We got our first real insight into Coach Blatt early in the season after querying him about the LeBron-Corners Offense. It’s like Dean Smith’s famed Four Corners Slowdown offense, only there’s no passing, just LeBron dribbling for 20-22 seconds before hoisting a fall-away three. Feeling the new coach out, we asked if this was the kind of shot selection he was looking for from the team. Yep, a loaded question with ticking inside.
Blatt dodged it like a jedi master negotiating amateur hour at a Frogger tournament. “Jame is a great player capable of making shots like that and when you have a player like that you have to afford him some deference and discretion,” is what he replied or something to that effect. That’s when it was clear – this was no Byron Scott. (This week Scott admitted he didn’t trust many of his players. How do you think they feel about you Byron?)
Despite repeated runs, Blatt does nothing but blast the air raid siren and batten the hatches. He may be defensive about the ludicrous “rookie coach” appellation, but he’s got nothing but sunshine for his players. Hell, he even castigated this reporter for using the “flogging a dead horse” metaphor, reasoning that it didn’t sound very nice. (What can it feel David, IT’S DEAD. But we digress.)
For the last month, we’ve been circling Blatt like the hungry vultures over Two Broke Girls, looking for some insight into Blatt’s ethos and coaching approach. We even asked him about the Italian term, “mano sinistra,” which literally means “left hand.” It’s supposed to be about piano, where the left hand plays, but in the context it seemed to refer to Blatt’s ability to work beneath the melody accenting less overt notes. He said he’d never heard of it.
So we took another tact, and spoke to Maceo Baston and David Blu, two players who Blatt coached during his years at Maccabi Tel Aviv. Both described Blatt as a player’s coach and called him one of their favorites. Part of it is this unwillingness to trash his players in public.
“He understands the power of positive speak and he’s definitely one of the best teammates,” says Blu from his home in Los Angeles, where he’s a trainee for Merrill Lynch/Bank of America. “One thing a team never does is throw another guy under the bus.
“Now if that same thing happened and Gregg Popovich was asked that question, Gregg Popovich would say that’s a horrible shot, And he can probably say that because he’s got a couple of championships,” Blu continues. “Like ‘it’s okay that’s a great coach saying it about a great player,’ but even if David was that great coach, I think he’d still find the diplomatic and positive thing to say.”
We actually confronted Blatt after one of the games and questioned how he came to this “say no evil” aesthetic. “I say plenty of bad things, just none to you,” was his essential reply. We got a little hint of that the night LeBron retired the headband. Blatt related that he didn’t like headbands and that he had a story, but nobody in the press was interested enough to ask him about it, excluding yours truly.
Apparently one of his players, Maceo Baston, had decided to don a headband. He proceeded to stink the joint up that very next game. Blatt related how he ripped to Baston: “What did that headband do, squeeze all your brains out?” It’s a surprisingly harsh thing to hear from somebody who denied the recent Sixers game was ugly. (And I suppose Peter Dinklage isn’t short?)
Though he claims not to be superstitious, Blatt still harbors a grudge toward headbands. Maceo still remembers the incident and uses it to reinforce the point.
“I had been killing it. I’d had a good season, and I wore a headband for some reason, and I don’t know if there was a problem with oxygen to the brain or what,” says Baston. “But he never criticized anyone in the media even when they had bad times. Even when I had the headband on, he didn’t kill me in the media.”
This leads back to questions about the media preconceptions of great leadership. Like all human beings we tend to be really impressed with loud, outsized characters; it’s the narcissist’s secret to success. We tend to believe they’re more competent than they are. But if we think back to our favorite bosses and the guys we wanted to hang with, and if you’ve grown to have any self-esteem at all, you probably don’t want to be around those who seek to demean you.
Morris Buttermaker’s curmudgeonly ill-will might work for the Bad News Bears, but that whole Billy Knight, bigger-asshole-than-thou-act wears thin just about everywhere else before the camera tires of it. Somehow these attention-hungry antics captivate the media and contribute to this idea that if a coach isn’t denigrating his players and reading them out for their faults, he isn’t doing his job.
While we’ll be the first to tell you that our best basketball coach was a strict disciplinarian, we also note that he coached fifth- and sixth-graders. Most adults don’t respond to that in-your-face, kind of parent/misbehaving child dynamic. This is a big part of why Blu and Baston consider him a players’ coach.
