TOM WITHERS, AP Sports Writer
CLEVELAND (AP) — For any NBA rookie, the first year is challenging. There’s the adjustment to travel, the pressure to perform and all that comes with being a professional.
It can be overwhelming — even for a seasoned coach. No, nothing has come easy for David Blatt, who has had a tumultuous journey with the Cavaliers to the NBA Finals.
Handed a star-studded squad but no handbook, Blatt managed high expectations and the world’s best player, ignored critics and battled a brutal case of homesickness.
For Blatt, leaving his family in Israel so he could chase his dream was more difficult than he imagined.
“It’s been really rough,” he told The Associated Press following a recent practice, clearing emotion from his throat.
“I’ve been away from my kids who I’m used to seeing every day, hugging and kissing them,” he said. “It’s not even the fact that I’m away for a long time, it’s just not having that close contact with the people I care about so much.”
The Boston-born coach came back overseas with no assurances he’d succeed in the NBA — too much risk to justify uprooting his wife and children from well-established lives in Israel.
Yet after a season of scrutiny, constant speculation about his future and a still-hard-to-decipher relationship with megastar LeBron James, Blatt is four wins from a championship.
It’s a personal victory for the international coaching legend, who led pro teams in Israel and Italy to titles and the Russian national team to an Olympic bronze. Despite an impeccable overseas resume, Blatt has been ridiculed for missteps in Cleveland.
He endured it all, guiding a Cavs team that started 19-20, was overhauled by trades and hurt significantly by postseason injuries.
He could gloat. He won’t.
“I told somebody recently I’m not a vindictive person,” he said. “So I don’t feel the need for vindication in any way.”
On the way to a finals matchup with Warriors coach Steve Kerr, who nearly hired him last summer, Blatt has taken shots about his personality, coaching choices and play calling.
During the season, James pushed Blatt out of the way while he argued with a referee in Phoenix, an awkward moment that led to questions about who was in charge.
In the closing seconds of a playoff game against Chicago, James changed an inbounds play moments after Blatt tried to call a timeout he didn’t have, sparking even more rumors that the Cavs might be poised for another coaching change.
Blatt outlasted the storm.
Watching the drama unfold from afar, former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy said he’s amazed the “coaching piñata” has succeeded.
“No one was giving this guy any credit,” said Van Gundy, who will call the finals for ABC. “He took all the blame and the players took all the credit for the wins.”
Yes, the Cavs were transformed by two mid-season trades, but Van Gundy believes Blatt’s ability to adjust made the difference.
“He was masterful in that he simplified the game,” Van Gundy said. “He might have had one idea of how he was going to come in and play, and then he saw what the players could do, should do, and were willing to do, and he modified his approach, and it’s been very successful.”
While the Cavs’ turnaround has been impressive, so is the way his players have warmed to him.
In January, with Cleveland on a losing skid, James was given a chance to endorse his new coach and didn’t, saying: “I don’t pay no bills around here.” The heat grew so intense that general manager David Griffin called an impromptu news conference to say Blatt’s job was safe.
But on Monday, James offered effusive praise for his boss.
“Anytime someone is scrutinized really for nothing, I’m able to relate,” James said. “People love reading the negative things more than the positive things, so I think he’s handled his situation unbelievably. Being a rookie coach in the NBA, being able to take his team to the finals, I think he’s done a hell of a job.”
Blatt believed he’d have time to develop a young team when he was hired last summer. But then James returned, Cleveland acquired Kevin Love and the Cavs were instant title contenders.
There would be no grace period, no honeymoon. It was win, and win now.
“It was a big change,” Blatt said. “The only thing that helped me is that I’ve been in situations where I was expected to win immediately. But that was a real shift in focus and in challenge.”
Blatt, who led Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euroleague title a year ago, said a piece of advice from a former coach helped him navigate around the noise.
“He told me: ‘The moment you start listening to the guy who is sitting in the third row, you’ll quickly find yourself sitting right next to him. Go your own way,’” he said.
Blatt’s done just that, to the finals.
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