The Blatt-Hillman Conundrum

I wrote The Fall Guy about Cleveland's firing of head coach David Blatt over at SportsWorld. Here are a couple of other thoughts about it.

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Eight years ago, the Kansas City Royals tried a bold experiment. The team has been terrible for more than a decade, so general manager Dayton Moore figured: Hey, why not? He and his staff went all the way to Japan and hired a guy named Trey Hillman to be the manager.

Who is Trey Hillman? He had managed a Japanese team, the Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, to consecutive Pacific League pennants and a Japan Series title. Hillman had no Major League experience as a player, coach or manager. He had managed for many years in the Yankees minor league system -- where he helped develop young players like Derek Jeter, Jorge Posada, Andy Pettitte, Mile Lowell and so on. But the core of his experience had come in Japan where he'd done extraordinary work, especially when you consider the language barrier and the very different style of play in Japan.

When Hillman started, there was a problem, one that I don't think any of us anticipated.

Hillman believed that his experience in Japan mattered.

The players, for the most part, believed that his experience in Japan did not matter at all.

You really couldn't blame either side. Hillman had accomplished amazing things in Japan. He deserved to be proud and he had every reason to expect that he'd earned respect.

On the other side, though, Major League Baseball players don't follow what's going on in Japan. Almost nobody in America follows what goes on in Japan -- when I went to the Japan Series to write about Hillman, I was the only American journalist there. To Major League players, you earn your respect in the Major Leagues.

So, yeah, it was awkward. Hillman came in expecting respect. Players came in expecting him to prove himself. There were numerous clashes. The whole thing got off to a bad start, and while HIllman tried to adjust, he was let go just 35 games into his third season.

I did not make the exact connection when the Cleveland Cavaliers hired David Blatt. I guess I thought it was different. The NBA seems much more aware of the world game than Major League Baseball did a few years ago. Blatt's success overseas seemed to be admired throughout the league.

But you know what? It's the same thing. Blatt came to Cleveland feeling sure -- with good reason -- that by winning a Euroleague Championship in Israel and coaching the Russians to an Olympic bronze medal, that he was coming into the NBA as an accomplished coach. He had built a worldwide reputation as a tough and smart coach, and he expected that reputation to travel with him back to America.

But, like it was with the Royals, the Cavaliers players really did not care about Blatt's overseas success. To them, he was a rookie coach, someone who needed to learn a lot and prove himself anew.

It didn't help, of course, that two weeks after he was hired, his job changed dramatically. He was suddenly coaching the best player in the world. But I'm not sure it would have worked anyway. In soccer, this kind of stuff works all the time. A coach's success in Italy can carry over to Germany, success in Spain means something in England, success in the Netherlands matters a great deal in the Untied States.

But as of right now, international success in basketball just doesn't matter much in America. A coach could come over from Spain or Italy or Israel and have success here, of course, but he or she would have to prove it in the NBA the way, say, a college coach would have to prove it.

Blatt, reportedly, chafed at the notion of being considered a rookie coach, and I don't blame him. But this is the reality. He could have won 10 Euroleague Championships. It's just different in the NBA.

Look, Blatt was doomed anyway. That was the point of my SportsWorld piece. The day LeBron James came to Cleveland, it was "Championship or Bust," and somebody was going to pay for the haphazard and chaotic attempt to just throw together title team. David Blatt was that guy.