They Don’t Make Them Like Blake Peters Anymore

A state championship would have been nice, but it still wouldn’t have been enough for Evanston’s sharp-shooting sophomore. 

By Casey Bannon
Medill Reports

Before he stepped onto the Carver Arena floor in Peoria to play for a state championship; before Friday’s semifinal matchup, when he set an IHSA Class 4A shooting record; before any game this season in which the bespectacled Evanston sophomore terrorized nets and opposing coaches alike; and even before he racked up SportsCenter’s top play and an ESPY award nomination as a 15-year-old freshman, Blake Peters went through his routine.

He rises promptly at 5:30 a.m.– before the sun appears and well before the morning bell for class rings. He then drives to pick up his assistant coach and trainer, Stacey Moragne. Groggy and grumpy at the 16-year-old’s insistence on waking him up this early, Moragne said he typically stumbles into the passenger seat and the two talk shop. They arrive at Evanston’s old-school Beardsley gymnasium with a plan, and depending on whether Blake will see man or zone defense that night, begin their scripted regimen. In order to keep up some blistering efficiency numbers, Peters needs to see the ball go through the net starting 13 hours before tipoff.

As he disregards the rim and instead scorches the net over and over again, there’s an uncommon focus and discipline in his teenage eyes that peer out through Kareem-styled goggles. But then again, there’s little common about Blake Peters.

“Some of my friends back in middle and elementary school would talk about things that have no meaning, like video games,” Peters said. “Like who cares? And they’re talking about gossip and all this. It’s never mattered to me.

“I’ve just never had time for all of that because it’s always been about basketball and school. If [I’m] not getting those two things done, there is something wrong with [my] life.

He prefers mature, adult conversations to high school hallway banter. He prefers brushing up on world history to Friday night Fortnite sessions. Aside from a great grandfather who flew planes in WWII, he doesn’t have any military background that might precede such structure and tidiness at his age. This is just the way he is.

The seeds of that old soul and quick release were planted early on thanks to the direction of his father, Ashley Peters. Starting in Kindergarten, Ashley would take his son to a nearby school to shoot around. Even then the former player, who had college basketball aspirations himself, corrected Blake’s form — sometimes to the point where the youngster would run and hide in bushes out of frustration. However, those kinds emotional outbursts were infrequent for the stoic star.

“He’s always been a reserved kid,” Ashley said. “A reserved personality, kind of emotionless in a way. We raised him never to get too high or too low regardless of whether you play good or play bad.”

By third grade, Blake was tagging alongside his father to the gym everyday. His work habits were being ingrained, but so was a genuine love for the game and its grind.

“If he hadn’t done that,” Blake said, “I wouldn’t be here.”

A year later, Blake and his father traveled to Akron, Ohio to compete in a LeBron James AAU tournament. With the best player in the world roaming the property, it was then that Ashley realized his son was capable of handling basketball’s biggest stages.

“I just remember him not being at all intimidated by the moment,” Ashley said. “He was just unflappable.”

To this day, if dad sees a glitch in his son’s silky release, he’ll still call it out. Before Friday night’s state semifinal against Rockford East, he stumbled across a picture online of his son taken during Evanston’s Thursday shootaround.

“His form was absolutely atrocious,” Ashley said. “I texted him and said ‘Your follow through is wrong, your elbow is crooked, you’re falling back. You need to fix that before tomorrow night.’”

The message was received: 7-for-8 from three, a game-high 27 points, player of the game honors and a 4A playoff record for made 3-pointers in a game. After years of meticulous preparation, the results weren’t a shock for the Peters family.

“Every time he shoots the ball the wrong way, I have to correct him,” Ashley said. “If he does it wrong 100 times, that means correcting him 100 times. Before that game, I told him it’s not a question of being on or off. It’s a question of whether you remember to shoot the ball the right way every time.”

Numbers-wise, you’d be hard pressed to find a better shooter than Peters in the Chicago area. He shot an astronomical 47 percent from three this season on a Wildkits’ team that took 42 percent of their shot attempts from behind the arc. For comparison, only 37 percent of the jump shot-crazed Golden State Warriors’ attempts come from three, and Steph Curry is shooting them at a 42 percent clip.

As part of a balanced offensive attack, Peter’s 13.3 points per game were second only to senior teammate and Southern Illinois commit Lance Jones. But on nights when Peters is on, there’s not much balance to the scoreboard. On Jan. 25, he set the single-game Evanston 3-point record after going 9-for-13 against Maine South. 24 hours later, he followed that 30-point performance up with 24 more, including seven triples. The scouting report was out, but it didn’t matter.

“They’re not going to leave Blake open,” said Evanston  coach Mike Ellis said. “He’s not going to get clean looks. So it’s nice to see that it hasn’t deterred him from shooting. Because as you can see, he can put it in the basket with or without a hand in his face.”

As far as the other half of Blake’s life goes, he’s right on track to accomplish his career goals: Attend an Ivy League institution, get a law degree, become the United States Attorney General, help fight inequality using the letter of the law and retire with a Wikipedia page that includes an expansive philanthropy write up.

