He's also one of the few who remember the rules from the NBA's clubby salad days: Promote the spectacle (for there was no guaranteed TV money to make up for a lousy gate) and honor the people (for you never knew when a player or coach might move from one of the seven other teams to yours). Occasionally Blake tells a tale touching on both of these hoary imperatives--an account, say, of the night in St. Louis when, having promoted a postgame dance contest, he couldn't get any of his exhausted Hawks players to serve as judges. He almost tears up recounting how a couple of visiting Cincinnati Royals, Oscar Robertson and Wayne Embry, bailed him out.
Blake doesn't do e-mail or the Internet. His son Ryan is his lone partner in Marty Blake & Associates, with which the league contracts, and it's all Ryan can do to get him to use a word processor, a clunky CRT with a cursor that blinks like a nightclub marquee. But every person or place Marty mentions is like a mental web page, which, upon opening, contains multiple hyperlinks, which in turn offer still more hyperlinks, ad almost infinitum.
"He's got this amazing ability to recall things, but he tells stories in a kind of nonlinear fashion," says eldest son Eliot, who teaches writing at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. "I saw Memento with my dad, this movie that unfolds in reverse chronological order. Afterward he asked, 'What was that movie about?' All I could say was, 'Dad, it's about you.' Your article could be interesting from a compositional perspective if you try to convey the essence of my dad in how you write it."
That, alas, might be too taxing on the reader, so we'll simply start in Paterson, N.J., where Blake, the child of immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe, spent the first half-dozen years of his life. Elias Blake and three of his brothers ran a silk-making business, which would have made them prosperous if it had survived until World War II, when the government requisitioned silk to make parachutes. But the Depression killed it off, so in 1935 the family moved to the coal town of Wyoming, Pa., near Wilkes-Barre, where it opened a small dry-goods store. Elias died of a heart attack two years later, but Marty and his mother, Ethel, kept running the store, living in 2 1/2 rooms in the back. "I don't remember much about my father except that he always wore a hat," Blake says.
He did find father figures willing to help a boy who was bright, gregarious and ambitious: a history teacher who turned Blake on to reading; a half sister's husband who put in a word so he could get that batboy gig; the owner of the local semipro basketball team who, when the scorekeeper failed to appear one night, pulled him out of the stands and offered him a dollar to keep the book. That last act consecrated him in the world of hoops; after Blake finished his hitch in the Army, the same man, Eddie White, hired him as what was known back then as a shoemaker, someone who could cobble together a solution to anything. "Eddie would ask what I thought," says Blake, who has made a living at fielding that question ever since.
Like the local baseball team, which White also owned, the basketball team was called the Wilkes-Barre Barons. It came as close to big league as a bush-league operation could. By offering salaries in the high four figures, White persuaded noted players such as Bobby McDermott and Pop Gates to pass up the NBA and its forerunners, helping the Barons attract up to 3,000 people a game. Blake spent summers working for the Barons, a Class A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians, at Artillery Park, where he once got one of the singing Ames Brothers to slide into home plate in a tuxedo. Soon he was keeping up with all the prospects on the rosters of Cleveland's affiliate clubs. In the meantime Blake had, at 19, become the youngest licensed boxing promoter in the country and flogged any act willing to come through Wilkes-Barre--pro wrestling, auto races, cabaret acts. He learned the basics of the respectable hustle: "You sell popcorn. Because if you sell popcorn, you sell drinks."
In the summer of 1954 the baseball Barons paired one of their games with an outdoor exhibition between the Harlem Globetrotters and a team of all-stars from the eight-year-old NBA. Blake delivered a crowd of 12,000 people to a ballpark that seated half that, and Milwaukee Hawks owner Ben Kerner, sponsor of the Globetrotters' tour, asked to meet the kid responsible. Soon Blake was making $70 a week as Kerner's publicity man--or so he thought. "I went to Milwaukee and told the coach, Red Holzman, I was in town to meet the staff," Blake recalls. "Red led me into the men's room and had me look in the mirror."
He worked the P.A., ran the shot clock, even reffed intrasquad games. In the Hawks' opener their best player, Frank (Pep) Saul, broke his leg. "Nobody scouted in those days," Blake says. "I decided we'd better start doing some." He bought a $28 bus ticket to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to check out two players, future NBA greats Al Bianchi and Sam Jones, in an Army tournament. "Still waiting to get reimbursed my $28."
Three years later, after Kerner had moved the team to St. Louis, the Hawks won an NBA title behind Bob Pettit and Cliff Hagan. As good as the team was, Blake made sure that fans got more than they paid for. Veeck-like, he gave out basketballs. He installed a lane and brought in world-class bowlers. He laid down a tennis court for Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez. He brought postgame jazz-- Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton--to Kiel Auditorium. Soon Blake had a leaguewide reputation as both impresario and discerning basketball mind. He looked the front-office part, with black horn-rims and 10-inch cigars. "A lumpish shortie," one Florida newspaperman wrote, who could "sell Tang to a citrus grower."
Sitting out at the western fringe of the league had its advantages. Every March, Blake would take an overnight train to Kansas City, Mo., and check into the Aladdin Hotel, next to the Municipal Auditorium, for the 32-team NAIA tournament. When the first game tipped off at 8 a.m., Blake, Holzman and Pistons scout Earl Lloyd would pull raincoats over their pajamas, grab a cup of coffee and burrow through a tunnel into the arena, where they'd reach into their coat pockets and pull out breakfast--corned beef sandwiches bought the night before. If no one in the next game was worth seeing, they'd go back to their rooms to sleep.