Meanwhile, the sea tide of race had begun to creep up the strand of pro sports, and Blake rode it in. He sussed out and drafted players from black schools like Winston-Salem State, Tennessee State and Prairie View A&M; before signing A&M center Zelmo Beaty in 1962, Blake spent parts of two winters as virtually the only white man in the stands at the Texas school. He didn't merely scout and draft Minnesota guard Lou Hudson in '66 but also fixed him with the sobriquet Sweet Lou, for he believed nicknames pumped up a player both in the eyes of the public and in the player's own mind.
In St. Louis the Hawks of the late '50s and early '60s stitched together the first network of regional scouts. They convened the first rookie camp. When Blake wasn't introducing some front-office innovation, he was anticipating it: In 1970, two years after Kerner had sold the team and it moved to Atlanta, Blake drafted a pair of foreign players, the NBA's first foray into the European market. Fearing ridicule, the Hawks' owners wouldn't let Blake sign his 11th-round choice, Italy's Dino Meneghin. A Bill Laimbeer without the baby fat, Meneghin played 28 seasons in Italy's first division and is now enshrined in the Hall of Fame.
But it was Blake's decision to draft Pete Maravich with the No. 3 pick in '70 that marked the beginning of the end of his run with the Hawks. Maravich swanned into town commanding payroll-busting bucks while stalwarts such as Lenny Wilkens and Jumpin' Joe Caldwell went begging. "I couldn't make the numbers work," says Blake, whose Hawks had signed Pettit in '54 with a bonus of a steak and a shrimp cocktail. "I got tired of fighting it."
Two days later the ABA's Pittsburgh franchise signed Blake to a five-year deal that made him one of the highest-paid front-office men in sports. The team's owners, a syndicate of New York City businessmen, figured the two leagues would merge soon and hoped to hang on long enough to become NBA stakeholders on the cheap. "I called an old friend, [former Cincinnati Royals G.M.] Pepper Wilson, who worked at the Cincinnati Zoo," Blake recalls. "Said, 'You've gotta come up with something for me. I need a name of an animal that's fierce but nearly extinct.' It was sort of an inside joke. The Condor. The dying bird of prey."
That season he gave away flowers one night, pumpkin pies another. He gave free admission to any man with a moustache. He challenged Willie Mosconi to a halftime game of pool. Still the Condors struggled to draw 3,000 a game. Though Blake never lost his sense of humor--he let go the team's prize rookie, an overweight Mike Malloy, saying, "Only one fat slob works here, and that's me"--he did grow desperate. He took out a full-page newspaper ad, inviting anyone in the city to be his guest for one home game. That night, after the Condors lost in front of 8,000 people, Blake knew the gig was up when a woman came up to him to ask, "When's your next free game?"
The Condors' owners fired him a few months later. Says Blake, "Veeck used to say, 'You can make a big thing bigger. But you can't promote a funeral.'"
Like truckers and country-and-western artists, sports figures tend to regard the road as a place of hard-bitten romance. In Blake's case the road represents less romance than farce, or so members of his family will have you believe. Where the patriarch's stories center on people and places, the rest of the Blakes tell tales of cars and Marty's misadventures with them. "It's not that he's an unsafe driver," Eliot says. "He just rides the brake, then rides the accelerator."
Back in his Wilkes-Barre days Blake was working with a local car club that was raffling off an MG, which he crashed into the back of a coal truck before the prize could be given away. Then there was the Plymouth Duster with the bad latch on the passenger-side door. One day Blake took a turn too fast and Ryan, then 10, tumbled onto the curb. "Marty drove another mile, talking," Ryan says with a smile, "before he realized I'd fallen out."
And so while Blake heads west from Georgia on Interstate 85, to see Louisiana Tech play at Auburn, it would be a mistake to say he does so confidently. All the tale-telling causes him to overshoot his exit by six miles. Among the culprits is the inevitable bad-driving scouting story: "[Hawks player-coach] Richie [Guerin] and I had just seen Lou Hudson score 30 at Illinois with a broken hand. But Benny [Kerner] wanted to draft [ Kansas center] Walt Wesley, and that had us laughing so hard we drove our rental through one of those swinging metal signs at a gas station."
Louisiana Tech forward Paul Millsap has drawn Blake to the game. Last year he led the nation in rebounding, and word is he wants to declare for the draft. "He's a sophomore," Blake says, "and he has a website."