Sun archives: Blake carves a niche with competitiveness, character

August 12, 2007|By Jeff Barker | | Baltimore Sun reporter

BOYDS — There's a dripping baby bottle in the rental car cup holder and a basketball sliding around in the back seat.

Steve Blake is driving to the gym to work out with his wife. Then it's back to his Montgomery County basketball camp followed by dinner with mom and dad -- last night was spaghetti -- at their chain hotel.Yes, regular guys do occasionally make it in the NBA. They do sometimes win an NCAA championship, as Blake did at Maryland in 2002, and marry a cheerleader (Blake did that, too).

On July 13, the skinny free-agent point guard, whom his financial adviser fondly calls a "homebody," signed a three-year, $12 million contract with the Portland Trail Blazers, cementing his place in a league that markets itself on players of otherworldly athletic talents.

This is the story of how Blake did it -- how he overcame initial jitters ("I was so nervous my legs got weak"), how his family helped him keep faith in himself despite playing for four teams in three seasons (this will be his second stint with the Blazers), and how he waited for the right situation with a team that appreciates him.

Blake created his NBA niche largely on character. The Blazers, trying to reconnect with fans after a spate of player misconduct in recent years, said they wanted Blake because he's grounded. Although Blake's career scoring average is only 6.4 points, the team's front office saw him as a prototype for the unselfish, blue-collar culture it is trying to create. He's proof that today's NBA teams -- out of necessity -- evaluate players on more than just statistics.

At 27, Blake is older than most members of a young team that includes Greg Oden, 19, the 7-foot center who was the NBA's No. 1 draft pick in June, Martell Webster, 20, and LaMarcus Aldridge, 22. Among them, Oden, Webster and Aldridge have three years of NBA experience and three years of college play.

By comparison, Blake has four NBA seasons behind him after staying four years at Maryland, where he was known for having a family so supportive that his father, Richard, routinely drove 18 hours from Miami to College Park to watch him play. The elder Blake, a former golf pro who hasn't flown commercially since a harrowing airplane experience some 30 years ago, still occasionally fuels up the van and follows his son on the road.

"Steve is the total right fit in Portland because he'll set the example for the young guys coming in" said Dave Telep, national recruiting director for "Guys like Steve and [the Charlotte Bobcats'] Matt Carroll find their niche and play to their strengths. Today, when you've got guys getting arrested for dogfighting or on steroids, why wouldn't you have a Steve Blake on your team?"

It's not that Blake isn't talented. It's just that he's succeeded as much on moxie and leg lifts -- "hard work, hard work, hard work," his father said -- as on natural ability.

He's a classic overachiever, the NBA equivalent of the kid who gets picked last in a pickup game only to grudgingly earn respect. Fans relate to him as a spindly Everyman -- the likable boy next door all grown up.

But Blake, 6 feet 3, 172 pounds, has an inner scowl, a super-competitive streak that helps explain his success. Terrapins fans remember his rivalry with North Carolina State's 6-7 Julius Hodge that led to Hodge receiving a one-game suspension for a forearm to the back of Blake's head.

Blake broods when he loses. He stays up deep into the night replaying missed shots and assists that never were. He finds redemption only in the next game, which is why Blake labels the 2001 Final Four loss to Duke -- the Terps blew a 22-point-lead -- as perhaps the most trying of his career. "That was something I didn't forget for a long time. You didn't even have another game to help you get over it."

'Invincible soul'

Basketball and family -- he and his wife, Kristen, have a 10-month-old son -- are about all he has time for. It's typical of Blake that he keeps his hair buzz-cut short not for style, but because it's a distraction to wear it longer. "My wife asked me to grow it for my wedding [two years ago]. A week later, I chopped it off," he says. Blake's focus is almost maniacal. It's as if he imagines that all he has accomplished could fade away if he misses a day in the gym.

"He has that invincible soul," said Maryland-based trainer Kevin Maselka, who helped Blake and his wife through workouts this summer during breaks from his basketball camp.

Says David Ballard, his Annapolis-based financial adviser: "Steve has been successful at every level, against the odds, as a player and a person. I would never bet against him."

If Blake needs motivation, he can consider how it felt to be underestimated by coaches from the time he starting playing basketball as a kid in Miami Lakes, Fla.

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