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Coaching in U.S. for 1st time, he has LeBron

LAS VEGAS — J.R. Holden was furious with himself as he headed to the bench for a timeout. Here he was, late in the final of EuroBasket 2007 — the tournament to determine the champion of Europe — and Holden, a naturalized Russian, was wondering if his citizenship might be revoked. He had missed his previous three shots, the last of which was an air ball, and Russia trailed by five points with a little over a minute left against Spain, the reigning world champion and tournament host.

Before Holden arrived at the bench, the Russian coach, American-born David Blatt, stopped Holden with a question.

What did he eat for breakfast?

"I'm like, 'What?' " Holden said. "Then he said, 'Don't eat that no more.' "

Holden is not sure the exchange, colored with a few expletives, helped him strip the ball from Spanish star Pau Gasol, pump fake against Jose Calderon and, with a kind bounce, sink a last-second, winning jumper.

But Holden said it explained something about Blatt.

"That's probably the biggest moment in Russian basketball history," Holden said. "They had been good as the Soviet Union. But since the breakup, Russia had never won anything, and they're a very prideful people. So it was a big deal. But for him, it was just: We're playing basketball. Live in the moment. It's a close game. Enjoy it."

Now the question is whether Blatt can live by that same Zen-like creed as he steps into the spotlight, with LeBron James, of all people, by his side.

After establishing himself as one of international basketball's best coaches, the Boston-bred, Princeton-educated, Hebrew-speaking Blatt is returning to the United States not as an end-of-the-bench assistant, as he had long envisioned, but as the first-year coach of the Cavaliers. He will be a central character in what will be the NBA's most compelling story line next season — James' decision to return home and try to win a title for Cleveland.

Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert said that when Blatt was hired, nearly a month ago, James was not a big factor in the conversation because, at that point, the team did not know if James might leave Miami. Gilbert said the Cavaliers interviewed over 100 people about Blatt and not one had a negative impression of him. But Gilbert acknowledged that hiring someone who had never coached in the United States to lead an NBA team was a risk.

"You look at the whole big picture, and that's certainly part of the debate," Gilbert said. "The fact that he didn't have any experience here is something you raise a question about. But the guy has won 18 championships, and he got Russia to a bronze at the Olympics. It's always a risk doing something different, but based on our interactions, we thought he's really going to be successful."

Blatt, 55, learned to follow his own path at an early age. His parents divorced when he was 8 and living in Framingham, Mass., a suburb west of Boston. His father, a doctor of biochemistry, moved to Europe a few years later, with Blatt's two older sisters.

Blatt stayed in Massachusetts with his mother, became the senior class president of his high school and became an English literature major at Princeton. It was there that he was approached about spending a summer playing basketball in Israel. Why not? he thought. So he went.

Blatt liked the experience enough that he returned after college to play there professionally. He came back to the United States after three years, worked briefly for Xerox and then went back to Israel to keep playing.

While there, he met his wife, with whom he has four children, and he went into coaching when he tore his Achilles tendon at age 34. In the two decades since, he has coached professional clubs in Israel, Turkey, Italy, Russia and Greece, in addition to the Russian national team.

In May, he won the prestigious Euroleague title with Maccabi Tel Aviv, and now, said Danny Federman, the general manager of the club, Blatt is a "rock star" throughout Israel.

In the United States, though, he is essentially unknown outside basketball circles. Blatt said it was perfectly fair to point out that he lacked experience coaching in the NBA, and he acknowledged that he had catching up to do. On the other hand, he said, he has dealt with adversity that the great majority of NBA coaches will never encounter.

He has, for instance, coached players in Russia who wanted to boycott because they had not been paid. He coached players who would not play in Belgrade, Serbia, because they were concerned for their safety. He has coached Americans — a number of them — who were in Europe grudgingly, and he has grappled with executives from other countries who did not always agree with his methods.

This past season, there were calls for him to be fired at Maccabi Tel Aviv before he quieted everyone with a championship.

"You've got to understand, I have a plethora of experiences where the expectations are higher than many of the teams that are here," Blatt said. "At Maccabi Tel Aviv, if you lose a game it's a national story for a week. The idea of pressure and expectations? Man, I'm so far ahead of the game."

Recently, Blatt was on the sideline in Las Vegas, coaching the Cavaliers' promising young players in the NBA's summer league. He rarely sat, instead cajoling, correcting and clapping as he stood watching.

After one game, Blatt mentioned that if he had not gone into coaching he would have wanted to pursue a career as an ambassador because he likes working with people of different backgrounds. As for coaching, he said he traced his interest to when he was 12 and his mother, a special education teacher at the time, dragged him into her classroom to help.

"At first I hated it," Blatt said. "But after six months I so much fell in love with the fact that I could help kids a little bit. Even helping a kid write his name is something that stayed with me. It gave me a sense of ethos and pathos and compassion. If you want to work in this business, you've got to have that."

Exactly what he will need in Cleveland, of course, remains to be seen. Much attention will be paid to how the Cavaliers, just 33-49 last season, will do on the court now that James is back and teaming with Kyrie Irving, a talented young point guard.

Blatt will have to figure things out quickly and without any previous NBA success to lean on. Those who know him say they think he can do it, that he has already shown he can win with different types of teams playing different styles.

"I think he's extraordinarily clever offensively," said 76ers coach Brent Brown, who formerly coached Australia in international competitions. "He's always been very gifted at putting his players right where they should be placed to highlight their strengths."

Ultimately, Blatt will have to sell James on his own vision of what will work. That's what the best coaches in the NBA have done with their players. That's what Blatt, with his Princeton, Israel, Russia, you-name-it résumé, will try to do as well.

If he can, it will, no doubt, be an international story.

LeBron asks for help: Wear No. 6 or No. 23?

CLEVELAND — LeBron James turned to social media Friday to help him choose which number he'll wear next season with the Cavaliers. James wrote "6 or 23...." on his Twitter account and posted photos on Instagram of him wearing No. 6 and No. 23 wine and gold Cavs jerseys.

James wore No. 6 during his four seasons with Miami and also on the U.S. Olympic team. He used No. 23 in high school and during seven seasons in Cleveland. James has had the top-selling jersey in the NBA six times.

His return to Cleveland has given the city a boost, and the Cavs quickly sold out their seasons tickets in the hours after his announcement. James signed a two-year, $42.1 million contract last week.

James will be welcomed back to his hometown of Akron on Aug. 8, his family's foundation announced Friday. The "Welcome Home LeBron Community Rally" will be held at the University of Akron's campus. Organizers have been flooded by requests to take part from twirlers, marching bands, dancers, garage bands, rappers, an 83-year-old woman who wrote a poem, and a candy company that wants to make a LeBron James chocolate. The LeBron James Grandmothers Fan Club also wants in.

Times wires

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Coaching in U.S. for 1st time, he has LeBron 07/18/14 [Last modified: Friday, July 18, 2014 10:48pm]
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