Championship run culminates with an upset win over Spain

Before David Blatt ’81’s Russian national team began playing in the European basketball championship Sept. 3, the tournament media guide recounted the team’s failures in recent years and noted that the new coach faced formidable obstacles in rebuilding the program. “You wouldn’t want to be in David Blatt’s shoes,” the author of the section on Russia wrote.

Thirteen days and nine games later, there was no better place to be. A stirring run through the tournament culminated on Sept. 16 in Madrid, where Blatt’s team stunned Spain, the heavily favored home team, 60–59, to win the championship. In an emotional news conference afterward, tournament MVP Andrei Kirilenko said, “This is the best achievement of my whole career.”

A few minutes later, Blatt’s voice cracked a bit as he spoke with several dozen reporters. “This is obviously a historic moment in Russian basketball,” he said. “And I am very proud to be in charge of this moment.”

Blatt, 48, had headed for Israel after graduating from Princeton, thinking only of extending his playing career for a few years. “My mother, God rest her soul, wanted me to do something respectable, like be a lawyer,” he joked to one reporter after Russia upset Lithuania in the tournament semifinals. Blatt gained dual citizenship and played for 12 years in Israel before beginning a successful coaching career, first in Israel and later in Russia and Italy. When he agreed in early 2006 to coach the Russian national team, it was widely regarded on the Continent as a bad career move.

“The first thing I had to overcome was a little bit of egotism, a little bit of quit,” Blatt told PAW midway through the tournament. “But from the first day, I preached to these guys, ‘We are going to play together, and we are not going to quit.’”

Russia’s newfound resilience was tested several times. The team suffered its only loss midway through the tournament against Spain, whose roster included Pau Gasol and several other NBA players. In the quarterfinals against France, which had routed Russia in a pretournament exhibition game, the team slowed NBA star Tony Parker and held on for a 75–71 victory. Against Lithuania, several players stepped up when Kirilenko, an NBA All-Star with the Utah Jazz, fouled out.

Before the final, Blatt readily acknowledged Spain was the better team. But he was confident that his team would not give in, adding, in a lighthearted reference to David and Goliath, that “no one gave David a chance.”

In the rematch with Spain, Blatt’s team regrouped after a shaky first quarter, and showed poise as it came back before an overwhelmingly hostile crowd. Afterward, when asked about the significance of an American-Israeli coaching the Russian team to its unexpected gold, Blatt could only shake his head and say, “I am a world basketball coach — that’s all.”