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The Man Has Seen 'Em All

March 14, 2005
March 14, 2005

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March 14, 2005

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The Man Has Seen 'Em All

After half a century of discovering stars from Zelmo Beaty to Ben Wallace, master scout and storyteller Marty Blake is still sizing up every NBA prospect out there

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.

This is an article from the March 14, 2005 issue

"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.

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.

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."

As the game unfolds Blake scribbles down five points: Great end-to-end speed. 6'7 1/2"? No range. Leaper. Shot blocker. Later he takes admiring note of the way Millsap bores his knees into the backs of the legs of guys he's trying to outrebound. He's not suggesting Millsap is a dirty player, only a crafty one, and if there's one thing Blake hopes to find, it's evidence that some guys still practice the game as a craft. "Someone's got to get hold of him and teach him some offensive moves," Blake says. "His range is about seven inches. He's a quick jumper, but he blocks shots by instinct rather than style. He's sort of rough and tumble."

Auburn has no regular taller than 6'6", the light by which Blake will have to appraise Millsap's numbers--31 points, 18 rebounds--in the Techsters' 79--67 loss.

Blake leaves early. Scouts usually do. A backup on I-85 provides an additional hour of story time on the ride back to Atlanta. Given how rapidly he burns through tales, it seems impossible, but it has taken more than two days for Blake to repeat a story--in this case the one about a trip up to Utah State, where he saw basketball-football star Cornell Green in 1961, and the meal at Maddox's steak house, in Brigham City, where they raised the angus beef in the backyard.

Marty Blake & Associates is housed at the rear of an office park in the Atlanta exurb of Alpharetta. Calls still come into the office from dreamers around the world, some wanting tryouts, others looking for work as a scout. By a desk stand a pair of conga drums, a gift from Marcia, along with a set of unviewed instructional videos; on a shelf sits a copy of Kerouac's On the Road; scattered about are various period pieces--a typewriter, a stack of 45s, a plaque from United Airlines dated 1961 that honors Blake as a 100,000-mile flyer. The walls, festooned with personally signed 8-by-10 glossies, look like those of a big-city steak house: Robertson, Russell, Bird, sure, but also grateful Blake discoveries like Sikma ("I really appreciate your confidence in me") and Pippen ("Thanks for helping to make my dream team come true").

Eavesdrop on Blake's end of an incoming phone call from a sportswriter, and you might hear something like this: "Oh. I thought you were Brown, from the Sun. Best newspaper lede I ever read was in a music review: 'The St. Louis Symphony played Beethoven last night, and Beethoven lost.'... Yeah, but say you like 12 guys and you're picking 14th. Then what do you do?... I used to play the trombone, you know, but I let it slide.... Centers in high school want to play the four spot. Tell a center to throw the ball to the forward in the corner, and he'll say, 'Can't do that, Coach. I'm gonna be the forward in the corner.' ... Say, did I tell you about my butcher, Chuck Roast? ... You have to judge 'em on what they could be, not what they are.... And my gardener, Pete Moss? ... See, our problem is instant gratification syndrome. Chauncey Billups is drafted by somebody in Boston who didn't like him eight days later. Then he's MVP of the Finals with his fifth team. But it's hard to tell a coach with a two-year contract that some guy's three years away.... Right. And next time you'll have to go through my agent, Skip Town."

After the Condors let him go, Blake recalled how other G.M.'s relied on him for heights and weights every year at draft time. Let others X-and-O, he decided; he would become the game's A-and-R guy. As recently as the early 1980s some NBA teams still didn't have dedicated scouting staffs. Front-office personnel might catch a college all-star game, dog-ear a copy of Street & Smith's or call an old college coach to ask who had impressed him that season. Blake supplied a lifeline they probably didn't deserve. "In those days he'd come in and bang out a memo and hand-fax it to every team," Ryan says.

Now the Blakes send out their massive Fall Briefing Book, a catalog of every player to keep an eye on, with comments in Blakese (e.g., "a slasher--a Charles Manson type; his future is all ahead of him"). As the college season unfolds, Marty, Ryan and a network of 60 freelancers in the U.S. and five to 10 overseas post updates on a website for which only NBA teams have the double password required for entry. In the spring comes basketball's very own Doomsday Book: Marty Blake & Associates' Draft Book. "We're both very competitive," Blake says of Ryan. "We want to make sure no one in the draft goes unreported on."

By draft day the Blakes' work is done. "We don't tell teams who to pick," Marty says. "We just tell them who's out there." In spite of those years of experience Blake's assessments now bow to those of the player personnel staffs of each team, who'll be called to account if a pick flops. "What he provides now is more of a cross-reference," says New Jersey Nets president Rod Thorn. "It always helps to have another set of eyes." But even if Marty Blake & Associates didn't supply the essentials--accurate college schedules, rosters and thumbnails, along with a stream of game reports in-season--the NBA would surely keep him on contract, if only because scouts couldn't bear to be without Marty's company.

