Find out why an entire country is rooting for the Cleveland Cavaliers
These Mediterranean fans can't wait for the new NBA season to tip off.
NBA.com recently polled the league's general managers and the Cleveland Cavaliers were chosen as the favorite to win the NBA championship this season. The city of Cleveland isn't the only place eager to see if the poll proves prophetic. In Israel, where the Cavaliers occupy an exalted place among sports teams, there's a palpable excitement about the season, which begins Oct. 27.
This passionate following can be attributed to Cavs coach David Blatt. Though originally from Boston, Blatt moved to Israel after college, became a citizen of the country and embarked on a long and successful career as a player and coach. He married an Israeli, and his children still live there.
"Blatt is everywhere during the season," Steve Rubin, who was born in Philadelphia but has called Israel home for the past 10 years, told From The Grapevine. Though still a committed Philadelphia sports fan, even he can't avoid getting caught up in the excitement. "Blatt's on the news whenever there's a game. As an Israeli and as part of the community, you can't help but get excited by it."
David Blatt achieved considerable success as coach of Tel Aviv Maccabi. Here he poses with personal and team trophies. (Photo: JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images)
Israel has long had a love affair with the sport. The country has a thriving domestic league and features one of the best teams in Europe, Maccabi Tel Aviv, which Blatt led to the European Championship in 2014 before moving to the NBA.
"It's an easy flowing game. And it's different from soccer, where you can play 90 minutes and have zero goals," one of Israel's most influential basketball agents and managers, Liron Fanan, told From The Grapevine.
Thanks to Fanan's biggest client, Omri Casspi, Israelis' attention turned stateside in 2009. Casspi became the first Israeli drafted in the NBA's first round. He was selected by the Sacramento Kings. His success has encourged other teams to dip into Israel's talent pool. In 2013, Gal Mekel signed with the Dallas Mavericks, and in 2014, the Cavs hired Blatt.
Their presence in the league has proved a point of pride, but also something of a cultural bridge.
"Blatt gives interviews to Israeli media, which allows for greater access to the game for Israelis," said Doron Isgav, a casual basketball fan who admits to following Casspi and Blatt's achievements from afar. "It's incredible. The hysteria around it sometimes makes it seem as if it's happening here."
Fanan agrees that Casspi and Blatt have provided a new window through which to view the NBA. "I saw it first with Omri and I've seen the amount of interest grow," Fanan said. "It was daily. After every game he would do a lot of interviews. They're the biggest thing in basketball here."
Last year, as the Cavs motored through the playoffs on their way to the NBA Finals, excitement reached a crescendo. The Cavs lost the series 4-2.
"Everywhere you went, you would hear people talking about the NBA," Fanan said.
Odelia Metry, who is the staff photographer for one of the professional teams in Israel, Rishon Lezion, has had a front row seat to the country's growing obsession with the sport.
"There's a great vibe going around; it's amazing seeing an Israeli player and an Israeli coach playing in the big league," she said. "You definitely see a change and awareness of the NBA. There are people who did not know much about it. Now NBA fans are waking up in the middle of the night to watch the games, and there is a feeling of extreme excitement."
With Israel currently 7 hours ahead of EST, it's not just the rabid fans waking early. Rubin admits to rising for 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. tipoffs. And Fanan has witnessed a change among even her most ambivalent friends. "It used to be that me and my guy friends would wake to watch games, but now during the playoffs, my girlfriend's awake at 4 a.m. to watch Blatt."
Many in Israel see the country's influence on the top basketball league in the world growing in the years to come, as younger generations are inspired by Blatt and Casspi to pick up the sport. Fanan said she already sees a shift in the athletic interests of kids in the country.
"Omri and Blatt bring basketball to a different level," she said. "Now every kid wants to be like Omri and play in the NBA here. Every kid wants to coach one day and be like Blatt. It's an open door now, in a way."
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