- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 12, 2003

How would it have turned out differently for Steve Blake? What might have happened if he didn't attend three high schools moving far from home for his senior year or if he got to play point guard for his first college choice, or his second, and not Maryland?

Blake has no idea. It's impossible to know. But he does know this: "It worked out perfectly," he said, implicitly defining perfection as winning a national championship, maybe two; playing in two Final Fours, maybe three; having your number honored and raising the level of your game along with your jersey to the roof of Comcast Center, all the while earning the ceaseless respect of teammates, coaches, opponents and fans.

He has many fans, some in high places. In a casual conversation with Wizards coach Doug Collins, Blake's name came up. "I love him," Collins said. Toward the end of the season, Maryland coach Gary Williams uttered the sweetest words to any playmaker's ears, paying Blake the ultimate compliment. "It's his team," Williams said. "It really is. He's earned it."

The transfer of ownership began last April in Atlanta, while Blake and his teammates were cutting down nets, wearing T-shirts and hats that trumpeted Maryland as college basketball's 2002 NCAA champs. The careers of seniors Juan Dixon, Lonny Baxter and Byron Mouton were finished, and sophomore Chris Wilcox would leave for the NBA. Of the five starters, only Blake was coming back. He knew his job fairly well after three years and thus would not do it much differently now. Only better.

"I knew my scoring would have to increase a little bit," said Blake, a 6-foot-3, 172-pound senior with long arms and a stoic demeanor that belies his stubborn, competitive drive. "But I wasn't going to change too much. I've been successful too many years playing the way I've played. I wasn't going to stop being a passer and strictly try to score."

The Maryland career assists leader, Blake has led the ACC the last three years 7.1 this season and ranks 10th in Division I history. He also has improved his scoring skills, toughened up his defense and continued to develop the court intelligence that allows him to serve as an extension of Williams, a former Maryland point guard himself.

Although seniors Drew Nicholas and Tahj Holden had played a lot, Blake now had to break in a new starting crew and get acclimated to such young players as Nik Caner-Medley and John Gilchrist. Blake's assists are down a bit reflecting the departures from last year but his assist-to-turnover ratio remains better than 2-to-1 for a third straight year.

Blake also averaged double-figures in points for the first time (11.3) to fill the one apparent hole in his game. Although he still looks to pass first, Blake is going to the basket more, going hard, and he is shooting better than ever from 3-point range (41 percent). His favorite NBA player is the New Jersey Nets' Jason Kidd, who does everything well except shoot. "I love to see how he passes, how he makes things easier for his teammates," said Blake, who was named first-team All-ACC yesterday.

Less visible than a crisp bounce pass or a perfectly timed lob, Blake's heart might be his foremost attribute. It became quickly evident when he tangled with Dixon as a freshman and didn't flinch. No one knows better than Williams that his team is less skilled than last year's, but he also acknowledges and appreciates the Terps' inner strength. It not only helps bridge the talent gap but allows a fighting chance to successfully defend their title. This attitude, Williams says, begins with Blake.

"There's a certain toughness you'd like to see in every player, but it's not in every player," Williams said. "Blake certainly has it."

Long road to College Park

Blake has started more games (132) at Maryland than anyone. He has an agile mind and has absorbed a great deal. But he came to Maryland almost ready-made, with the toughness, intelligence and mindset that enabled him to step in as a freshman to replace departing senior Terrell Stokes and Steve Francis, who left early for NBA stardom.

It helped that Blake was smaller and scrawnier than most kids ("My dad was worried I'd be 5-8," he said) until he experienced a growth spurt during eighth grade. "I was always the shortest person around, so I had to play the point," he said. "I always had the mentality of dribbling the ball, of passing the ball. I always enjoyed doing that. I didn't think I played bad if I didn't score a lot. That's just the way I was. People liked that, and I liked that people liked that."

Blake, who has three older sisters, was "probably carrying around a basketball since the time he could walk," his mother, Cindy, said. "Even as a toddler, he didn't want to be inside. He wanted to be outside, dribbling a basketball."

Said Blake, "I've been playing for so long. I was always playing after school, before school. I was always on the court, always in the gym."

Blake isn't the first player with strong family support, but the Blakes go a little further. They put their gas money where there hearts are. Cindy and her husband, Richard, who doesn't fly, have become minor celebrities because they drive to nearly all their son's games, home and away, from their home in Miami Lakes, Fla. They are on their second van, purchased slightly used with 28,000 miles on it when Steve was a sophomore. Now the odometer reads about 170,000. The van can almost navigate I-95 by itself.

"When we get up there, it kind of erases the 18 hours in the car," Cindy Blake said. "It's a lot longer on the way back when we lose. But we always have something to talk about."

Blake needed that support during an interesting some might say turbulent high school career that began at Killian High School. Richard Blake was friends with Killian assistant Gabe Corchiani, the father of former star N.C. State point guard Chris Corchiani. Blake even went to Corchiani's camp as a youngster. But he left after two years because of a dispute with the head coach, who later admitted having a postseason honor taken from Blake and given to another player because Blake was just a sophomore.

