David Blatt grew up in Framingham during the days of the Cold War. He learned a lot of what he knows about basketball - and he knows plenty - from the legendary Phil "Smokey" Moresi at Framingham South. He played for Pete Carril at Princeton and has earned a reputation as one of the best coaches in Europe, presiding over such marquee teams as Maccabi-Tel Aviv, Benetton Treviso, and, starting this season, Efes Pilsen in Turkey.
He's won the Euroleague Championship. He's won the FIBA EuroCup. But his previous coaching achievements may be dwarfed by what he has done these last two weeks in Spain, where he has led the Russian national team to the final of the European Championships, clinching an Olympic berth. The Russians, who beat Lithuania, 86-74, yesterday, meet Spain today for the title. That's right, the Russians.
"The irony is too much to fathom," said Blatt, talking by cellphone from Madrid Thursday night, shortly after his team edged France to make it to the Final Four. "Growing up in Framingham during the Cold War, the last thing you could imagine was an American Jewish guy coaching the Russian national team. Especially a guy who spent so much time in Israel."
Russia had qualified for the Olympics in men's basketball only once since the breakup of the Soviet Union, finishing eighth in Sydney in 2000. (The old Soviet Union, which poached its players from Lithuania and other "republics," won the gold in 1988 in Seoul. It finished fourth as the Commonwealth of Independent States in Barcelona.) This year's Russian team, led by Utah Jazz forward Andrei Kirilenko and former Bucknell star J.R. Holden, had to qualify simply to get into the field of 16 in Spain. Once the Russians did, they were seeded third in their four-team bracket behind defender Greece and longtime (but waning) power Serbia.
How did Blatt end up being on the sidelines for the Russians? "Three years ago, after I left Maccabi, I lived and coached in St. Petersburg for a year," Blatt said. "We won the [EuroCup] that year with a 20-0 record, and that was with a team that we started from scratch. So I had a lot of connections in Russia, and when they were looking for a national team coach, and to make a change in their program, they decided they'd go with an international coach who knew the Russian culture and had an understanding of the Russian people."
It's been a two-year process of assembling the team and getting it to this point. The Russians qualified for the European Championships last summer without the services of Kirilenko. And when the team gathered for its six-week training camp July 23, neither Kirilenko nor Victor Khryapa (who played last year for the Chicago Bulls) was there for the start. Nor was Holden, who is a star for CSKA Moscow and holds a Russian passport, enabling him to play for the national team.
Language has not been a problem. Many of the Russians have a passing knowledge of English, which is the lingua franca of the international coaching community. Blatt said he knows enough Russian "to be dangerous." The Russians emerged from their four-team group at the European Championships as the top seed with a 3-1 record and took the next step by beating France. It marked the first time since 1997 that a Russian team reached the final four.
Blatt's contract with the Russian basketball federation calls for him to coach the team in Beijing. Still to be determined at a later date: whether Blatt, 48, makes the move across the pond and joins Mike D'Antoni as NBA head coaches who cut their teeth in the international game. His recent European moves have been lateral ones.
"That depends if someone from across the pond wants me," Blatt laughed. "I think it stands to reason that NBA teams might start looking more at European coaches with the influx of European players and the European style.
"But I'm not looking to come over and sit behind the bench or be a third or fourth assistant, no disrespect intended. It would have to be a pretty special situation, and no one has made that offer."
Two of his former Maccabi players now in the NBA, Anthony Parker of Toronto and Sarunas Jasikevicius of the Warriors, both feel Blatt is more than ready to lead an NBA team. Said Jasikevicius, "I think David would like to make that move. He's ambitious. He's driven. He certainly has the mind for it, so, why not?"
Healthy optimism on Oden
Do you think Kevin Pritchard figured he'd be using words like "flaking" and "lesions" in his first conference call with national NBA reporters? The Portland general manager went into deep medical mode last Thursday night in talking about the unfortunate injury to No. 1 pick Greg Oden, who will be out 6-12 months following the dreaded microfracture surgery on his right knee.
The good news? It appears to be a traumatic injury, not degenerative, although Pritchard does not know when the trauma occurred or what it was. And there's not a lot of "flaking" of the cartilage.
Oden is young (only 19) and MRIs on his knees in June found them to be "pristine." In other words, the Trail Blazers aren't close to panicking and believe they will get a fully recovered Oden next season. Asked about Oden possibly being injury-prone (remember his wrist injury last year), Pritchard said, "He'll have this injury-prone tag until proven otherwise. But he's going to come back strong and prove people wrong and we look forward to helping him do that."
The Blazers had no idea how badly Oden was injured until his knee was opened up for exploratory surgery. Neither did Oden. He wrote on his blog, "It's a light one, just a scoop. But it's still just another setback. I would like for me to be playing and not seem like I'm a high-maintenance player, but things just keep popping up."
Oliver Stone fans immediately pointed to Oden being the latest in a list of tough-luck Portland centers, referencing Bill Walton and Sam Bowie. Pritchard bristled at such thinking, calling it "unfair" and "irresponsible."
In the meantime, coach Nate McMillan will have to get by with Joel Przybilla, Raef LaFrentz, LaMarcus Aldridge, and Channing Frye in the middle. But he and Pritchard are confident that Oden will make it all the way back, as Amare Stoudemire and Jason Kidd have following similar surgery.
