Maryland guard's parents are a driving force for his success

March 29, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

I REACH Richard and Cindy Blake on their cell phone at 8 in the morning as they climb some god-forsaken mountain in Tennessee in their Dodge conversion van, the sun just arcing above the tree line.

"Hold on a minute," says Richard, who is behind the wheel. "Rough stretch of road here ..."

For several seconds, there is silence on his end. Great. I can see the headlines now: "Terp star's parents plummet over cliff talking to reporter."

But then Richard Blake's voice comes back, cheerful and slightly caffeinated and, best of all, without the squeal of tires in the background.

"Oh," he says, "we're having a great time. This is like a dream."

Of all the stories coming out of the University of Maryland's wild ride to this weekend's Final Four, the feature event of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the story of the Blake family is the one of the best.

Richard and Cindy Blake are the parents of Steve Blake, the Terps' fine sophomore point guard. When I caught up with them by phone, they were in the midst of a 35-hour, 1,800-mile car trip to the Final Four in Minneapolis from their home in Miami Lakes, Fla., to see their son play the most important game of his life.

They drove because Richard Blake won't fly, not since a plane he was in dropped out of the Florida sky 10 years ago and nearly stuck in the Everglades like a javelin.

So this season, he racked up 44,000 miles in his Dodge van driving to Terps games to watch his son play. He saw all but three of Maryland's games up to the NCAA tournament, and one of those was in Hawaii, which, as we all know, is hell to get to by car.

Last year, Steve's freshman season, he put 37,000 miles on the odometer of a pickup driving to Steve's games. The van is a definite upgrade, with TV, VCR and a bed, but it still ain't exactly the Hilton.

Still, Richard Blake's reasoning goes something like this: When your kid is fulfilling his childhood dream, when his passion and all the years of sweat and sacrifice have lifted him to the college game's highest level, how can you not be there to watch him?

So he drives, to home games in College Park and away games in Virginia or on Tobacco Road or wherever they may be. Up the traffic-choked ribbons of highway that dot the East Coast he drives, often making the return trips home in the middle of the night, stopping time after time at the same soulless highway rest areas, listening to the same country stations on the radio.

"The trips are all worth it once you get there," says Richard Blake.

He's even become a celebrity of sorts on Maryland game telecasts, the camera often finding him in the stands decked out in his red Terps T-shirt and cap.

"If you're crazy enough to be driving that far, they're gonna put you on TV," he says dryly.

No one in the Blake family, not Cindy or Steve or Steve's three older sisters, can blame Richard for not wanting to fly, not after what he went through.

Ten years ago he was flying in a small plane on a business trip for the development company he works for in Miami Lakes. He was sitting in the co-pilot's seat, although strictly as a passenger. Suddenly, at 10,000 feet, both engines quit.

The plane went into a steep and terrifying nose dive.

When it finally broke through some storm clouds, the pilot was able to slow the descent and crash-land the plane near a canal without any major injuries.

"Still," Cindy Blake says, "when you hear someone radio `Mayday, Mayday, we're going down!' and the ground coming up at you, it's pretty scary."

After something like that, you couldn't get me on a plane again unless you whacked me over the head with a shovel first.

And for 10 years, Richard Blake hasn't flown.

He watched Maryland's first two tournament victories in Idaho - over George Mason and Georgia State - on TV. Still, when the Terps made it to the Sweet 16 in Anaheim, Calif., and prepared to play Georgetown, he beat back his anxiety and went shopping for a cheap plane ticket.

I'm gonna do it. I'm gonna get on a plane, he kept telling himself.

He even had a friend willing to accompany him and try to keep him from wigging out on the flight.

But the airfares he found for a direct flight on such short notice were exorbitant. "I've spent a fortune getting to his games as it is," he says. The only cheap fares he found were for connecting flights that would have involved spending nine hours in the air.

Richard Blake wasn't sure he could handle that - not with the memories of his roller-coaster ride in the sky still rattling around in his mind. Even knowing that if the Terps got past Georgetown, they would face No. 1-ranked Stanford, he reluctantly decided to stay home.

"It was tough dealing with that," he says now, and even from far away, you can hear the disappointment in his voice. "Biggest game of my son's life, and I can't go."

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