Basketball / For Bluthenthal, third time's the charm
During his first stint with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2002, David Bluthenthal was known as an introvert - a player who when given the opportunity would rush to the locker room without talking to reporters, shutting himself off from the outside world with his ever-present MP3 player.
On his second stretch with the team in 2007, the small forward earned quite a different reputation, as someone who loved playing practical jokes (particularly on team chairman Shimon Mizrahi) and enjoyed the good life, a fixture at the finest steakhouses in Tel Aviv.
This season, during the 29-year-old's third spell in yellow, his persona transformed yet again to that of disciplined athlete, gym rat and devoted family man. Even reporters, hardly the forward's favorite people, have been surprised by Bluthenthal's openness and mature responses to their questions.
In sports, however, cold, hard numbers make or break a career, and this season Bluthenthal is proving he's no slouch: 11 points and five rebounds per game with an average of 27 minutes on the court, usually coming off the bench. His defensive play, less evident on the stat sheets, has been consistently solid as well.
Tonight Maccabi hosts Real Madrid in its second Euroleague Top 16 contest, having lost 76-72 last week at Montepaschi Siena. Bluthenthal and his teammates have their work cut out for them - with eight titles under its belt, Madrid is the Euroleague's most successful team.
Spain's basketball league, like its soccer league, is one of Europe's strongest. Madrid has been the springboard to the NBA for such future standouts as Drazen Petrovic and Arvydas Sabonis.
"I found David to be completely different from what I had heard," says assistant coach Sharon Drucker. "He is a mature, responsible player with an incredible work ethic. He eats properly, rests as he should, hits the weights and comes in for extra shooting. It's fun to coach him, and just to be around him."
Bluthenthal's flexibility has also proved an asset, as he agrees when necessary to play power forward and go up against much larger, stronger players.
Bluthenthal takes a New-Age approach to his development as a player. "Every year of my career I learn something," he says. "In my case I've also experienced several different teams and coaches, and that just helped me. Every summer I sit down and think about how I can be more positive and believe in myself more."
"I pass more and get more rebounds because I am more familiar with the game now. These are things that come with experience," he says. "This is a change that comes from my development as a person."
Bluthenthal's late mother was Jewish and his father, who is African-American, converted to the faith. The younger Bluthenthal believes his family name originated with a slave owner who was Jewish-German.
Growing up in Los Angeles, the burly forward - 6'7" (2.01 meters) and 225 pounds (102 kilograms) - was a star at Westchester High school, averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds per game as a senior. His first visit to Israel came during the 1997 Maccabiah Games, as a member of the perennially gold-medal winning United States basketball team.
A standout at the University of Southern California, he averaged 16.0 points his junior year and led the Trojans to their first Elite Eight appearance in nearly 50 years. As a senior, Bluthenthal was named an All-Pac-10 honorable mention.
After graduating, Bluthenthal packed for Israel once more, signing a two-season contract with Maccabi. The player's solid showing in Tel Aviv caught the eye of NBA scouts.
Today, Sacramento is known as the home of the league's first Israeli player, Omri Casspi - but who remembers that back in August 2004 the Kings signed Bluthenthal to their summer league team, making him the NBA's only Jewish player at the time? At the time, Bluthenthal described the distinction to San Francisco's jweekly.com Web site as "a great honor."
However his stint in the big time was short-lived, as Bluthenthal was informed in November of that year that Sacramento would not be offering him a regular-season contract.
Bluthenthal set his sights on Europe once more, signing with Russia's Dynamo Saint Petersburg, which was then coached by David Blatt, one of Europe's top coaches. Blatt - who was born in Boston, studied at Princeton and played on a slew of Israeli teams - had just left Maccabi after a four-year stint as head and assistant coach, alternately.
But Bluthenthal, ever the journeyman, would not last long in Saint Petersburg. He packed his bags again, this time for Italy, where he plied the parquet in Treviso and two Bologna teams before returning to Tel Aviv once more. After a year in yellow, he was France-bound, playing for Le Mans last season before Maccabi coach Pini Gershon called him back to Israel.
As a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, he plays for Maccabi as an Israeli, freeing up management to fill the quota of foreign players to its maximum. But coaches say a player as talented as Bluthenthal would have made the roster regardless of his citizenship.
The player owes this prestige to his textbook shooting. "No European team will leave him open for a three, even if he's having a bad night," Drucker says. "His shooting style is so beautiful. During practice I always tell him he scores like Larry Bird."
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