Blake transferred to Miami High for his junior year and led his team to a state championship. But after the season, the Florida High School Activities Association declared Blake and seven others ineligible to play anywhere in the state. He was accused of allegedly being "enticed" to transfer by having a place to live within the school district.

The Blakes planned to appeal and "we would have been vindicated," said Cindy Blake, who added that the entire family moved into the district. "But we didn't want him to go through all that."

Blake faced the possibility of not playing, but was prepared for it. "Everything was up in the air for a little while," he said. "I tried to stay positive and I told myself if I didn't play, I was going to work hard individually without a team."

That didn't happen. Richard Blake did some research and helped get Steve into Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Va., perhaps the best-known and most consistently successful prep program in the country. Oak Hill won USA Today's high school national championship that season.

"It was a perfect situation," said Blake, whose three high school teams went a combined 100-4. "It got me used to being on my own. I was out of the house a year before I got to college."

Blake wanted to attend N.C. State, but the interest was not mutual. He liked the University of Florida, where several of his friends were headed, but Gators coach Billy Donovan signed another point guard, Brett Nelson (who would later move to off-guard).

Maryland? "It was on his list, but down a few notches," Cindy Blake said. But on the way back from visiting Syracuse with his father, Blake stopped off at College Park. In no time, Blake was calling his mom, telling her "You're going to love it. Wait till you see the campus." Things have gone pretty well since then.

"Throughout my basketball career, everything that's gone bad for me turned out to be better," Blake said. "When I changed high schools the first time, we won the state championship. Then when I changed high schools again, we won the national championship."

'Passing' it on

Blake, whose No. 25 was honored during the final home game Maryland All-American Gene Shue also wore 25 has a firm grasp of the game's finer points, "a sense of where you are," as Bill Bradley called it. "He does a lot of subtle things that help us," Williams said. "He really sees the game."

Gilchrist, a freshman and the point guard heir apparent, marvels at what he has been able to learn by playing against Blake in practice and watching him in games.

"His experience is vital," Gilchrist said. "Sometimes basketball people think it's all about skills, but the thinking aspect of his game is incredible. He really knows the game. I try to pick his brain to see what he knows. His basketball IQ is incredible."

Gilchrist said Blake is always focused and it was that, more than anything, that created Blake's singular magic moment. The Terps were playing Duke at home last year in a continuation of what has become the hottest rivalry in college basketball.

Duke was ranked No. 1, and it was the last time the teams would meet at venerable Cole Field House. In other words, for a regular-season game, it was huge. Maryland led the Blue Devils by seven points near the end of the first half. Jason Williams, Duke's All-American guard, had the ball, setting up the final shot, having trouble trying to hear instructions from Coach Mike Krzyzewski above the roar.

"I told myself, if he turns his head one more time, the ball's right there and I'm going to take it," said Blake, who proceeded to do exactly that. He cleanly stole the ball, drove down court and scored on a layup. Instead of Duke cutting the lead to five, or four, the Terps led by nine.

"It definitely gave us momentum going into the second half," Dixon would later say. Blake blocked two of Williams' shots after halftime and Maryland cruised to an 87-73 victory, its first win at Cole over Duke in five seasons. More important, the tone was set for postseason.

Blake said he never numbers his achievements in any particular order. If others want to get excited about that one particular play, fine, but there were others. Blake generally masks whatever is churning inside. He knows when to get in the face of a teammate, but his style is more lead-by-example. Gary Williams said he can see some of his younger self in Blake, but not emotionally.

"He's different from me," Williams said. "He's a little more laid-back. I was more of a fiery type of point guard. But you have to play to your personality. You can't fake it. You can gain respect from your players in a lot of ways. Steve goes out and gets it done."

"I try to play hard," said Blake, "and if something happens, I'll let you know. But I'm not going to be your cheerleader and make you run up and down the court. You should know how to do that. I don't expect anyone to tell me how hard to run."

Williams frequently uses the word, "stability" when discussing Blake. Meaning what, exactly?

"It means if you have a great win or a tough loss, being able to come back in practice or the next game and play like you've gotten over it really quickly," Williams said. "Sometimes getting over a great win is tougher than getting over a tough loss. Steve has always been able to handle that, to come out and play his game."

Because of his outward coolness, and because he now will not hesitate to take the shot, North Carolina coach Matt Doherty labeled Blake, "The Assassin." Blake did not complain.

"I like to put people down and kill 'em," he said. "Take 'em out of the game right away. I always want to make something happen. I like my ball in my hands all the time. I want to make the great pass, I want to make the great shot, I want to make something happen for the team all the time."

Blake believes he is good enough to play in the NBA, and he might be right if Doug Collins' quick assessment is any indication. If he's wrong, he will likely end up a coach. He's practically one now, anyway. "I was young when I got here," he said. "Now I feel like a man."

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