Blake Ahearn gets it.
The first-year Head Coach of the Austin Spurs, who was named the NBA G League Rookie of the Year as a player in 2007, has been through the grind of fighting for a spot on an NBA roster, while also trying to lead a NBA G League team in the process.
“One of the things coach Ahearn does very well is he can connect with the guys,” said Jaron Blossomgame. “He can relate to what we’re going through.”
During this seven-year career, Ahearn played for 14 different teams between the NBA, the G League and overseas, after going undrafted out of Missouri State in 2007. Along with being named the G League Rookie of the Year, he was the G League All-Star Game MVP in 2009, and won both the Ukrainian Cup and SuperLeague in 2014.
Each of those experiences helped him to be a coach in this league.
“My playing career took me to 39 states, seven different countries, on four different continents. If you throw a dart at a map, chances are I’ve been there,” said Ahearn. “I can relate to guys, whether it’s trying to get called up, or anything, you’re trying to better your career.”
Rewind to just one year ago, Ahearn was coaching high schoolers at his alma mater after wanting to settle down after he retired in 2015. He coached at nearby Clayton High School in 2015-16 before taking the helm in his backyard at De Smet Jesuit High School last season.
“When I retired, my wife and I wanted to go back to where we are from and catch our breath,” said Ahearn. “I had the chance to coach high school, and I coached my alma mater, which was awesome. It was five minutes from my front door. I loved every minute of it.”
But that didn’t keep away the possibility of moving on again for Ahearn.
“I had some opportunities come up in different capacities to leave and I didn’t take them because what I had in St. Louis was so great,” he said. “But when the Spurs called, that’s something you really take into consideration. I was lucky enough that they called me, and I’m still humbled and honored to be working with everyone here.”
There’s always bumps in the road during a first season, but Ahearn said this year’s success had to do with the character and play of the guys on the team, which was set up by Austin Spurs General Manager Andy Birdsong’s offseason roster construction.
“Andy Birdsong gifted me a great group of guys and great players and I was just happy to be a part of it,” Ahearn said. “We were fortunate that our guys bought into our ‘we-first’ mindset. Guys were sacrificing things for the guy next to them. It ended up benefiting us as a team all season long.”
Birdsong said it was that we-first mentality that Ahearn instilled in the players that led the Spurs to the promised land.
“Blake challenged our group daily to commit to something bigger than themselves,” said Birdsong. “I could not be more proud of our group for this achievement, but more importantly for how it was achieved.”
This season, the Spurs were able to utilize two-way players Darrun Hilliard and Matt Costello, along with frequent assignments of rookie Derrick White, who proved his scoring ability during the NBA G League Playoffs. Ahearn, along with the players, credit the parent franchise in San Antonio for helping this season go so smoothly, and possibly helping lift players’ careers.
“We respected the grind this season,” said Hilliard, who led Austin as one of the players with NBA experience. “I’m proud that the young guys can elevate their careers and be more successful just based on what we did and winning the way we did.”
Finals MVP Nick Johnson, who has played three seasons in the NBA G League since being drafted in the second round of the NBA Draft in 2014, said this year’s team was special.
“The Spurs organization, there’s not a lot of teams like this,” said Johnson. “Every one of these guys sacrificed something for this team. Whether it’s shots, minutes … everything. Winning takes care of everything.”
Blossomgame, a rookie, agreed.
“It’s rare to have what we had this year,” said Blossomgame. “We had a very talented team, and a team that was very unselfish. Day one at training camp we knew we had the talent, and once we got rolling during the season and started winning games, we didn’t look back.”
Ahearn’s past has transformed the Spurs present into an NBA G League Championship, but for Austin, it’s now about duplicating that success with what next year presents for the defending champions.