The 2015 NBA Finals coaches, Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors and David Blatt of the Cleveland Cavaliers, have both reached this summit in their first year on the job, but that’s not all they share. The two rookies are also bonded by histories intimately tied to the conflicts that plague the Middle East. In an NBA Finals where children at press conferences have generated endless hot takes, this history has been discussed, if at all, in a remarkably shallow fashion.
David Blatt, born in Framingham, Massachusetts, holds dual citizenship in Israel by virtue of being of the Jewish faith. His Israeli citizenship (which I could also claim by virtue of my own familial Judaism) gives him a set of political and civil rights that non-Jews born on this land 5,500 miles from Framingham do not possess. After playing and coaching in Israel following a Princeton education, Blatt became in his own words, “much more Jewish and much more Zionist.”
Blatt’s proud Zionism means that he has been a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces (the IDF), an experience described in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz as “his most significant bonding experiences with the country.” He is also on a first-name basis with the nation’s leader, Benjamin Netanyahu. This friendship, which ABC broadcaster Jeff Van Gundy described at high decibels as “impressive” during Tuesday night’s primetime Finals broadcast, is so intimate, that Blatt boasts of being able to call Netanyahu “Bibi” when they speak. Blatt told The Plain Dealer that the prime minister “said all of Israel is behind the Cavaliers. That was great.”
What went unmentioned by Van Gundy, not to mention The Plain Dealer, are the ethical implications of an NBA coach beaming about his friendship with Netanyahu. “Bibi’s” last campaign was so riven with virulent anti-Arab racism, it was condemned across the globe. The aforementioned Israeli newspaper Haaretz printed an editorial about feeling “shame” that their “prime minister was a racist” after Netanyahu’s March election victory. The New York Times editorial page credited his triumph to a “desperate and craven” campaign that relied on a “racist rant” against Arab citizens of Israel to pull out a victory. Time’s Joel Klein wrote that Netanyahu’s victory represented an “appalling irony” that “brought joy to American neoconservatives and European anti-Semites alike.” I use these examples because they represent how even staunch supporters of Israel were nauseated by Netanyahu’s toxic political platform.