One of the hardest things for Blake to accept is Portsmouth's diminished standing after years as the game's Schwab's Drugstore. Agents don't want their clients to risk getting shown up by some hungry kid from a Division III or NAIA school. Meanwhile it's hard to draw to a proving ground players who don't think they have anything to prove. Some who skip it, like Bowling Green's Antonio Daniels and Creighton's Kyle Korver, make the NBA anyway. But many-- Louisville's Marvin Stone, Gonzaga's Blake Steppe and Marcus Hatten of St. John's--don't. Two years ago 13 players first committed to Portsmouth, then gave Marty's Party a miss, and only three of them are in the league.
Says Blake, "I had one guy tell me, 'Anything you want me to do, I'll do.' I say, 'How about going to Portsmouth?' And he said, 'No.' 'Well, how about Chicago?' 'No. But anything you want me to do, I'll do.'"
It's a straight shot south from Blake's office to Alexander Memorial Coliseum on the Georgia Tech campus. "We used to play here," Blake says. He's talking about his old Hawks. "There, in the corner, we had an old railroad bell. Bell for Bellamy. Every time Walt Bellamy scored or grabbed a rebound, we'd ring it."
Blake doesn't normally believe in evaluating players early in the season--"You see a guy in November and you've got to see him again"--but tonight's game, between Michigan and Georgia Tech, is well worth showing up for, because Blake lists 18 of the two teams' players in his Fall Briefing Book. Tech has 10 of these "BB" players, as Blake calls them, and Michigan eight.
After five minutes spent feeling each other out, Georgia Tech outscores Michigan 22--2. "You want your trailer on offense, not defense," Blake says after the Yellow Jackets score on a four-on-two break. During a timeout Blake turns to Gregg Polinsky, a scout for the Nets, and launches into the Utah State-- Cornell Green--Maddox's story.
Before Tech finishes off its 99--68 win, Blake says, "You know, sometimes you look at a college team of 13 players--what's a scholarship worth? $80,000? $90,000?--and none of them can play." He hates to miss Antiques Roadshow because he's consistently astonished at what people will pay money for. And yet: "There's players out there. Lots of 'em. But you've got to develop 'em. And you've got to get lucky."
The Yellow Jackets have vaporized Michigan with speed. They force 18 turnovers, 11 with steals. The report Blake files will begin with a line from Damon Runyon: "The race is not always to the swift, but that's where to look."
There's time for only one story on the short ride home. Back in the early 1960s Blake chased down a player at Arkansas Tech named J.P. Lovelady, who he thought would be "the next Jerry Sloan." But Lovelady died in a car crash shortly after graduation, and the Hawks sent flowers to the funeral. One of Lovelady's teammates, Arch Jones, wound up as an assistant at Central Arkansas, and 26 years later Jones hadn't forgotten the man from St. Louis who sent flowers. "I get a call from Arch Jones, and he says, 'I've got this guy. Will you look at him?' Now, we look at everybody. So I check his team's schedule, find out they're playing at Southern Miss and go see him. Just buy a ticket and pop in--you know, when you call ahead, a kid at a school like that gets nervous. So he goes for thirtysomething that night and I bring him to Portsmouth, and 10 minutes after his first game there, everyone is shaking my hand."
That story, the Scottie Pippen story, is a favorite Blake touchstone, not only because it tells of a scout at his dogged and clairvoyant best but also because its chain of relationships vindicates the primacy of people. And the people at the centers of Blake's stories are almost always cast in the most flattering possible light. Wilt Chamberlain is extravagantly generous; former Atlanta Hawks owner Tom Cousins "was nothing but good to me"; even the Pittsburgh Condors' ownership that let him go touched off a chain of events that worked out "for the best." So the great tension in Blake's life is how someone so constitutionally incapable of misanthropy can bring himself to do what the job requires. "We eliminate people," says Blake, whose runic annotations include the summary CNP (for cannot play), and the even more emphatic CNP-DND (for cannot play--do not draft). He has reworked every mother's adage: If you can't say something nice, say it behind the firewall of a double-password website. Those two film credits--Blue Chips and They Were Expendable--pretty much cut to the heart of what Blake does for a living.
A great pop-cultural dichotomy of our time is funny ha-ha versus funny peculiar. Funny ha-ha is Blake's shell. But an awareness of, even a taste for, funny peculiar lurks below the surface. And peculiar is close to ironic, which requires a certain amount of sensitivity, from which, on a clear day, you can see sentimentality. The Blake book on Blake will be a memoir, for which he has the title picked out: The Hotel Towels Were So Fluffy I Couldn't Get My Suitcase Closed. But if he were to drop the armor, he could call it something else. He could call it Flowers for Lovelady.