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Monday, April 8, 2013

In a league of "Single Name Recognition," There was only One ... Marty!

Bill Hanzlik chatting with Marty Blake (R)
Today, I woke up with about three or four things on the "MUST DO" list for writing.  An update on the DigitalSportsDesk to underscore the Opening Day festivities at Fenway Park, a preview of the NCAA national championship game between Michigan and Louisville and a host of other things.  Then, I thought about Marty Blake.

I was reaching into my memory for the first time I met Marty.

It was in the days leading up to the 1981 NBA Draft, held on the ballroom floor of the Grand Hyatt in New York. I was with one of my treasured mentors from the NBA league office, Matt Winick, the guy who gave me a chance and who encouraged me everyday of the week for the next 26 years.

I can't remember the exact date or moment because they blend together over the years for those of us lucky enough to have wored closely with Marty.  Let's just say, good ole Marty tossed out the one-liner of choice to anyone within earshot, many times his worlds were a little on the rough side of Political Correctness (which nobody thought twice about in 1980-81).  My guess is Marty's quip  might've been something about his favorite international first-round draft choice, Manual Labor.

Drum-roll, please.

That was Marty, and I couldn't believe I was in the same room with him as he rattled off information to NBA GMs the country over.  In the midst of taking about 20 calls in less than 30 minutes as GMs prepped for a 10-round NBA Draft, televised by USA Network, poor Marty had to deal with the new college intern kid who was charged with booking a series of radio interviews to publicize the NBA Draft and my page of requests was lengthy.  

I had NO IDEA what I was doing, other than calling into the stations, getting the private and confidential studio direct lines so we could have Marty dial in directly, many times doing two or three shows in the same hour.

Keep in mind, this was WAY before mobile phones, way before Sports Radio, and way before frickin' COMPUTERS!  I typed the list for him on an old IBM Selectric complete with the one back-up correction tape.  That was a big improvement over the first typewriter the NBA provided (no ribbons) and the second typewriter... my personal electric model that my Mom and Dad had purchased for me to do term papers in college.

But, there was Marty, banging out the interviews, no big deal... one at a time, using the same one-liners time and time again and he did it everywhere from Providence to Corvallis. My jaw dropped in amazement.

Later on, we went out to get a quick bite and Marty kept being Marty to the hotel bellman, to the waitresses, to the players to the guys on the street.  So, the hell with "Being John Malkovich," I want to see an actor "Being Marty Blake."

I enjoyed countless numbers and HOURS of Marty stories, from the tennis world (his wife is a USTA chair umpire/official) to the European Final Four where he held forth with small handfuls of scouts that dared to venture off the American island, err, continent. I heard more and more about Manual Labor, yes, but Marty also told (and taught) me about Dino Meneghin and a few other dozen legends of international basketball he had his eyes on for years and years.

The phone rings in the Grand Hyatt suite the NBA had reserved. Marty picks it right up.

"Steve Lingenfelter?"

"Six-nine, Two twenty five or so." The kids from Wisconsin, played a little at Miinnesota but is now at South Dakota State. He can bang a little.  Best part of his game is that he had five fouls in college but now he has six fouls.  Late second.  Good bye."

My jaw dropped again.

Marty passed away last night.  It made us all so damn sad, because he was a guy you respected, yes. But, damn, I just LOVED the guy.  Honestly LOVED him because he was one of a kind, a character in a world where we need a few more "characters."  

I think Steve Lingenfelter owes him a debt of gratitude, by the way,  as he was selected by Bob Ferry of the Washington Bullets with the third to last pick of the second round of the 1981 NBA Draft.

Now, to the important part of this post.

There is just no way anyone can do Marty justice with an obit like Chris Ekstrand can do it.  So, ladies and gents, boys and girls, basketball fans and others.  I give you my buddy, Chris Ekstrand, a big fan of Joe Vogel.  And, to get that joke, you have to have known Marty and you just must know Chris.

