(Baltimore Sun photo by David…)
Steve Blake has carved together what is now a nine-year NBA career by feeding the ball to a list of All-Stars – from Antawn Jamison and Gilbert Arenas in Washington, to Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony in Denver, to LaMarcus Aldridge in Portland and, for the past two seasons, to Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles.
Though the lights are much brighter now and Blake, as a steady and much sought-after point guard, has parlayed his skills into his current four-year, $16 million contract with the Lakers, it is not much different than the role he played during his four seasons at Maryland.
Back then, the stars were named Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Chris Wilcox. Blake, the scrawny kid from Miami, turned his ability to pass – as well as defend and hit some clutch shots – into a record-setting career for the Terps.
His total for assists – 972 – will likely stand in College Park for awhile.
“I love to pass the ball and I got to play in an offense and with players where I could get a lot of assists,” said Blake, who ranks fifth all-time in Division I and was the first player in Atlantic Coast Conference history to 1,000 points, 400 assists and 200 steals in a career.
“Our team was about sharing the ball and doing things together,” he said.
Blake, who was a year behind Dixon and Baxter, made his share of big plays along the way that led to the Terps taking part in the ultimate team activity – cutting down the nets at the Georgia Dome after their 64-52 win over Indiana in the 2002 NCAA championship game.
Among Blake’s personal memories was a big 3-point shot he made to help beat Connecticut in the regional final in Syracuse, N.Y., as well as a steal he made against Duke guard Jason Williams at Cole Field House that had his college nemesis “looking back at Coach K.”
Asked if it seems like a decade has passed, Blake said, “In some ways it seems like it was yesterday, but it also seems like it was a long time ago.”
While Dixon, Baxter and Wilcox, then a sophomore, all moved on to the NBA after that season, Blake remained as the leader of a Maryland team that came within his own in-and-out 3-point shot of making the Elite Eight the following year, losing to Michigan State.
Dixon, who played seven years in the NBA and briefly in Europe, is out of basketballl. Baxter, who played briefly with the Chicago Bulls, has played in several foreign countries and is currently on a team in Russia.
The only two remaining NBA players left from that Maryland team are Blake and Wilcox, who despite being a lottery pick (eighth overall by the Los Angeles Clippers) after his sophomore year in 2002, has been something of an NBA journeyman. The Boston Celtics are Wilcox’s fifth team in 10 seasons.
Blake has moved around himself – the Lakers are his sixth team and he played with the Trail Blazers twice – and could be on the move again depending on what happens to All-Star forward Pau Gasol. Blake, who was a second-round pick of the Washington Wizards, and played there and in Portland with Dixon, said he learned a long time ago “that this is a business.”
Many have said -- and stats back it up -- that Blake has had the most productive NBA career of any of his former teammates as well as many of his opponents, including Williams, whose career was cut short when he was involved in a motorcycle accident. As is his personality, Blake won’t make any such pronouncement.
In fact, Blake said, “You shouldn’t judge someone’s success on how long they’ve played in the NBA. We’ve all had successful careers. Juan played seven years in the NBA. Chris has played 10. Drew Nicholas has had a long career in Europe. Lonny is still playing over there.”
Blake also looks at how productive some of his former teammates have been who didn’t parlay their success at Maryland into an NBA contract – pointing to the work Byron Mouton has done in the community with disadvantaged youth.
“You should also be judged on what you’ve done with your life, your family and your friends,” said Blake, who along with his wife Kristen, a Maryland graduate, has three sons -– 5-year-old Nicholas, 3-year-old Jamison and 1-year-old Zachary.
Blake tries to stay in touch with his teammates and coaches. He returned this year for Maryland Madness when the NBA was locked out, sent a video for a dinner to honor former coach Gary Williams on the naming of the Comcast Center court in his honor, and even texted former assistant Jimmy Patsos the night Loyola beat Iona at Reitz Arena back in January.
“For me personally, my four years at Maryland is all about the relationships with my teammates, the coaches, even the fans,” he said. “We weren’t just a good college team, we all had some success after that. When you look back at what we achieved, it’s awesome. It was a great time to be a Maryland player.”