Blake Ahearn never considered himself the most talented player on a basketball court. Not that it made a difference to the Missouri State standout guard from 2003-07.
With a legendary workout regimen that included charting hundreds of shots, every day for a dozen years, the 6-foot-2 Ahearn became an all-Missouri Valley Conference guard and the NCAA’s most-accurate free-throw shooter to ever do it.
An undrafted free agent, Ahearn spent eight seasons playing professionally all over the world. Included were 19 regular-season games in the NBA with Miami, San Antonio and Utah, plus three playoff games with Utah. Among his coaches were Pat Riley and Gregg Popovich, two of the greatest in NBA history.
Since his playing days ended in 2015, the St. Louis native has attacked coaching with the same enthusiasm and drive. He’s part of one of the NBA’s biggest success stories as an assistant coach for the Memphis Grizzlies and what a season it’s been.
“Coming into it, we were just trying to build off what we did last year, winning a couple of play-in games and making it to the first round of the playoffs,” Ahearn said of a long-struggling franchise that won 56 games this season after 38 a year ago.
“This year, still having the second-youngest team in the NBA, I think anybody would be lying if they said we’d be in the position we are,” Ahearn said. “It’s been fantastic.”
The Grizzlies, 56-26, open the Western Conference playoffs at home on Saturday against the Minnesota Timberwolves. Only the Phoenix Suns won more games in the regular season.
“We hope the fun continues for a couple of more months,” Ahearn said of a prospective and possible deep playoff run.
Coach a rising star
Among Ahearn’s duties has been working individually with Ja Morant, the star third-year guard from Murray State. Morant has emerged as one of the game’s young stars with his 27.4-point average and high-flying, highlight-reel plays.
Ahearn, 37, said he’s blessed to work with Morant and thankful how willing the 22-year-old is to listen and work.
“He is such a talented kid and he’s so smart,” Ahearn said “Everybody sees the SportsCenter highlights and, when you watch him on a nightly basis, you’re in awe sometimes.”
Ahearn first got to know Morant when hired by head coach Taylor Jenkins in the summer of 2020, at the start of the NBA’s abbreviated “bubble” season during the height of COVID-19. The relationship grew as the team improved and, when Memphis was eliminated from the playoffs a year ago, Ahearn passed along a quote from a book that Morant uses for fuel.
Ahearn became an avid reader as head coach of the Austin Spurs, San Antonio’s affiliate in the NBA G-League, after then-Spurs president R.C. Buford gave him the book “Leaders Eat Last.”
Ahearn estimates he’s read more than 100 books since and a year ago passed along to Morant a book called “Win in the Dark” by Joshua Metcalf and Lucas Jadin. A passage in the book stuck with Morant. It went:
“The dark is where you transform into a version of yourself you never dreamed possible. We quietly and relentlessly train in the dark with complete trust that our moment under the bright lights will come. Welcome to the dark.”
Ahearn said the quote summed up how he built his own career.
“I really wasn’t that good, I just thought I was good because of the amount of work I put in by working when nobody was watching,” Ahearn said. “ I kind of took that and put a picture of Ja next to the quote and gave it to him. He went with it.
“He kind of took the phrase and coined it. Welcome to the Dark has kind of been his trademark.”
Climbing the coaching ladder
Coaching is a path that Ahearn didn’t necessarily see himself taking while in college, but joked that “once I realized I wasn’t going to play on the PGA Tour” it seemed logical once his basketball-playing days ended.
Playing for coaches like Riley and Popovich cemented the desire. Popovich has been especially significant, inviting Ahearn into the Spurs inner circle during his time as coach of the Austin team.
During some meetings and dinners with Popovich and the staff, Ahearn sometimes would ask himself “am I supposed to be here?”
“The thing about ‘Pop’ is he’s a better person than he is a coach,” Ahearn said. “And he’s a brilliant coach.”
To this day, Ahearn has saved scouting reports from his days at Missouri State playing for Barry Hinson up until today as the Grizzlies prepare for the Timberwolves.
“I didn’t think it was possible, but I enjoy coaching more than playing,” Ahearn said. “You have an opportunity to help so many people and help so many people’s lives and careers in a small way, helping make their dreams come true in a way that a multitude of coaches did for me.”
Being a head coach in the NBA someday, perhaps in the not-too-distant future, seems more probable than possible. Jenkins also worked for Popovich and the Spurs, as did Milwaukee head coach Mike Budenholzer.
To be a part of the Popovich coaching tree is special. Ahearn’s time could be coming.
“The opportunity to reach the highest goal is always something I strived to do, whether it was playing or coaching,” he said. “I’ve learned you just worry about what you can control and you do your best every day and keep learning and getting better.
“I’m grateful to be a part of an organization that’s having some success. I’m trying to learn and capture some of what it takes to be successful and that is special to me. Hopefully one day I’ll have that opportunity to implement everything I’ve learned as a head coach again.”
If a quality college head-coaching opportunity came his way, Ahearn wouldn’t rule it out.
“I want to be in a good situation for my family,” he said, noting wife Ricki and daughters Blake (10), McKenzie (9) and Charlie (7) — all aspiring youth golfers — are his priority.
“At the end of the day, I just want to be around good people. I’m obviously on a path now that I really, really enjoy. Who knows what life will throw at you? I’ll cross that bridge when it comes.”
Crisis in Ukraine hits close to home for Ahearn
Among Blake Ahearn’s many stops as a professional basketball player was a brief stint in 2014 playing for BC Budivelnyk Kyiv in Ukraine.
“Basically, a smaller version of what’s going on now happened,” Ahearn said of violence among warring factions in Kyiv, right across the street from the apartment complex where Ahearn, wife Ricki and daughters Blake and McKenzie were staying.
“I was away on a road trip when basically a war broke out,” Ahearn said. “The equivalent of our apartment complex would be where JQH Arena is located and the soccer field right next to it. That’s where over 100 people were murdered.
“I was in an airport trying to find a way back to my family. My wife and daughters were huddled up, dodging bullets. It was terrifying for them.
“So what’s going on now in Ukraine hits home for me pretty good.”