NEW YORK — Marty Blake, a basketball executive whose capacious memory, keen eye for talent, and relentless appetite for scouring gymnasiums in remote places made him perhaps the most valuable scout in the history of the National Basketball Association, died April 7 in Alpharetta, Ga. He was 86.
The cause was heart failure, said his son Ryan.
As the general manager of what is now the Atlanta Hawks from 1954 to 1970, Mr. Blake drafted a veritable all-star team: Lenny Wilkens, Zelmo Beaty, Lou Hudson, Jeff Mullins, and Pete Maravich, among others.
Later, as the NBA’s director of scouting for more than 30 years — he was sometimes called the godfather of NBA scouting — Mr. Blake was known for unearthing talent at small colleges, like Southeastern Oklahoma State, where a fierce rebounder named Dennis Rodman came to his attention, or the University of Central Arkansas, where he found Scottie Pippen.
Mr. Blake’s career in basketball lasted almost 60 years, from the heyday of Bob Cousy to the era of Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, beginning as the public-relations director of the Milwaukee Hawks during the NBA’s adolescence. The Hawks’ front office was skeletal, to put it kindly, and Mr. Blake ended up functioning as the general manager, making basketball decisions as well as promotional decisions, before assuming the title in 1960.
He ran the franchise when, in 1955, it moved to St. Louis, where he promoted the team by booking the likes of Stan Kenton and Duke Ellington to perform at halftime and after games. The team won the NBA championship in 1958, led by Bob Pettit.
It was an era before regularly televised games, before videotape and before teams set aside a budget for scouting. Scouting meant calling up coaches around the country to ask for player recommendations. But Mr. Blake, who stayed with the Hawks through 1970 — the franchise moved to Atlanta in 1968 — traveled to places most teams would not spend money to send hired hands to; he recalled finding Beaty playing in a segregated park in Cut and Shoot, Texas.
Mr. Blake (right) ‘was our human database before the word “database” was invented.’
“I’m the one who dug up all those players we drafted, and nobody but me was out there in the field scouting players,’’ Mr. Blake was quoted saying in a 2006 book, ‘‘Full Court: the Untold Stories of the St. Louis Hawks,’’ by Greg Marecek.
In 1970, Mr. Blake made a brief stop in Pittsburgh, in the American Basketball Association, before going into the scouting business for himself. His company, Marty Blake & Associates, which grew to employ as many as 60 scouts, served several NBA and ABA teams, reporting on hundreds of draft-eligible players in the United States and, significantly, abroad.
In his last year with the team, the Hawks became the first NBA team to draft foreign players (Manuel Raga from Mexico and Deno Mengham from Italy).
After the NBA and the ABA merged in 1976, the unified league contracted for Mr. Blake’s services, and his vast stores of data and analysis became indispensable for every team.
‘‘Marty was our human database before the word ‘database’ was invented,’’ Stan Kasten, the former general manager and president of the Atlanta Hawks and the current president of the Los Angeles Dodgers, said in an interview Monday. ‘‘Encyclopedic doesn’t begin to describe his knowledge of the available crop of basketball players, and it didn’t matter where they played. Every single team in the league leaned on him for generations.’’
Mr. Blake, who lived in Milton, Ga., was married for more than 50 years to the former Marcia Whitworth. He also leaves his son Ryan, who became his father’s business partner; another son, Eliot; a daughter, Sarah; and five grandchildren.
Mr. Blake was also a force behind two events crucial to pro player evaluation. In the early 1970s, he focused league attention on the annual Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in Virginia, where unsung college players like Pippen, Rodman, Dave Cowens, Tim Hardaway, John Stockton, and John Lucas first had a chance to shine in front of scouts. And in 1982, with Matt Winick, now an NBA vice president, he put together the first NBA predraft camp, where eligible players could work with pro coaches.
“Somehow, over the course of the season, he ferreted out these guys,’’ Kasten said. ‘‘If he’s identifying a guy in a Division III game, you’d make sure you saw him. He’d make the judgment whether someone was going to be a real prospect, and invariably, the guy would be a real prospect.
‘‘I promise you, until Marty Blake showed us Scottie Pippen, we didn’t know who Scottie Pippen was.’’