On some evenings, like this one in Athens, Ga., the NBA's director of scouting turns up for a college basketball game only to find something less. Yet as Georgia and Nevada stage a pageant of affronts to Dr. Naismith's invention, Marty Blake doesn't have to settle for scouting the players. He can scout the scouts, who are fanned out courtside to his left and right. Blake has the book on everybody.
"Let me tell you about Bob Reinhart," Blake says, indicating the former coach at Georgia State, now a scout for the Golden State Warriors. " Bruce Benedict, the catcher for the Braves, became a college ref when he retired, and one night he was working one of Bob's Georgia State games. I'm courtside and tell Benedict, 'My wife says you never threw anybody out.' Five minutes later, Reinhart argues a call and Benedict sends him packing, and Benedict comes by and goes, 'Who says I never threw anybody out?'"
"You know Bumper?" Bumper is Gene Tormohlen, a scout for the Los Angeles Lakers who played for the Hawks of St. Louis and Atlanta back when Blake served as their general manager. "One time Bumper and I went to Philly for a game. Told the cabbie to take us to St. Joseph's. Cabbie left us off in front of a monastery."
For years Blake traveled carrying a telescoping measuring stick with which to check the heights of prospects at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament and the Chicago Pre-Draft Camp, the springtime auditions he coordinates for NBA wannabes that have come to be known as Marty's Parties. "Pete"-- Blake gestures at Pete Babcock, the player personnel director for the Toronto Raptors--"would tell airline check-in agents I was a religious leader just back from the Holy Land."
If his fellow bird dogs were to compile the book on Blake, who turns 78 this month, they might begin with his days as batboy for the Wilkes-Barre Barons; or his work as guy Friday to sports' original salesman, Bill Veeck, in the Cleveland Indians' minor league system; or his decision, as the Hawks' general manager, to trade the pick that the Boston Celtics would use to draft Bill Russell; or his ferreting out of such theretofore unknowns as Zelmo Beaty, Jack Sikma and Scottie Pippen; or his 44-year marriage to Marcia, which he once described as the union of two Nazi Quakers. ("We declare war on Friday and on Saturday refuse to go.")
In 1945, on furlough in Miami from his service at a nearby Army base, Blake wore his fatigues as an extra in They Were Expendable, a John Wayne movie shot in Biscayne Bay; 50 years later, as a college recruiter in the Nick Nolte-- Shaquille O'Neal vehicle Blue Chips, he ad-libbed a line in which he calls the mother of the kid he's trying to sign an on-the-take "pain in the ass." Why, in a stage production of Arsenic and Old Lace, Blake once played a guy who thinks he's Teddy Roosevelt, a detail that goes smartly with that big stick--although the comparison breaks down at the speak-softly part. Of Blake it has been said, "He uses a microphone to keep his voice down."
Soon Blake is off on another story, this one about a first baseman, the late comedienne Imogene Coca's husband, who played on the softball team Blake pulled together while working as a kitchen hand at Camp Tamiment in the Poconos. And as long as we're talking first basemen: "The best baseball prospect I ever saw was [future NBA star] Sweetwater Clifton. He hit 33 home runs for Wilkes-Barre in the early Fifties. Ever see his hands? You can imagine him at first base! The Indians called him up to replace Luke Easter but didn't offer him enough in salary, so he signed with the Globetrotters."
Blake's stories are like the jazz he loves. They're improvised, syncopated riffs that, regardless of the unexpected turns they take, always wend their way back to the main theme. He wouldn't be the most quoted man in basketball over the last half century if he didn't know his hoops, didn't know that the theme at hand is the game, sorry as this one in Athens may be. Tonight the Bulldogs and the Wolf Pack will shoot a combined 35%. The player who's supposed to have an outside stroke, Nevada forward Nick Fazekas, will go 5 for 14. Yet all this ineptitude doesn't throw Blake off his game. "With guards you'd like to see an entry pass once in a while," he says. "If he's a small forward, does he have any ball-handling skills so you could convert him from a three to a two? If he's a center--not that there are any in college these days--can he box out, run the court, rebound, get position, trigger the fast break and do it all automatically? I also like to see a center with a hook shot. The hook shot, I could teach it in 15 minutes."
A live-legged Moroccan, 6'9" Georgia freshman Younes Idrissi, wrestles in a putback. Blake checks his roster: "That the guy from Casablanca?"
Of all the gym joints in all the world, Marty Blake is liable to walk into yours if there's even a whisper of a rumor that a pro prospect might be playing there. It's his business to spin out, in eyes-only briefing books circulated among the 30 NBA teams, the prospective story of every credible, draft-eligible ballplayer on the planet. Yet even while he's eyeballing talent, the storyteller within him is on the lookout, for he's always pulling richly peopled yarns out of his past, most of them involving some restaurant meal and punctuated by a Borscht Belt rim shot or two. Blake is a temporal transfer point, the membrane through which the narratives of basketball's future and past simultaneously flow.