Most college basketball teams have at least one. He’s the player that when he checks into a game has been given the uninhibited green light to shoot from his head coach.
When he gets open and releases the basketball from his fingertips, his teammates that are left on the bench are going to rise, using their kinetic energy to try and will the basketball through the net. They want desperately to share in that moment.
The fans sense it too. They ooh and they ah, knowing that field goal means something extra special to the program. They have seen him sitting on the end of the bench, wearing his warm-up throughout a majority of the game. Sometimes the knowledgeable ones will even start chanting his name. Whether it happens once in a career of 10 times, it never loses any luster.
His teammates want nothing more than to wave towels, throw their hands up or play an air guitar, while smiling from ear-to-ear. It’s a moment everyone associated with the program craves and is one of college basketball’s greatest traditions.
What those fans do not always see is the countless gallons of sweat he pours out in the weight room and on the court. That effort gets showcased when he owns the stage for that one moment, but he does all that sweating for more reasons than that.
He wants his team to taste victory and he knows those countless hours of practice where statistics do not count and the seats at The Betty are empty are his time to really contribute.
For the North Dakota men’s basketball program, that player at the end of bench with the goose-bump enabling powers in recent years has been Thomas Blake. For Fighting Hawk fans not in the know, he’s No. 20 in your programs and the one with the moppy brown hair and charming smile.
The Hagerstown, Md., native will be wrapping up his Fighting Hawk home career this week along with classmates Corey Baldwin, Quinton Hooker and Devon Pekas.
For the record, he’s delivered seven of those joy-provoking baskets over his four seasons of court time for the Green and White. And, rest assured his worth to the program will be measured by much more than his 18 career points.
The word his head coach uses to describe his worth is vital.
“The thing is with today’s generation, you cannot have 14 stars on your roster,” 11th-year head coach Brian Jones said. “You need glue pieces. You need guys that want to serve one another. You need guys that help bring it all together and do the little things.
“That is what he has always done. I think because of his attitude and his work ethic, our guys really respect him, appreciate him and understand his value to our team. That is why they act the way they do when he gets in games and scores. They know how much work he has put into this program.”
For Hooker, the word to describe his close friend and roommate is underappreciated. “He has brought a lot to our program that goes unnoticed. He is right up there with the hardest workers we have on the team,” the Big Sky Preseason Player of the Year said. “He brings energy to practice every day and has helped bring the best out of not only me, but the rest of our teammates.”
Blake comes from a long family line of college athletes and always had the dream to follow suit. His maternal grandfather, Thomas Skadeland, played basketball at Minnesota. His father, Richard Blake, played football at Slippery Rock. His mother’s sister, Patty Luetzen, played volleyball at Penn State and the list goes even further.
He arrived on the UND campus in the fall of 2012 not knowing exactly how he could continue that lineage, but he had a pair of first cousins, who were student-athletes at UND at the time and he wanted to join the fun. Danny played volleyball, while her younger brother, Kent, was a member of the track and field team.
Following a high school basketball career at St. Maria Goretti in the Baltimore suburbs, the 6-foot-2 guard needed some help in landing a try-out with the men’s basketball program. He was coming to UND regardless to continue his education, but playing the sport he loved would add even more to the experience.
One of the reasons that Blake decided to come to UND was having those first cousins nearby and the assist he needed came from Danny. She was part of the 2009 Great West Conference Championship team and made the necessary sales pitch to Jones.
“I remember Danny coming up to my office one day and telling me about her basketball playing cousin that was going to start school here. That started the ball rolling,” Jones recalled. “At the time, we needed some depth at the guard position and it kind of all came together. It was clear early on that he was a good kid that was going to work hard.”
And for the last five years, Blake has done just that and Jones is glad his outgoing cousin delivered a quality product.
“Tommy is one of the most unselfish people I know. He’s a great teammate, has a positive attitude and knows what his role is on this team,” Jones said. “He comes to work every day, that’s probably the biggest thing. He never takes a day off.
“There have been many days where there is not an extra body to give him a break and he just does his job. He’s practiced through some injuries. He just does everything we ask of him and does it willingly.”
For those close to the UND men’s basketball program, it’s easy to see why he earned the Baltimore Catholic League’s “Never Quit Award” after averaging 6.0 ppg and 6.0 rpg as a senior.
And, having a friend and teammate like Blake is something not lost on Hooker, who is winding down one of the most prolific careers in UND basketball history. “I’ve benefitted so much from having him on this journey during our careers together at UND. He pushes me in the weight room, on the court and off the court to get better each and every day," Hooker said. "I’m certainly grateful for his friendship, his goofy personality and the laughs we’ve shared.”
Hooker believes Blake purposely saves his best for the practice sessions where the two are matched up against each other. “He is always making shots on me for whatever reason," he added. "It’s annoying, but it’s just another way he pushes me.”
So, when those opportunities do arise for Blake to step out on the court, Hooker and the rest of his teammates want nothing more than for Tommy to sink that shot they have witnessed him make thousands of times during practice.
“He certainly deserves his moment,” Hooker said.
Blake's final home swing starts tonight with UND taking on Sacramento State at 7 p.m. with a chance to clinch at least a share of the Big Sky regular season title and the No. 1 seed in next week's league tournament in Reno.
-- UND --