Blake Ahearn’s parents watched patiently at home, catching glimpses of their son in Spurs warmups at the end of the bench in November 2008.
Ahearn recently arrived from Bismarck, North Dakota, where he had been playing for the NBA G League’s Dakota Wizards. He couldn’t say for sure whether he’d enter the game for the Silver & Black.
But with the game in hand, television cameras caught Tim Duncan approaching Gregg Popovich, asking coach to put the new guy in.
“Tim and Pop won’t remember that moment, but that was everything for me and my family,” Ahearn said. “The biggest thing I took away from the Spurs is how I was treated in the organization. I obviously wasn’t a big name guy, but from Coach Pop to Tony Parker and Tim, everybody treated me like I was one of the guys.”
Almost a decade later, Ahearn is back in the Spurs organization. The Spurs named him head coach of the Austin Spurs on August 1.
The most diehard of Spurs fans may not remember Ahearn’s three games and 19 total minutes in a Spurs uniform during the 2008-09 season. The only place he is No. 1 in Spurs history is alphabetical order.
In what is now the NBA G League though, Ahearn was a two-time All-Star, two-time First-Team selection and the 2008 Rookie of the Year.
He played for six NBA G League teams, and was the league’s all-time leading career scorer at one point and is currently fourth all-time.
Ahearn, now 33, is best known for his success at the free throw line, and still holds the NBA G League record for consecutive free throws made, hitting 110 in a row with Reno in 2011-12.
Ahearn, who played college basketball at Missouri State, also holds the NCAA Division I career record for free throw percentage at .946 (435 of 460) and the season record of .975 (117 of 120)
He did sink his two free throw attempts in a San Antonio Spurs uniform as well.
“Records are made to be broken,” Ahearn said, “and maybe I can lend my experience to someone in Austin who can break my record.”
While Ahearn’s former Reno Bighorns teammate Hassan Whiteside is one of the NBA stars that emerged from the NBA G League, Ahearn’s story may be a more typical one. He’s a player who continued to grind and earned stints with three NBA teams, the Miami Heat, the Spurs and the Utah Jazz.
“I was a fourth-round G League pick to Bismarck, and I made it to the NBA,” Ahearn said. “So I know it’s possible for a lot of other guys. I hope I can help guys in the G League, because there’s nothing you can throw at me in the league that I haven’t seen before. To be able to use that experience to help in Austin, I’m excited.”
Ahearn retired in 2015 after winning an NBA G League championship with the Santa Cruz Warriors.
He spent the past two seasons coaching high school basketball in his hometown of St. Louis.
Now, at 33, Ahearn takes over an Austin Spurs staff that has seen two coaches go on to become NBA head coaches in Quin Snyder and Earl Watson, and NBA assistants in Taylor Jenkins, Jason Fraser, Brad Jones and Zach Guthrie.
“The opportunity is once-in-a-lifetime,” Ahearn said. I’m extremely grateful and at the end of the day, I want to be the best that I can be. To work with Coach Pop and the Spurs organization, I’m going to ask as many questions as I can until they tell me to quit bugging them.”
Ahearn has seen first-hand the way the NBA G League has grown, including the way the Spurs have made Austin a key part of the organization.
Last season, the Spurs had nine players with NBA G League experience on their roster, the first time in franchise history that a majority of the team played at least one game in the NBA G League. The Spurs made 28 total assignments during the 2016-17 season, including 11 assignments each for rookies Bryn Forbes and Dejounte Murray.
League-wide, forty-four percent of players on 2016-17 end-of-season NBA rosters had NBA G League experience.
“What I say to everybody about the G League is that at some point you’re going to have an opportunity,” Ahearn said. “But it takes work on a daily basis to prepare for when that opportunity comes, and hopefully everything will mesh together.”
After playing with Miami in 2007-08 and the Spurs in 2008-09, Ahearn made his way back to the NBA in April 2012, almost four years after his stint with the Spurs. He played for five NBA G League teams and two international teams in his time between NBA games.
He landed with the Utah Jazz and made it on his first playoff roster. After five seasons grinding away in locales like Bismarck, Austin, Bakersfield, Erie and Reno, Ahearn was part of the NBA Playoffs.
Utah’s first-round opponent happened to be the Spurs. It was a short-lived run for Ahearn and the Jazz, as the Spurs went on to sweep the series.
As time has passed for Ahearn, the lasting moments for him haven’t been about the journey or the destination. They have been about the relationships built along the way.
In Game 2 of the series, with the Jazz trailing 101-68 in the fourth quarter, Ahearn came off the bench to check in. He looked to the other end of the scorer’s table and saw a familiar face. His coach for three games back in 2008.
With the Spurs ahead by 33 points, Gregg Popovich called timeout.
“I’ll never forget Pop calling a timeout to get me in a playoff game,” Ahearn said. “It’s the little things that show who they are as an organization. To be a part of that now is something special.”