OAKLAND, Calif. — The path to the NBA Finals for Steve Kerr and David Blatt, a rare pair of rookie coaches on basketball’s biggest stage, started with a meeting organized by their agent at Los Angeles International Airport last June.
The two clicked immediately, talking about their philosophies for basketball and life, and Kerr offered Blatt a spot on his new staff with the Golden State Warriors. Blatt, a successful coach internationally, had been waiting for the right opportunity to break into the NBA and initially accepted.
Then, an unexpected call gave their plans a twist.
When the Cleveland Cavaliers asked Blatt to interview for their coaching vacancy, Kerr encouraged him to seek the job. Now the next time they see each other will be from opposite benches when the Warriors host the Cavaliers in Game 1 of the finals Thursday night.
"No way we could’ve guessed back then that we’d be facing each other in the NBA Finals less than a year later. It’s crazy to think about," Kerr said, echoing his counterpart’s amazement.
"That’s a great irony and story," Blatt said. "The way that I look at it is, especially when I look back to our conversation, is that we both got exactly what we wanted. We wanted to be part of a successful team that competes for the championship of the NBA. And it’s happened — only we’re on different sides."
The matchup is more than a coincidence. It’s historic.
This is the first time rookie coaches have met in the finals time since the NBA’s inaugural season in 1946-47. And no first-year coach has won the title since Pat Riley with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1982.
Both took different roads to NBA coaching careers — Kerr as a five-time champion player, broadcaster and general manager, and Blatt as a coach in Europe and the Middle East.
In the past 12 months, their journeys have varied just as much.
Kerr took over a 51-win team led by Stephen Curry, this season’s MVP, and loaded with talent. He coached the Warriors to a franchise-record 67 victories, rolling through the schedule with relative ease to earn the league’s top playoff seed.
LeBron James came back to Cleveland in free agency shortly after Blatt took over, and Blatt faced constant questions about his abilities — which are magnified for anybody coaching the four-time MVP — when the Cavaliers got off to a slow start.
Kerr and Blatt admired each from afar before they had ever met. They got a chance to study their teams more closely this season, and that bond grew as they went through the NBA coaching grind for the first time.
"Anytime you’re put in the spotlight like he was early in the season when things weren’t going well for them, that’s when your character shows, that’s when your grit comes out," Kerr said. "I thought he handled all that stuff beautifully and just kept going and they righted the ship. I’m glad to see that he’s getting the credit that’s due."
For as quickly as their friendship formed, they never talked at length until Kerr got the Warriors job last May.
They were brought together by their shared agent, Mike Tannenbaum, who is now the executive vice-president of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins. Mark Bartelstein, who introduced Tannenbaum to both, represents each coach now.
Tannenbaum thought Kerr and Blatt had similar personalities. What he didn’t know — nobody in the NBA did before this season — is their basketball minds worked in similar ways, too.
"We share a lot of the same philosophies in terms of how we see the game, ball movement and spacing and pace and the chemistry that happens when the ball does move," Kerr said.
Kerr’s credibility in the NBA — he won three titles playing alongside Michael Jordan on the Chicago Bulls and two more under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, then went on to be the general manager of the Phoenix Suns and a well-liked broadcaster for TNT — helped him become the hottest candidate last summer despite never being a coach before.
That only accelerated when mentor Phil Jackson, the president of the Knicks and coach of those great Bulls teams, offered him New York’s coaching job. But Kerr chose Golden State in large part so he could be close to his family in California.
Blatt had to leave his family in Israel to chase his dream. He had a successful coaching career overseas, leading Russia to the bronze medal in the 2012 London Olympics and Maccabi Tel Aviv to the Euroleague championship last year, but he always wanted to coach in the world’s top league.
At the time, the Warriors looked like his NBA springboard.
After he verbally committed to come to Golden State, the Cavaliers asked Blatt for an interview. Blatt wanted to pursue the position but also didn’t want to sour his relationship with Kerr and the Warriors. So, he simply asked Kerr what to do.
"I told him, ‘Of course, go see if you can get that. And if not, we’ll talk,"’ Kerr said.
Blatt has been thankful ever since. He even waited outside the Warriors’ locker room to talk with Kerr before the Cavs’ lone game at Oracle Arena in January.
"Life has taught me to never be convinced of anything until it happens," Blatt said. "Had Steve not been willing to allow me to interview for the job, I’d be in Golden State right now."
Instead, he’ll be trying to take what Kerr and the Warriors want most: an NBA title.