"In a way it's hard to believe, because he's like the absent-minded professor, but Marty brought a semblance of organization and structure to the whole process," the Raptors' Babcock says. "He used to do a sophisticated rating system, but he's backed off that because now everyone does their own. Yet he was the one who forced everyone to become better organized in-house."

Over a half century Blake has launched his share of air balls, touting such busts as LaRue Martin of Loyola, William Bedford of Memphis State and Leon Douglas of Alabama. On the other hand Blake listed Vlade Divac as the top center in 1989, and 25 players went before the Lakers made Divac their pick. If all he had done was advise the selection committee of the Portsmouth Invitational, his status as a seer would be secure. The players who have emerged over a few days in April in a high school gym in that Tidewater town include Jerome Kersey, Terry Porter, John Stockton, Scottie Pippen, Charles Oakley, Kevin Duckworth, Anthony Mason, Dan Majerle and Ben Wallace. In many cases Blake was first to bring them to the attention of NBA teams.

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.

Over the past year Blake has had some things taken out of his body (upper teeth for a bridge implant) and others put in (a stent for his heart). Asked when his dad might retire, Ryan just laughs. Yet don't let Marty Blake fool you. He understands chronology; he knows life may be many things, but it isn't nonlinear. "You get up every morning and grab the Irish sports pages," he says. "If your name's not in the obituaries, you get dressed."

Tonight's destination is Clemson, S.C., for Clemson and Ohio State. The game features half as many BBs as did Georgia Tech--Michigan the night before, but there are "other considerations," to use a G.M. phrase. "Great press buffet," Blake says. "[Former Clemson sports information director] Bob Bradley put on such a good one that one afternoon, I drove up for the meal and didn't stay for the game."

This time he'll stay for the game. Bumper, the Lakers scout, drives, with Dick McGuire, the scout for the New York Knicks and one of the few men left in the league with a pedigree as whiskered as Blake's, riding shotgun. Blake provides patter from the backseat. He talks about Wilkes-Barre and St. Louis, about Newport and Monterey (after all, a guy had to scout the jazz acts he'd bring to those Hawks games), and about the former NBA city of Fort Wayne, Ind., through which the train passed in the middle of the night, slowing down only long enough, across the tracks from a joint called the Green Lantern, for the Hawks to jump off. Someone would toss a pebble at the window of the owner's bedroom, hoping he'd awaken and call for taxis. The owner tended to wake up if he liked you. "He liked us," Blake says. "He didn't like the Knicks." The Knicks had to walk the three miles to their hotel.

Ohio State starts a guard, Tony Stockman, who transferred from Clemson two seasons ago. In the first half Stockman sinks four of five threes and scores 16 points. "He makes one more," Blake says, "and we won't be able to get him to come to Portsmouth."

The game is determined, in Clemson's favor, in the backcourt. In his report Blake notes, "Neither team has a true center. Who does? If you find one, please call us collect."

The last hour of the drive home takes Marty and Bumper and Dickie through the fringes of greater Atlanta. The steak houses are franchised now, like the Outback at which they had supped pregame. The NBA's dress code for scouts doesn't allow for corned beef sandwiches in coat pockets. The signs outside gas stations are no longer swinging metal, and Bumper's Escalade would never fit through one anyway.

Still Blake plies the road. "I kid around a lot," he says as Alpharetta comes into view, one more penumbra of artificial light overhanging strip malls and scrub pine. "But I know what I'm doing. It's a hell of a lot of fun. And it's no fun to go out alone."

For all his storytelling, Blake wouldn't be THE MOST QUOTED MAN in basketball if he didn't know his hoops.
The calls come in from dreamers around the world, WANTING TRYOUTS. On his shelf sits Kerouac's On the Road.
"We ELIMINATE PEOPLE," says Blake, whose annotations include the emphatic CNP-DND (for cannot play--do not draft.)
If there's one thing Blake hopes to find, it's evidence that some players still PRACTICE THE GAME AS A CRAFT.
Today's NBA dress code doesn't allow for CORNED BEEF SANDWICHES in coat pockets. Still Blake plies the road.
COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Greg FosterIF IT'S TUESDAY ... The peripatetic Blake was at Clemson earlier this season compiling reports for his 2005 draft bible.COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Greg FosterINFORMATION AGE While Marty prefers an old-school typewriter, NBA teams tap into his reports via a password-protected website.COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Greg FosterWALL OF FAME Blake's office is decorated with 8-by-10's signed by basketball luminaries whose careers he has helped.COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Greg Foster"BB" GUNNER All winter long Blake journeys to college gyms to evaluate his "briefing book" players, tabbed as potential pros.COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Greg FosterTREASURE TROVE Somewhere in Marty's files are effusive notes on obscure prospects named John Stockton and Scottie Pippen.COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Greg FosterTRUCKIN' All those miles pay off each year with the Draft Book. Says Blake, "We want to make sure no one goes unreported on."