Is this the next Jeremy Lin?
“I was showering after the game . . . and someone poked their head in and said, ‘Lin got 38 tonight,’ ” Ahearn said with a rueful laugh, referring to NBA’s newest sensation’s scoring output Friday in the Knicks’ win over the Lakers. “That’s great. Great for guys like us. Jeremy Lin is living proof: One phone call can change your life.”
Only three weeks ago Lin, the most renowned guy to crash on a couch in New York since Felix Unger, scored 28 points in a single game with the Erie Bayhawks of the NBA’s Development League.
The Lin story has given Ahearn, a 6-foot-2 guard with the Reno Bighorns, and others a reason to dream.
In fact, last Saturday, one night after Lin stunned the Lakers, Ahearn had a season-high 37 versus the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the top team in the D-League’s Western Conference.
Not only is Ahearn, 27, the D-League’s leading scorer this season at 23.9 points per game, the former Missouri State guard is the D-League’s all-time leading scorer. Ahearn has posted 3,593 points in parts of five seasons with the Bighorns, Dakota Wizards, Austin Toros, Erie and the Bakersfield Jam.
“I didn’t even know I had broken the record,” said Ahearn, who did so on Jan. 28 in the birthplace of basketball in a road game against the Springfield Armor. “My cousin [Sumner Ahearn] called me up afterward and said, ‘I don’t know if you’re going to be happy or sad, but . . .”
Also on the Ahearn resume: He has the highest career free-throw shooting percentage (94.56 percent) in NCAA history. Four nights after his game at Springfield, Ahearn missed his first free throw after making 110 in a row. The NBA record for consecutive free throws made, by Michael Williams of the Minnesota Timberwolves in 1993, is 97. Once in practice, Ahearn made 266 free throws — in a row.
NBA general managers: Blake Ahearn is waiting for your call.
“It’s frustrating for Blake and it’s frustrating for me,” said Bighorns coach Paul Mokeski, a 7-footer who played a dozen seasons in the NBA. “They tell me Blake’s on their list. I tell them he should be on top of their list.”
“I don’t know what more Blake could do,” said Larry Fox, Ahern’s agent. “If nothing else, I think teams are crazy because it’s almost like having Mariano Rivera on your team. Why not have a 96-percent free-throw shooter on your bench when you’re up a few in the final two minutes of a game?”
It would also help Ahearn’s paychecks. Ahearn makes roughly $25,000 per season, while the NBA league minimum is $490,180.
In a town that bills itself as “The Biggest Little City in the World” lives basketball’s biggest little player. Ahearn is its Rodney Dangerfield, too, a role the St. Louis native good-naturedly relishes.
“When I’m back home in the summer working out at the Clayton [Mo.] Center,” Ahearn said, “there are times when I haven’t even been picked for a pickup game. Honestly, I love it.”
Ahearn understands that he does not pass the eye test except in the eyes of his wife, Ricki, whom he will gleefully tell you had a higher scoring average in high school (19.9 points per game to his 17.8) than he did. Fox thinks that physically Ahearn resembles Steve Blake of the Lakers.
In his freshman year at Missouri State, Ahearn converted 117 of 120 free-throw attempts (97.5 percent), still the NCAA single-season record. The following summer Ahearn was home shooting free throws, his cousin Sumner rebounding for him, when a stranger approached.
“You’re shooting your free throws all wrong,” the stranger advised Ahearn.
Before Sumner could interject, Ahearn waved his cousin off. “I wanted to hear what he had to say,” Ahearn said with a sly grin. “I love moments like that.”
When Ahearn was a fourth-grader playing for his AAU team, the St. Louis Celtics, wearing No. 33 in honor of his boyhood idol, Larry Bird, he shot 1 for 11 from the free-throw line. Soon after he bought a day planner and began recording his workouts.
Sixteen years later, Ahearn, who now wears No. 13 because of Steve Nash, has 16 day planners — one for each year — that provide a historical record of his daily devotion to his vocation.
“It’s always 102 free throws, not 100,” said Ahearn as he and Ricki sat in their apartment in the foothills on the northern end of town. “Why? Because even though I’m 27 years old, it’s still two shots to win the game.”
The big time has beckoned in the past. After Ahearn graduated from Missouri State in 2007, he went undrafted and uninvited to NBA camps. The Dakota Wizards selected him in the fourth round of the D-League draft, and by the following March he was a 10-day call-up for the Miami Heat. On March 27, 2008, Ahearn scored a team-high 15 points in a 74-69 loss to the Detroit Pistons.
“Honestly,” said Ahearn, who has converted 32 of 33 free throws in stints with the Heat and the San Antonio Spurs, “I walked off the court that night saying I should have had 25.”
In his month with the Spurs in 2008, he recalled a tale when sitting next to Matt Bonner, the center.
“Oh, Matt, how nice,” a flight attendant said. “You brought a friend along with you.”
In Cleveland, the Spurs shacked up at the Four Seasons. Ahearn ordered Domino’s to his room.
“The front desk phoned my room,” Ahearn recalled. “ ‘Mr. Ahearn, did you order Domino’s?’ They wouldn’t let the delivery guy in the door.”
Ahearn knows the feeling.
“I keep knocking on the door,” said Ahearn, who is expecting his first child, a daughter, with Ricki this spring. “Someone’s gonna answer. Although I’ve broken both hands, both elbows and both feet knocking on it. I’ve never had a back-up plan. As far as the NBA goes, the next couple of months are it. I have a family to provide for now."
All he needs is a shot. If there’s anyone in the D-League who can bury a shot, it’s Ahearn.