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Sun archives: Blake carves a niche with competitiveness, character

By Jeff Barker | jeff.barker@baltsun.com

Baltimore Sun reporter

August 12, 2007

BOYDS

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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 scout.com. "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.

Tangible evidence of his later success is in a safe in which Blake, who lives in the Portland area, stores championship rings from high school and college. "I kind of keep them all together and just save them. And once in a while I'll break them out just to remind people," he says, a broad smile crossing his face.

Blake was rated among the top 50 to 75 players in the nation after a high school career split between Florida and Virginia's Oak Hill Academy. He was being groomed by former N.C. State guard Chris Corchiani, a family friend, to play for the Wolfpack. Corchiani even took him to meet then-coach Herb Sendek, but the N.C. State coaching staff showed only lukewarm interest, and Blake enrolled at Maryland.

"Later, the coaching staff said, `We blew it. We never thought he was going to be that good,'" Corchiani said. "Sometimes you really don't see the inside of a guy."

Corchiani, who owns a mortgage company in Raleigh, N.C., had more than a clue about Blake. Gabe Corchiani, Chris' father, had coached Blake at Miami Killian, and Blake visited the Corchianis in North Carolina the summer before his college career began.

"We played one-on-one numerous occasions," said Corchiani, 12 years Blake's senior and by then an ex-NBA player. "I was a little stronger and more mature. But if I beat him, he always wanted to play again."

When the subject of Blake's basketball roots are broached, his wife, a former gymnast as well as Terps cheerleader, fixes her gaze on Blake from the passenger seat of the rented sport utility vehicle.

Kristen Blake had traveled to Montgomery County -- along with more than a dozen of Blake's relatives -- to be with Steve while he conducted a weeklong basketball camp at the Discovery Sports Center in July. She often came with him when he took breaks from the camp to work out.

"I think nobody ever really gave you enough credit," Kristen Blake tells her husband. "Didn't people always say when you were in high school that you wouldn't start in college, and when you were a starter in college that you wouldn't make it to the NBA, and when you made it in the NBA that you wouldn't start?" she says.

Blake glances at his wife, then back at the road. "Yeah, I think I surprised a lot of people," he says. "Until they see me firsthand or a coach coaches me, they don't realize that I'm a lot quicker than they thought or I can shoot better than they thought or defend better than they thought. I look like I'm not that strong."

Proving critics wrong

Blake was selected by the Washington Wizards in the second round of the 2003 NBA draft. There was more pressure on him than many other rookies because -- like Juan Dixon the year before -- he was well known locally for helping the Terps to their first men's basketball national title.

Fans rode Blake and Dixon when they didn't produce. After scoring 35 points in a 2005 playoff game, Dixon conceded he had been motivated by reading an Internet forum in which fans questioned his defense and said the Wizards were playing him only because he was a former Terps hero.

Blake did his best to ignore criticism. "There's guys that read absolutely everything, and then there's guys like me. I don't want to see any of it," he said.

Blake said he was so nervous during his first NBA preseason game "that my legs got weak, and that hadn't happened to me in a long time."

After averaging 5.9 points and 2.8 assists his rookie season, Blake saw his playing time decrease to an average of 14.7 minutes in 44 games during an injury-shortened second season. He signed with the Blazers in 2005 and began a two-year gut check in which he bounced from Portland to the Milwaukee Bucks to the Denver Nuggets and back to Portland, where he's expected to compete with Jarrett Jack for the starting point guard spot.

Blake's survival -- he posted career-best numbers of 8.3 points and 6.6 assists in Denver's up-tempo style last year -- is a testament to his determination and a doting family that reassured him during difficult times.

His wife, whom he met in a criminal justice class his sophomore year, says she typically talks to Blake via cell phone a half-dozen times a day during the season, including before he goes to sleep every night. In the offseason, she sometimes rebounds his practice shots.

Blake's mother, Cindy, worries less about her son -- the youngest of four kids -- because of Kristen.

"Some people don't like it when their kids get so involved with a girlfriend in college, but I was thrilled," Cindy Blake said. "I know what girls do -- they keep you at home. They broke up once in college -- a few weeks maybe -- and he was miserable and she was miserable."

Family matters

Keeping a family together is no easy task given that NBA training camps open in early October and the regular season stretches through mid-April. Blake frets that he's hearing some of his son's first words on the phone, instead of in person.

Nicholas Blake was due as last year's training camp opened. Pregnancy was induced nine days early, "because if we'd waited until my due date Steve would have been gone," Kristen said.

Veteran NBA center Scot Pollard, 32, who knows Blake because they have the same financial adviser, says there's no easy advice to keeping a family together. Pollard is married with daughters ages 8 and 4 and a third child on the way.

"It's a lifestyle that doesn't really work with marriage because of scheduling," Pollard said. "Whenever I'm in town, I try to make sure I'm the one that puts them to bed -- I have songs I sing to them."

But his girls don't like it when he is away. "I think it's starting to take a toll on them," Pollard said.

Blake said his domestic life will be easier this season than last. He and his wife liked the Portland area so much when he played there in 2005-06 that they decided to buy a house and make it their base. That was part of the reason for signing with the Blazers last month -- he had found a home.

It seems he's also found a home in the NBA.

He smiles when he thinks about his knees buckling in his first preseason game. Now, he says, he's as comfortable as if he were playing a pickup game in the park.

"If I were sitting around all day and not doing anything I might be like, `Dude, how'd I get here?' But I worked really hard," Blake said.

"I've always thought I was good enough. I know I'm good enough," he said.

jeff.barker@baltsun.com