Miles can't distance support

College basketball: An airplane scare keeps Steve Blake's dad from flying, but not from making the trip from Miami Lakes, Fla., to watch his son play for the Terps.

January 09, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - Drive hard.

What Steve Blake does for the Maryland basketball team, his father specializes in on Interstate 95. The pertinent statistic for the Terps' sophomore point guard is his 7.7 assists per game. For Richard Blake, it's the 1,150 miles from his home in Miami Lakes, Fla., to Cole Field House, a drive he has unflinchingly made more than a dozen times to see his son play.

The elder Blake has had a fear of flying since a company plane he was in had to make an emergency landing in the Everglades a decade ago. He's traded the convenience of a $200 airfare for a series of marathon drives, and is in the midst of a seven-day stretch that will rack up about 4,600 miles on the odometer of his Dodge conversion van.

"If you've ever taken that drive before, you understand how long it is," said Steve Blake, who was able to jet home to spend Christmas morning with his family. "One time, and I'm done. My mom and I made the drive at the end of the summer, for the start of school. I don't want to do it again for a while."

Blake's mother, Cindy, will hop in the passenger seat this afternoon, when she and Richard begin a 19-hour drive that will allow them to catch tomorrow's clash with North Carolina at Cole. She'll take a two- or three-hour stint, tops, behind the wheel. Richard Blake is occasionally accompanied by Jake Voth, a lifelong friend, but there are times, like last weekend's Georgia Tech game, when he makes the jaunt by himself.

On the solo trips, the same Cracker Barrel restaurants and country music stations provide a sense of familiarity. Security comes with the solitude.

"The fright of knowing that you're 10,000 feet in the air and your plane has no engines stays with you," Richard Blake said of the emergency landing, in which there were no serious physical injuries. "That was a pretty scary experience. I used to do it [air travel] a lot, but I haven't since. I'm afraid of how I'm going to react in the air, and I don't care to find out."

Richard Blake has worked the past 25 years for a development company, where he's director of maintenance. He plans vacation days around Maryland's schedule, and following his son was measurably easier when he was a prep star.

Steve Blake was offered scholarships by Miami and Florida, but his father realizes his sacrifice to be a spectator could have been even more daunting. In the summer of 1998, after Blake's junior year of high school, the two packed up and went on an exploratory recruiting excursion. They started in the North, at Syracuse, then drove south and stopped at Maryland.

"When Steve's dad said he drove," Terps coach Gary Williams said, "I didn't like our chances."

The Blakes found a good fit at Maryland, and Richard began to learn about the Atlantic Coast Conference and Tobacco Road the next winter. Steve played for a Miami Senior High juggernaut, but after that program was sanctioned for recruiting violations, he transferred to Oak Hill Academy in southwest Virginia. The elder Blake remembers at least a half-dozen trips to see his son direct the nation's No. 1 prep team.

With Maryland the northernmost member of the ACC, road games are easier on Richard Blake. Weary and without a companion, he missed the Terps' upset of Duke last February. Two weeks earlier, he made it to North Carolina for a game delayed a day by a winter storm.

"I had never driven in snow," Richard Blake said. "That was something new."

He estimates he put 30,000 miles on a trusty Dodge pickup truck last winter. This season, he moved up to a conversion van equipped with a TV, VCR and a bed that's used at assorted rest stops for quick naps.

Richard Blake was probably the only Maryland fan distressed by a schedule in which the Terps opened in Hawaii. Selection Sunday last March wasn't kind either. He was in Charlotte, N.C., for the ACC tournament when the announcement was made Maryland would be sent to Minnesota. He had to get back to Miami, Minneapolis is nearly 1,800 miles away and he figuratively was out of gas.

The Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome is where this season will conclude, and Richard Blake is prepared to drive straight through March to get to the Final Four if Maryland gets there. He cut back on the November and December trips he made in Steve's rookie season, and is ready for the long haul this year.

"My father loves me a lot, and I love him a lot," Steve Blake said. "It's pretty neat looking up in the stands and seeing him there. This just shows how much support I have."

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