Union says call on Posey is foul
The NBA Players Association has filed the paperwork challenging the NBA's one-game suspension of new Celtics forward James Posey. The league announced Aug. 31 that Posey would be suspended for the season opener against the Wizards because he had pleaded nolo contendere to a charge of reckless driving, stemming from an arrest last April in Miami.
"We feel strongly about this," said union attorney Ron Klempner. "We feel that the league missed the boat on this one."
The matter will go to an arbitrator. While the league's action is consistent with past rulings, the Posey situation is a bit unusual in that he was not driving and entered that plea because he wanted the matter settled as he headed into free agency. He was arrested because police thought he looked inebriated after leaving a Miami club. He never got into his car, which was waiting for him on the street.
The Players Association also is trying to recover money that Posey lost while in Miami for failing to meet Pat Riley's body-fat benchmarks. You may recall that Posey and Antoine Walker were both deactivated last season when their body-fat percentages did not meet Riley's rather rigid standards.
"There were fines during the year, we're going to get that money back," said Posey's agent, Mark Bartelstein. "It'll be taken care of."
No silver lining
For the second straight Olympics, the reigning silver medalist will not make it into the field of 12. Italy, the surprise silver medalist in Athens, was knocked out with a loss to Germany at the European Championships, denying it a berth in the quarterfinals. The Italians last missed the Olympics in 1996. France, the silver medalist in Sydney in 2000, failed to qualify for the 2004 Games. It is hoping to make it to Beijing, but can only do that by finishing among the top three in the 2008 qualifying tournament, which will be held next July at an undetermined venue (the latest rumor is Toronto). France plays Slovenia today for the last spot in the qualifying tournament. Eight of the 12 teams in that tournament are known: Cameroon and Cape Verde from the Africa Zone; Puerto Rico, Canada, and Brazil from the Americas Zone; Lebanon and South Korea from the Asia Zone; and New Zealand from the Oceania Zone. The last four teams will come from the European Championships, which wind up today in Madrid.
Teams looking for a veteran midseason pickup at an attractive price could do a lot worse than former Nuggets/Hornets forward Chris Anderson, a.k.a. The Birdman. That's when Anderson's two-year suspension for violating the league's drug policy expires. Anderson has been working out in Las Vegas getting ready to resume his career, and it's anticipated that the Hornets, who last held his rights, will not reinstate his contract (3 1/2 years left on a four-year, $14 million deal), which will make Anderson a free agent. "He's exceeded expectations in every area," reports Anderson's agent, Steve Heumann. "We're moving forward to the first applicable moment to apply for reinstatement." Anderson turned 29 in July and has several years of NBA experience under his belt. He would be the first player to come back from a drug suspension and actually play in the NBA.
Power struggle continues
Not the best of weeks for Steve Belkin, the Boston businessman who had hoped to buy out his partners and take over ownership of the Atlanta Hawks and NHL Thrashers. A court decision giving him that right was reversed on appeal and now the whole messy matter is likely headed back to the lower court, where a new judge will try to find a solution to the two-year contretemps. One possibility is a trial. Belkin's original partners would like nothing better than to buy out Belkin; one of them, Michael Gearon Jr., told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, "We look forward to getting back to the practice of buying him out." Belkin's side remains zip-lipped. While this goes on, Hawks general manager Billy Knight, whose 2005 and 2006 drafts may go down in history as two of the stupidest ever (Marvin Williams over Chris Paul/Deron Williams and Shelden Williams over Brandon Roy/a lot of others), still remains on the job.
Time out for Pacers' Williams
Larry Bird didn't waste any time cracking the whip after Pacers forward Shawne Williams was arrested when police found expired tags for his car, marijuana in the car, and a passenger with an unregistered handgun. Oops. Bird, now the unquestioned honcho in the Indiana basketball ops department, had promised that he would not tolerate such things after all the, shall we say, priors involving Stephen Jackson, Marquis Daniels, and Jamaal Tinsley. He suspended Williams for three games, even though police decided not to press charges. "Shawne put himself in a position that placed the franchise in a poor light," Bird said. "He's a good kid who made a bad decision. Our franchise is in a position now where the responsibilities, conduct, and standards of the players off the court weigh as heavily as they do on the court." The three-game hit will cost Williams a shade more than $49,000 and he said Friday he would not appeal the suspension.
Make them an offer
What do Mickael Pietrus, Charlie Bell, Sasha Pavlovic, and Anderson Varejao have in common? They're restricted free agents and have yet to get either an acceptable extension offer from their old team or a Godfather-type offer from another team. Three of the four (Pietrus, Varejao, and Pavlovic) declined to play for their national teams in Olympic qualifying tournaments this summer - and who can say whether the presence of a Varejao would have tipped the balance in favor of Brazil at the just-concluded qualifier in Las Vegas? Or whether the presence of Pietrus (whose brother also plays for France) would have helped Tony Parker, Boris Diaw, and the lads at the European Championships? Bell's agent, Mark Bartlestein, hinted that he might have an offer sheet for his client, a move that would give the Bucks a chance to match or let him go. If none of the players signs a new deal, they'll play this season and become unrestricted free agents next summer.
Peter May can be reached at email@example.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.