“I wouldn’t say he’s like the fiery Izzo aggressive kind of guy. He’d figure out ways to hold you accountable without beating you down. There’s no need especially as grown men to belittle or embarrass anybody in public,” says Baston, who opened 2012 “Cupcakes War” winner Taste Love Cupcakes shop in Michigan since retiring
Some weeks ago we asked Blatt if he found himself gravitating more toward Zen Master or Great Santini (referencing the great Robert Duval movie). We thought it was a dodge when he replied that he “tried to do what the team needed.” Now we find it wasn’t so far from the truth.
“One thing about David I really appreciated was he didn’t have to talk to me. When we got on the court he just left me alone. He knew that I was going to do my job and work hard and I appreciated that,” says Blu. “Other guys sometimes need a coach to pull them aside and give them words of wisdom, give them a little confidence. The key for a good coach is to be able to see that as its happening and then react.
"I remember David usually every day or every other day would pull one of the guys that was playing great or not playing great or whoever he felt needed some type of conversation with him,” Blu continues. “I don’t know if it’s because whatever he said about that particular player gave them confidence or helped them realize that, you know, it’s a team game… but usually that is how it would go. He would take time with one player and sure enough that player would respond.”
What’s interesting is to compare Blatt to some of LeBron James’ other coaches like Keith Dambrot. James has had some pretty loud, demonstrative coaches. He might’ve worried about that more subtle, grower message taking root quickly enough with those whose “bad habits” were holding the team back early in the season.
Perhaps the problem wasn’t literally LeBron buying in, but his worry that his teammates weren’t. Then maybe someone suggested to him that leadership comes from the head, and that if James didn’t play hard and hustle on defense, how was the coach going to get anyone else to? We have reasons to believe that’s exactly what happened, but does it really matter at this point?
The important fact is that this “rookie” coach took this team to the second seed in the Eastern Conference despite losing his starting center and reaching the mid-season mark a hair above .500. Whatever he’s doing it seems to work. Just as someone suggested, it’s a process, particularly when it comes to trust.
According to Baston, Blatt’s very savvy about putting his players in the best position to succeed without micro-managing them, i.e., he doesn’t have to call ALL the plays.
“He let’s you do what you can do, what your strengths are but also when you are spontaneous and a guys’ feeling it – like even if he’s not a typical three-point shooter, he’ll let him have his moment, he encourages that,” Baston says.
Blu doesn’t even give Blatt that much credit for this. Any good coach must respond to the team, not some preconceived notion of how to play. (Lesson to Mike D’Antoni.)
“If you feel your system is what’s right and that the players should adapt to you, well, it’s just not going to work out that way. Not in Europe or the NBA or wherever,” says Blu.
“The key for a coach to be able to manage egos is to ask questions and to listen. Questions like how are you doing today? How’s your daughter doing? What music do you like? And actually listen,” he continues. “That relationship builds a mechanism that allows you to mesh with the egos and then in turn mesh all the egos together to form a team.”
Of course this necessarily takes time. Trust, like all things in Northeast Ohio, must be earned.
Amusingly enough, Blatt’s Maccabi had its own troubles with a slow start last season. They began something like 4-5 and there was some grumbling about Blatt’s job. When we tried to broach this weird similarity, he acted like we’d called him a “rookie coach” and explained that reporters say a great many inaccurate things about people’s jobs. While it was true, it didn’t help us much. Worth noting that Maccabi team went on to win the Euroleague Championship against long odds.
While local press took him for a rube that wasn’t ready for American media and 24/7 sports news cycles, Blu believes they’re mistaken.
“Israelis are very demanding and they demanded perfection and excellence from our team and it was an every day thing. You learn how to handle that type of pressure when you play for a club like that,” he says.
“You take it week to week. Literally you can be the villain and as far as players go, be ready to be shipped back to America on Monday and everybody is writing these nasty things about you all throughout the week,” Blu recalls. “Then you play a game and you guys win and all of a sudden you’re a hero.”
Sounds a lot like the Cleveland press pit. Apparently only the bylines change, never the story. Hell, they probably even have their own Brian Windhorst, which is a shame, because we’re open to offers.
We’ll be tweeting with commentary and live video from the Q during Friday’s game against Boston. As always you can follow me on Twitter @CRS_1ne and find my columns (nearly) every weekday and on weekends after a game in the Cleveland Scene blog. You can hear me every Monday around 10:45 a.m. as a guest of Michael James’ Defend Cleveland show on WRUW 91.1 You can find all my recent columns here
, and all my work at chrisparker.contently.com.