Basketball / Maccabi casts gaze toward ex-prodigy
A sensational victory over mighty Spain during the finals in Madrid, an achievement that earned Blatt the nickname 'Idol.'
"Tell me something," a Russian journalist said to immediately after the Boston native led the Russian national team to victory over Lithuania in the 2007 Eurobasket tournament semifinals. "Are you a magician?"
This was before Russia would offer up the main course - a sensational victory over mighty Spain during the finals in Madrid, an achievement that earned Blatt the nickname "Idol."
After his unceremonious departure from Maccabi Tel Aviv following the conclusion of the 2003-2004 season, Blatt elected to transform himself from an assistant coach on a big-name team to a kind of "pioneer" for an anonymous club in Russia, Dynamo Saint Petersburg. Combining his skills as a coach/scout/mentor with those offered by his Lithuanian assistant, Kestutis Kemzura, the two men teamed up to lead the club to a previously unimaginable achievement - a FIBA EuroCup championship in 2005, just one year after the club was founded.
With stable ownership, Dynamo could have developed into something special, but it folded the next year due to bankruptcy. Nonetheless, Blatt caught the eye of basketball observers in Russia who admired his captaincy of a ship with no sails.
The two years spent as coach of Benetton Treviso were a dream come true for Blatt, who enjoyed being in a European country with a respectable and serious basketball club, supportive management, an optimistic fan base, and carte blanche to pick his own players. The end result was a Serie A championship and an Italian cup victory that inched Blatt ever closer to the exclusive club of elite coaches on the continent.
It was only natural that the next step would point the way to Istanbul, where Blatt took the helm of Turkish team Efes Pilsen, a powerhouse with a $25 million annual budget to spend on players.
With Blatt signed on for the 2007-2008 season, Efes fans expected the club to return to its glory days seen earlier in the decade, when it reached the Final Four two consecutive seasons. Ultimately, however, the season ended disastrously when some of the team's American players refused to travel to Belgrade for a critical game due to the political tension there. Blatt was fired after the season for failing to win the league title.
The 2008-2009 season was supposed to be the most important one in Blatt's coaching career. Dynamo Moscow, the perennial challenger to its hated rivals CSKA Moscow, announced that it would put $40 million into its payroll. It signed Blatt and began a shopping spree that netted the club some of Europe's biggest names. Unfortunately, it wasn't CSKA that proved its downfall, but the economic crisis, which dried up all of the sources of revenue.
The latest developments at Maccabi Tel Aviv caught Blatt unawares. He is currently the head man at the legendary Greek club Aris Thessaloniki, which recently decided to cut its budget by over 50 percent. Teams in Greece are slashing payrolls drastically, and Aris will have a difficult time meeting Blatt's latest salary demand for next season - 300,000 euros, not including bonuses.