Basketball / A 'Born Diplomat' in a Bind

David Blatt is weighing leaving the Russia national team, and Maccabi Tel Aviv may be to blame.

Since the start of this year's World Championship late last month, David Blatt has been sending frustratingly mixed messages over whether he intends to stay on at the helm of Russia's national team.

David Blatt AP 9.9.2010

"I have worked with the same team for six years," the American-Israeli coach said Thursday after his Russian charges lost the quarterfinal to mighty Team USA.

"I gave it all my heart. Unfortunately, I feel that the politics surrounding Russian basketball are extremely bad, and I'm tired of it. I've had enough. I just don't want to coach the national team anymore," said Blatt, who in June returned to coach Maccabi Tel Aviv after wandering between a number of European teams since 2004.

"I like coaching Russia and I'm grateful for the opportunities given to me, but I'm tired physically and mentally. I'll ask to be released from my position," he told reporters in Istanbul.

Minutes later, however, Blatt sounded a much more optimistic note about his prospects for staying in Moscow. "I wouldn't put money on my leaving. I'm not entirely sure of anything. I'll talk to Sergey Chernov," he said, referring to the president of the Russian Basketball Federation.

Russia played its best game of the tournament against the Americans, succumbing 89-79 after a tenacious battle that left even the most jaded onlookers impressed. The question of how far the team can go without its three stars - Andrei Kirilenko (the team's only current NBA player ), J.R. Holden and Viktor Khryapa - was temporarily pushed aside. Within Russia, the fact that team had advanced to the quarterfinal was considered a triumph in itself.

Blatt's coaching career has encountered a number of bumps in recent years - notably the implosion of Turkey's Efes Pilsen and bankruptcy of Dinamo Moscow - but these and Russia's poor showing at the 2009 EuroBasket have failed to dent the reputation he enjoys within Russia as an almost superhuman presence.

In 2007, when Russia won the European Championship over host Spain, Blatt became the first foreign coach to be declared "honorary coach of Russia." But a spat with the management of the nation's richest club, CSKA Moscow, led Blatt to declare, in an outburst widely panned as hysterical, that he would leave. CSKA hurried to deny any link to the dispute, which centered on whether the club would allow Khryapa to play despite a slight injury.

Despite Blatt's protestations, the forward (who played six seasons in the NBA ) never touched the parquet in Turkey.

A handful of Russian journalists wrote that Blatt had gone too far. But one commentator with the newspaper Sport Express saw no reason for worry. "We know Blatt - he's a born diplomat, and he will emerge from this unscathed."

And so it was. Chernov was forced to hop on the first plane to Turkey, telling the paper, "I went to the team's hotel with my suitcases. I spoke at length with Blatt, Khryapa and some of the other guys. There were a few problems, but we were able to work through them. My position is known - Blatt is a professional from head to toe, and we need to keep him at the helm of this team. Don't forget that his contract is still valid."

After the quarterfinal loss, Chernov added, "David is an emotional person, and he wants to reexamine his contract. We'll sit down and try to reach an understanding."

Blatt may be sending mixed messages, but perhaps we should listen closely to remarks from the man really in charge of Russian basketball, Sergei Ivanov. Deputy prime minister of Russia, Ivanov is a close associate of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and widely recognized as the patron of basketball in the country.

"I knew Blatt would leave the team four months ago," Ivanov said. "It was clear from the moment he was appointed coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv."

Yesterday Blatt led his first practice with Maccabi this season at its training facility in Hadar Yosef. The coach told the sports Web site ONE, "It's fun to be back. It's great on two levels - first, to be back home. I'm like a Bedouin, wandering across mountains and valleys for six years .... Second, returning to Maccabi after so many years is fun. It's a double pleasure."

Touching on the team's goals for the upcoming season, he said, "First, we have to win the first game, and then we'll look ahead. We don't want to put the cart before the horse. This is a talented club with great potential, but that said, I think we need to build chemistry and understanding between the players so we can get better every day.

"I've made a few mistakes in the past, and I've learned from them. That gives me the confidence and the foundation to coach a club at the level of Maccabi," he said. "It's important that a coach have a path, a philosophy and knowledge, and that he can stand behind what he says."