Sports Nut

Draft Bust

Is Marty Blake, the NBA’s legendary talent scout, losing it?

Basketball fans hooked to the intravenous feed of NBA draft news this week encountered Marty Blake’s name three or four times a day. In title, Blake is the NBA’s director of scouting, the executive in charge of rounding up pro prospects. In practice, he’s the NBA draft guru, the pundit who can’t stop talking. When a Los Angeles Times reporter needs an assessment of a center from UCLA, Blake pronounces him a “long-term investment.” When an East Coast scribe needs someone to verify the character of a Maryland guard, Blake suggests that the player’s life could be made into a movie. When Slate phones Blake at his Georgia office, he reminisces about the foreign players drafted in the middle rounds in 1970.

Blake’s nonstop punditry is a treat for fans, at least until they listen to what he’s actually saying. Then Blake sounds like a crank. In his heyday, Blake unearthed some amazing prospects. But the sad news about the NBA draft guru is that today he’s as clueless about the draft as, well, everyone else in the league office.

Blake spent his early years on the periphery of major sports, promoting small-time baseball, boxing, wrestling, and auto racing. He landed a job with NBA’s Milwaukee Hawks in 1954, he says, after luring an overflow crowd to a Harlem Globetrotters exhibition. With Blake as their general manager, the Hawks beat Bill Russell’s Boston Celtics four games to two in the 1958 NBA Finals. He served a brief tour in the ABA and then became the NBA’s scouting director when the leagues merged in 1976.

The scouting director’s job, in a sense, is like being the general manager of the entire league. Blake must find good NBA prospects and make sure the pro teams know about them. There are guys who do the same job for the NFL and major league baseball, but none has the omniscient yogi status the press has attached to Marty Blake.

When Blake finds a new prospect, he compiles a thick dossier that includes the player’s height, weight, statistics, and off-the-court rap sheet, and ships the packet off to every NBA general manager. Then, Blake invites the prospect to various pre-draft camps, where the player can audition in front of NBA scouts. (The top players usually decline, preferring to hold individual workouts.) Ron Dick, a former scout for the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Nets, says, “There are very few players that later go on to be successful that Marty didn’t extend an invitation to.”

Blake earned his reputation by discovering first-rate basketball players in NCAA backwaters. He found future Hall of Famers John Stockton at Gonzaga and Karl Malone at Louisiana Tech. In 1987, he rescued Scottie Pippen from exile at Central Arkansas. A year later, he found Dan Majerle, later an All-Star guard for the Phoenix Suns, playing center at Central Michigan. With bigger NBA scouting budgets and more college games on television, it’s harder these days to hide a good basketball player at a small school. But Blake still manages to find them. Three years ago, he plucked Devean George, now of the Los Angeles Lakers, from tiny Augsburg College in Minneapolis.

As the draft nears, Blake becomes the league’s resident nag. He calls general managers to fuss about a prospect that he thinks has been overlooked. He deluges teams with tips. He loves his job because it is no-risk: If a prospect he touts turns out to be bust, no one cares or remembers. He’s paid to unearth players, not appraise them. “Very seldom would Marty influence a team to make or not make a pick,” says John Nash, a former general manager for the Nets. “If Marty would call and say they should go see this player, they would respond, but they would evaluate the player on their own.”

The scouting system Blake created has lasted for more than two decades. But the league is beginning to change. Where in past years the NBA draft was stocked almost exclusively with American college players, recently teams have begun taking more high-school seniors and foreign players. How does Blake react to these tectonic shifts? By denying they even exist.

Asked about the NBA’s infatuation with high-school phenoms, Blake snaps: “I don’t talk to high-school kids. I don’t even want to watch them. Most high-school kids can’t play.” True enough, but teams do keep drafting them, and Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett, and Tracy McGrady are among the best players in the league. LeBron James, a high-school junior from Ohio, would have been the top overall pick in this year’s draft if NBA lawyers hadn’t intervened and prevented him from declaring.

Asked about the league’s foreign “invasion,” Blake says, “An invasion isn’t nine or 10 guys.” But if nine or 10 legitimate foreign players enter the draft each year—about the rate they do now—they’ll begin to tilt the balances in no time. The league’s two best rookies last year hailed from Spain and France. This year, ESPN projects that foreigners will make up one-fourth of this year’s first round. If Blake thinks the invasion is bogus, he’s just not paying attention.

Similarly, Blake clings to the notion that no player should enter the draft unless he is a four-year college senior. He called Maryland sophomore Chris Wilcox’s decision to leave school a “catastrophic choice,” though Wilcox is certain to be selected in the top 10 picks tonight and earn a huge contract. In 1996, he insisted that Allen Iverson, a Georgetown sophomore, wasn’t ready for the pros, either. Iverson was the top pick in that year’s draft and has dominated the league ever since. And so on.

Why is Blake so intransigent? John Nash says, “He’s an employee of the NBA, and David Stern has made it very clear that he wants none of us encouraging underclassmen to come out of school early. So Marty’s reaction is predictable. He’s just echoing the party line.”

That’s what’s really scary: These aren’t just Blake’s crummy ideas; they’re crummy ideas handed down from on high. Regardless, in coming years more and more of the league will be made up of foreigners, high-school seniors, and underclassmen. They’ll keep coming, whether Blake believes it or not.