May God Bless Marty Blake, and my thoughts and a mass to be dedicated to Marty and his family, wife Marcia and son, Ryan.


Former scout, GM Marty Blake, 86, lived a full basketball life

By Chris Ekstrand, for
Today, NBA scouting is a complex amalgamation of exhaustive film analysis, analysis based on advanced metrics and background profiling that borders on forensic psychology. Before all that, there was Marty Blake.

In the 1950s, when basketball was played in dark, cramped, smoke-filled war memorials, Blake was busy applying the tools of player evaluation that he learned in minor league baseball to a still-fledgling league, the newly-named National Basketball Association.

Blake, who died Sunday, April 7, at the age of 86 in suburban Atlanta, was a basketball trailblazer, promoter, ambassador and Renaissance man. His quick mind and acerbic wit yielded unforgettable one-liners, stories with details of games and players long forgotten as well as trenchant analysis of players' strengths and weaknesses. He is regarded by many seasoned basketball observers as "The Godfather of NBA Scouting."

He became general manager of an NBA team at the age of 27 in 1954, and he later presided as the NBA's Director of Scouting for more than 35 years, in later years training his son Ryan to take his place. He worked well past the age of 80 and retired just a couple of years ago.

"Marty began his lifetime of service to basketball at a time when the league was still in its infancy," said NBA Commissioner David Stern. "His work as a general manager and then as Director of Scouting for the NBA first helped the teams to understand the value of scouting. Marty's dedication not just to the NBA but to basketball was extraordinary and we will forever be indebted to him."

In 2005, Blake received the Bunn Lifetime Achievement Award from the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. The award, the most prestigious given by the Hall of Fame short of enshrinement, recognizes individuals whose outstanding accomplishments have impacted the high school, college, professional or international game.

A rival and friend of the late coaching legend Red Auerbach, Blake entered the NBA when the league's first great player, George Mikan, was still legitimizing the NBA as a major professional sports league, and stayed in the game long enough to see LeBron James hoist a championship trophy last June.

His life was shared with some of the greatest names in the sport. He nurtured early superstars like Bob Pettit, Slater Martin and Ed Macauley, he had courtside seats for the wars between Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell and was in the front row during the era of Oscar Robertson and Jerry West. Blake drafted Lenny Wilkens and Pete Maravich, among other Hall of Famers. He played a role in bringing unknowns like Scottie Pippen (Central Arkansas), John Stockton (Gonzaga) and Joe Dumars (McNeese State) to the attention of NBA teams with his dogged, self-imposed mandate to find the best basketball players in the world. Pippen, Stockton and Dumars, like many of Marty Blake's finds, are in the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Blake drafted Italian basketball legend Dino Meneghin and Mexico's star Manuel Raga in 1970 for the Atlanta Hawks. While the NBA wasn't quite ready for the infusion of international stars at that time, Marty's judgment was validated both in the 1970s when Meneghin (a Hall of Famer) and Raga became stars in the Italian League and also later in the 1980s when the influx of international basketball talent changed the NBA game and brought about the heyday of Drazen Petrovic, Toni Kukoc, Arvydas Sabonis and many, many others.

Blake, born in 1927, was a child of the Great Depression who emerged from humble beginnings in the coal-mining town of Wyoming, Pa. He started as a teenage scorekeeper for the semi-pro Wilkes-Barre Barons of the Eastern Pennsylvania Basketball League (later known as the Eastern League). Soon, he was promoting major boxing events, stock car races, minor league baseball games and visits by the Harlem Globetrotters to venues all over the Northeast. Blake knew what people wanted to see, and he had the business sense to bring in the money combined with a flair for spectacle.

