Israelis on Sunday harshly criticized the firing of local hero David Blatt as coach of the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers, calling him the victim of superstar LeBron James’s influence over the team.
One sports commentator even compared Israelis’ hate of James to their hate of Islamist movement Hamas, while insulting and racist comments written in Hebrew littered his Instagram account.
The 2014 hiring of Blatt, an Israeli citizen who led powerhouse Maccabi Tel Aviv to a European title, gave Israelis a jolt of pride. When the Cavaliers played in last year’s NBA finals, many stayed up late to watch the games.
But a rift between Blatt and James, the Cavaliers’ star player who many rank among the greatest ever, reportedly led to his downfall, with the team announcing Friday that they were firing him despite having one of the league’s best records.
“LeBron James is now the most hated person in Israel,” Sharon Davidovitch, a sports journalist for Israeli news site Ynet and Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, told AFP.
He said the decision to move on from Blatt was correct since the players and coach apparently did not get along, but noted that Israeli fans were taking the decision hard.
“It’s a little bit joking and a little bit true: These days I can only compare the Israeli hate for LeBron James to the hate for Hamas,” he said, speaking of the Palestinian Islamist movement that runs the Gaza Strip.
Israeli newspapers gave the firing front-page treatment on Sunday.
One said “Goliath eliminates David,” referring to James and Blatt.
A cartoon on the back cover of Yedioth Ahronoth showed Blatt walking away from the locker room with a box of belongings as James uncorks champagne behind his back.
The news even drew reactions from US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro and Israeli Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev.
Shapiro wrote on his Facebook page that “I don’t really understand the Cavs’ decision to fire David Blatt after all his success. But I congratulate him, a wonderful man and a talented coach, on all his accomplishments, and wish him well in the future.”
Regev said “you should know that there’s a whole country here that’s behind you, that loves and supports you.”
Basketball is the second most-popular sport in Israel after football, but Israelis rarely have success in the NBA, the world’s biggest basketball league.
When the Cavaliers advanced to the NBA finals last season in Blatt’s first year as coach, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called to congratulate him. They eventually lost to the ascendant Golden State Warriors and their star Steph Curry.
Blatt was not always so lauded in Israel, where he was for a time seen by some as an outsider since he was born in the United States.
He relocated to the country more than three decades ago, volunteered on a kibbutz, performed his mandatory military service and married an Israeli woman. Sceptical Israelis embraced him as a coach after his success on the court.
Blatt also had success as a coach in Russia and was named Euroleague coach of the year.
But there were apparently troubles from the start in Cleveland, with US media reports saying James did not respect Blatt. LeBron prefers coaches and players who are managed by Klutch Sports, his own agency.
The rift appeared to play out in public at times, with James admitting to overriding his coach and calling his own plays.
Still, his firing came as a shock both in Israel and the US, as the Cavaliers led their Eastern Conference with a 30-11 record at the time.
Cavaliers general manager David Griffin said he was “measuring more than wins and losses.”
“I’m focusing on a bigger picture and I’m really trying to decide — are we working toward a championship, are we building a championship culture?” he said.
James denied any involvement and said he was “caught off guard” by the move, followed by “What, I play for the Cavs now?”