know what a home job is? You just saw one. To the Nth degree." Soon enough, he would vent to his fellow coaches and get in some digs at the refs and would seem to feel all the better for it. A week later, Blatt and his team would host CSKA Moscow and hand the powerhouse its first defeat of the season across all competitions, proving that Darüşşafaka's aspirations of European exceptionalism may yet be legitimate.
But now, Wanamaker's long jumper has banged off the rim, and Coach is crushed. Softly shaking his head, he turns and paces down the sideline, away from the action, in stunned disbelief. He'll get over it, yes. For now, though, it is another loss, another cut, another sting.
It is the 12th game of the season, and David Blatt is right where he has chosen to be.
Correction: This story has been updated with the correct location for the Brose Bamberg basketball team.