Basketball / Social Rift at Turkish Team Spelled End to Tenure of Israeli Coach David Blatt

The road that lead to Turkish team Efes Pilsen's dismissal on Sunday of U.S.-born, Israeli coach David Blatt began months ago. After Efes Pilsen's loss to Maccabi Tel Aviv in the tenth round of the league stage of the Euroleague, its general manager Engin Ozerhun called Blatt in for a chat. The latter, known for his dislike of management intervening in his professional decisions, was surprised by the urgency of the call.

"I don't like the atmosphere in the team and it will hurt us further down the road," Ozerhun said. "There's no way that in a 15-man squad, half won't be on speaking terms with the other half." Blatt did not have a clue what Ozerhun was talking about, which is why later that week, when the team stayed at a hotel the day before a game, Ozerhun pointed out to him the order in which the players sat down to eat lunch.

At one table were the foreigners; at another the Turks. Blatt realized the immensity of the problem and told his team before dinner that from now on everyone sits together. Almost immediately, the Turkish players asked him to cancel the new decision.

"They said it wouldn't make a difference when imposed from above," assistant coach Danny Gut noted. "It might be that Blatt and my European mentality sometimes seems condescending. Perhaps on this issue we should have acted differently toward the management." Blatt folded, the Turks won and the team was well on its way to crashing.

Blatt landed in Istanbul in the summer fresh from his tenure as coach of Russia's national basketball team, which won last year's Eurobasket. His signing signaled the club's high hopes. Already in the first meeting, he heard management's desire to contend for every title, and the conditions were ideal: The biggest budget in its history, 12 million euros. But Blatt blundered in his choice of foreign players and forging of social ties.

Failure followed failure as both the league and president's cup campaigns ended in defeat. Furthermore, the team finished last in the group stage of the Euroleague and was ranked only second in the Turkish league. Then came another embarrassing defeat and Pilsen managers decided to call it quits. "Both sides realized a separation was needed," Ozerhun said. "The team did not fulfill its goals despite an unprecedented budget. We had no choice."

Efes Pilsen signed Blatt in the hope he would transform it into Turkey's unofficial national team. The first step expected of him was to sign big-name Turkish players to draw support from across the land. Management insisted on Serkan Erdogan. Blatt, who supported signing a different Turkish player, had to bite the bullet and Erdogan was bought for over a million euros.

"He was very important to them," Gut said. "But despite getting all the chances from Blatt, he didn't seize them." Meanwhile, Blatt did not give Erdogan any preferential treatment, and management feared it would distance the team from its fan base.

"Blatt didn't understand that in Turkey its very important to play with one's heart, not just the head," an associate of Blatt's, who has been living in Turkey for years, said. "Playing with five foreigners is a spit in the face. The Turks can't stand seeing their players wallowing on the bench while the Americans are taking care of business." Erdogan was snubbed and the fans were up in arms against Blatt.

The decision to sack Blatt was made only after consulting with top players. "Pilsen does not fire coaches often," a Turkish sports journalist said. "They wouldn't have done it if someone had objected. Pilsen was a victim of the social rift within the team."