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Reno's Ahearn Keeps Focus on NBA Dream
From scoring records to historic free throw streaks, Blake Ahearn's excelled at everything that's in his control. It's the stuff out of his control that's the problem.
It began on the day the seasons changed, at a line that never does.
It was the last day of fall, Dec. 21, and Blake Ahearn had already missed two free throws – a rarity for a player who’s missed a total of 42 in 171 career NBA Development League games. But he steadied himself, sank his last five of the game and didn’t miss again for 42 days.
Then, over a 16-game stretch that ended on Wednesday night in a 119-112 win in Texas against the Legends, the Reno Bighorns’ point guard made 110 free throws in a row, shattering his own NBA D-League record, surpassing the NBA mark of 97 and falling shy of only John Wooden’s professional record of 134.
Much of the record-breaking run happened in Reno. But it could have happened anywhere. The foul line’s 15 feet from the rim in Reno, it’s 15 feet in Rio Grande Valley and it’s 15 feet any place in middle.
It’s the same in the NBA, too.
Except, well, it isn’t.
“The thing about the NBA is that all the lines are the same, and there’s nothing different as far as the style of the game goes,” Ahearn said last week. “Everything’s similar, and the free throw line’s the one thing constant everywhere in the world. So it’s something nice to achieve – but it’d definitely be more of an achievement in an NBA uniform.”
For the past half-decade, Ahearn has ransacked the NBA D-League. By far the best foul shooter in league history, he recently took the title of all-time leading scorer, too. Meanwhile, he hasn’t played in the NBA since the 2008. While the league’s convulsed, pumping players into the NBA, Ahearn’s been a constant, plying his trade and challenging new crops of prospects every year.
So it’s fitting that he does his best work at the foul line, the only place in the world of basketball – and one of just a few in the rest of the world, for that matter – where a man has something close to full and total control over his life. For a moment, the world outside vanishes. And at that line – immune to projections and guesses and anyone else’s interference – Blake Ahearn is among the best to ever play the game.
“It’s not a fluke when he makes 100 in a row,” said Reno head coach Paul Mokeski. “It’s a credit to him and how he approaches the game of basketball.”
But the world’s not a foul line. And after years of working and hanging on to the conviction that the outside world would intercede on his behalf, the best scorer in NBA D-League history is stuck adding to his total.
“It’s not easy, but knowing all the work I’ve put in, the hours I’ve put in a gym, I know it’s [getting called up to an NBA team] gonna happen,” he said. “You can always control what you’re doing and the team that you’re on, but you can’t worry about who’s calling up certain guys because you can’t call yourself up.”
“The only thing is he needs,” said teammate Damon Jones, “is an opportunity to show he can make it on the next level.”
His is a story scribbled in ink.
It’s lying there in notebooks. Sixteen of them. One for each year, ever since he started recording every shot he takes in his daily practice sessions. The library dates back to fourth grade.
“If you want to go to July 8, 2002, you can see how many shots I took and my percentages,” Ahearn said.
The routine hasn’t changed much. Shooting drills from all around the court, pushing until he makes enough buckets for his liking. In the offseason, he sinks 102 free throws every day. The first 100 for practice. The final two for real.
“Some people call me crazy, but it works for me, and it’s a mental advantage for me,” he said. “You can see all the work you put in, and I see no reason not to expect success.”
The problem is, there are other notebooks that matter, too.
And if you open up the other notebooks, the ones that belong to the scouts, you’ll see the misses re-appear.
Not strong enough.
Not fast enough.
Can’t play point.
Or 2, either.
“I don’t pass the eye test, I don’t look the part, and it’s one of those things that change once you get to see me in person,” Ahearn said. “But I look like a guy who should be playing at the YMCA, so sometimes people don’t take me seriously.”
But those who play with him know better.
“It’s especially great to have a point guard that can not only facilitate, but score as well,” said Ahearn’s teammate Andre Emmett, one of the league’s top scorers and prospects. “He keeps the defense honest.”
“I don’t see any flaws in his game,” said Jones, an 11-year NBA veteran.
Ahearn’s worked over the years to address each and every one of the perceived shortcomings. He’s gotten stronger. Faster. Just all-around better.
And he’s never had a season like this one.
Not only is he leading the league and scoring more points per game (24.2) than in any season before, he’s also averaging a career-high six assists and 1.2 steals per game. He’s scored fewer than 19 points just once in 22 games and more than 30 points three times.
“He scores and he shoots – he shouldn’t be penalized of that,” Mokeski said. “There are guys in the NBA who do that. His assist-to-turnover ratio’s great, he’s not just going 1-on-1 and that’s how he’s scoring. He’s scoring within our offense and getting guys the ball.
“He’s doing everything we need him to do,” Mokeski continued. “He’s turning into more of a Euro point guard, where he can penetrate and find people and also knock down his shot. He needs to keep going it and have faith he’ll get his.”
But the perceptions linger. And while he doesn’t want to alter his game completely to knock down the latest roadblock – the notion that he doesn’t have the instincts or skill set of a true point guard – the longer he waits, the more things begin to recede out of his grasp altogether.
“My situation’s been the same thing since I was a kid,” he said. “I’ve always had to go the extra mile, and for me it’s to keep knocking and knocking and hoping somebody’s gonna answer. Well, I’ve broken a couple hands and feet knocking at the door. So I’m ready for it to fall down, so hopefully gives me a chance to prove everybody wrong, like I’ve done my whole life.”
He did get a taste once.
Ahearn played a dozen games for the Miami Heat during the 2007-08 season.
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images
It was brief. Only 15 total games between 2007 and 2008. Twelve with the Heat. Three with the Spurs.
But it was enough to see him score 15 points against the Pistons in March of 2008. And more than enough to keep him here.
“When I got called up, my first road trip, I was at Boston, at New York, at Detroit,” Ahearn said. “I’m going from Sioux Falls, South Dakota and Bismarck, North Dakota to guarding Rajon Rondo and Chauncey Billups and playing at Madison Square Garden within a week.
“As I’ve grown up, it’s all I’ve wanted to do [play in the NBA.] I’ve had a bit of success getting there, and that’s the hard part about giving up. You’ve been there and you know how it feels and you want to do everything to get it back.”
Instead, he’s watched guard after guard – guys he’s scored against, guys he’s plain beaten – get called up to the NBA by the dozens now. It gets tough, he said, but he will continue to push himself to show that he, too, is worthy of a call-up.
“You gotta keep what you’re doing,” Ahearn said. “It can get repetitive, and when you see certain guys getting called up, it gets frustrating to a certain degree. You feel like you’ve been a consistent player. That you’re proven.”
“It’s just like life,” Mokeski said. “People get breaks in life, and if you sit back and complain or think about the breaks the other guys get you won’t make your own. You have to keep going with what you’re doing and have faith in that.”
For years, Ahearn’s done just that. Few players have managed to play with the kind of consistency Ahearn has over the course of a season, let alone a career.
“I learned this from [all-time NBA coaching wins leader] Don Nelson: he used to tell us, ‘give me what you are all the time,’” Mokeski said. “If you’re an eight-point, five-rebound guy like I was, do that every night. Don’t give me 20 points one night and two points the next night. Give me the same thing every night and we can make that work. And that’s what Blake does on a consistent basis.”
Now, he’s left to wait. To perform, perfect and hope.
And in two months, when NBA Playoffs come near, the foul line still won’t have changed. But the seasons will.
Maybe this time, they’ll take Ahearn with them.