"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