After a stretch in the Army, Blake parlayed his abilities as a promoter and event manager into a job as general manager of the Milwaukee Hawks, and then oversaw the moves of that franchise to St. Louis (where the team won the NBA championship in 1958) and eventually to Atlanta. Along the way, Blake booked halftime and postgame acts like the Stan Kenton Orchestra, Count Basie and Duke Ellington as well as other prominent musical performers. Blake knew sport was entertainment that needed to be promoted as such, at a time when that thought hadn't occurred to too many in the world of sports.
Blake left the Atlanta Hawks in 1970 for a short run as general manager of a Pittsburgh ABA team that was lurching towards insolvency. The team needed to choose a new nickname because the publicly-chosen nickname "Pioneers" was already taken by a local college. Blake had read a newspaper article that the Condor, a type of vulture, was an endangered species, and "after looking at the books," Marty said with a smile, "I knew that name fit us."

Blake was relieved of his duties soon afterward, but not before executing a promotional idea designed to increase his team's infinitesimal fan base. Blake's idea was to give away every seat for free for one home game. The team's owners obviously disapproved, but the attendance for that 1971 game was more than 8,000, up from a typical crowd of 2,800. It was just one example of the showmanship and courage that Blake learned working for legendary baseball promoter Bill Veeck in the 1950s.

With a strong desire to stay in basketball, and with wife Marcia, and children Eliot, Sarah and Ryan to support, Blake turned entrepreneur. He forged agreements with half a dozen NBA and ABA teams to provide scouting reports of college basketball players and help teams prepare for the NBA Draft. His legendary acumen and eye for talent soon increased the number of teams contracting his services to more than half the league, and by 1976, Marty Blake & Associates came under the umbrella of the NBA league office, and Blake's scouting reports and other vital player information was made available to all NBA teams.

Blake was known for writing on-the-money scouting reports with a touch of humor. Once, after being introduced to a prominent college prospect after a game, the player asked Blake for an evaluation, right there on the spot. The player had scored nearly 20 points, but collected only one rebound in the game.
"Congratulations. You got one more rebound than a dead man," Blake told the player. "Next time, work a little harder."

When the three-point shot became a big part of the college game in the late 1980s, Blake showed his old eyes still knew the difference between a player's reputation and production. In one scouting report, Blake wrote: "He is a three-point shooter, but not necessarily a three-point maker!"

Blake played a pivotal role in two events that remain major postseason destinations for NBA scouts and general managers: the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament and the NBA Pre-Draft Combine (previously known as the NBA Pre-Draft Camp).

The Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, or PIT, has been played since 1951. When Blake and Bob Ferry, then general manager of the Baltimore Bullets, attended the 1972 PIT, they realized that the PIT was a basketball scouts' nirvana, and within a few years, Blake was bringing all of the NBA's top scouts and GMs to Portsmouth to see players like Dave Cowens and John Lucas. In later years, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Tim Hardaway and Dennis Rodman started their NBA journeys with outstanding play at the PIT.

Blake and Matt Winick, now the NBA Senio Vice President of Scheduling and Game Operations, put together the first NBA Pre-Draft Camp in 1982.

"Marty knew of someone in Chicago and got us a gym at Illinois-Chicago," Winick remembered. "Marty and I arranged for hotels, ordered the uniforms, stuffed goody bags, and everything else that went along with that first year. We had invited Tex Winter, who was the head coach at Long Beach State and President of the NABC, to come to the camp as our guest. At the last moment, we found out that Dwight Anderson, a guard who played at Kentucky and USC, would not be coming to the camp. We asked Tex if he knew of anybody, and he said he had a good guard who played for him that lived in Chicago. So we invited him. It was Craig Hodges, who was drafted in the third round and went on to play 10 years in the league and win a couple of championship rings with the Bulls."

Marty Blake never took his position in basketball for granted. He loved the game, respected the talents of the players and in later years marveled at the way the game had grown up around him. At the time of his retirement, he had done just about every job in the game of basketball outside of playing, and he had done them well. He spent a lifetime in the game of basketball.

For Marty and for basketball fans everywhere, that was a life very well-lived.

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