“I know im not going to play professional basketball,” Peters said. “But playing in college, going to school for free and using something you love to get there–that is the dream.”

When asked if he’s every coached or played with someone like Peters, Moragne, a former Division II All-American at UMass Lowell, said “mentally, not many.”

“This kid is amazing,” Moragne said. “His work ethic and his dedication to the game is like no other. The things that he sacrificed as a kid…it’s a pleasure to be around a kid like that.”

Those sacrifices included moving with his family from Highland Park before the start of his freshman year. Going from an affluent, upper-class, predominantly Jewish neighborhood to a more diverse Evanston suburb, forced a young Peters out of his comfort zone, he said. It also inspired the vision for his future.

“It was like, ‘Wow this is actually the real world,’” Peters recalled. “This is how things actually are. I’m a history guy and I’ve slowly been taught kind of the injustices of the past and even what’s going on today.I’ve always had a love of the law, solving disputes between people. Some of the greatest figures in this country have been lawyers, like Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.”

“If you are the Attorney General you have a lot of say in how things work. I think there are a lot of irrational people in the world. You know, I’m a reasonable person, like, what happened to compromising?”

As he attempted to rationalize a new neighborhood, a new school and a new social pool to go along with rapidly changing world views, Peters was also thrust into a new environment on the court. At 6-foot and still years away from filling out broad shoulders and lanky arms, he was immediately asked to play 20 to 25 minutes a night in Ellis’ track-meet-style system. It was sink or swim on a team with state tournament expectations, and he ended up flying.

If you haven’t seen the shot by now, then you might be in the minority. It’s been written about to the point of exhaustion, the clip viewed some 800,000 times on Youtube and countless others on social media. Peters himself has been asked about it so many times that a sliver of joy evaporates from his face at its very mention.

With 2.6 seconds left, and his squad trailing 44-42 in a January contest against Maine South, Peters gathered a miss free throw and wrestled it away from a defender. He turned to his right, took one dribble and gathered all his might from one step inside the opposite free throw -line.  He reached back with his right arm and gunned it like a run-saving throw from center field. When it crashed through the net some 80-feet away, complete chaos ensued. To Beardsley gymnasium and his life.

 

 

The next night he watched himself on ESPN. A day after that, a press conference was held in the team’s film room. He was poked and prodded by national and local television cameras. He was bombarded by photo requests at the grocery store. The quiet, new kid at school was suddenly one of Evanston’s most recognizable faces. Even for a 15-year-old mature beyond his years, shouldering the expectations of his next act was asking too much.

A few weeks later, he went 0-for-9 from 3-point range against rival New Trier in front of a sold-out home crowd of 2,000. He called it the “most embarrassing moment of his life.” Long after parents and teammates had left the arena, he sat immobile in front of his locker, eyes glazed, staring into the ground.

On his same Twitter page that hundreds of new followers flocked to overnight following “the shot,” you’ll find a tweet pinned to the top of his profile from that January.

Then and now, that about says it all.

“I was too worried about what everyone around me were saying about me, what they would think of me,” Peters said. “There are times when I would just be a lonely person. It was like ‘Ok, you can make a full court shot but why can’t you make a shot that’s 50 feet closer?’”

“Being a 15-year-old kid, you’re on the move, you’re in a new town and everyone either loves you or hates you,” Moragne said. “I told him, ‘You know you put the work in, you deserve this. You deserve these moments. So you need to cherish them, don’t look at it as pressure. The basketball gods are good to those who are good to the basketball gods.’”

And so he did. Thanks to supportive teammates and assurance from the coaching staff, he worked himself out of loneliness and shot his way out of a career slump. He contributed to Evanston’s 2018 4A final four team, and dazzled crowds and NBC Sports Chicago viewers with his pure stroke at Bradley University’s home court.

Later that summer, he donned a white tuxedo as he swaggered down the red carpet outside ESPN’s ESPY awards in Los Angeles. He paused for photos with Odell Beckham Jr. and took pride in the fact that he wasn’t there as a sweepstakes winner or charity case. Instead he was a nominee, something he had earned. He didn’t take home a trophy for Best Play that night, but it didn’t matter. Even though the southern California lifestyle didn’t necessarily suit him, he was back to being Blake.

“Well, it changed me,” Peters said, “But I’m still just me. I’m a loser if that’s all I’m remembered for in 30 years.”

With the fear of being remembered as nothing more than a viral sensation, Peters went hard in the gym over the summer in hopes of erasing the label of being just a shooter.

“Everybody knows he can shoot the three,” said Lance Jones. “He has improved his ball-handling and his finishing around the basket. That’s a side of him that people don’t pay much attention to that he really worked on in the offseason.”

“Blake does so much more now than just score the basketball,” Ellis said. “He defends well inside against bigger bodies. His rebounding has increased about as twice as much. He’s definitely more valuable to us than just making threes.”

“Yeah, well that’s because they told me I sucked at it,” Peters joked, when hearing the praise for his work on the boards.

The results of his 2018 summer workouts and early morning game day rituals were evident in 2019—for himself and his team alike. Despite starting five guards– all under 6-3—Evanston (32-5) clawed its way back to a state tournament in Peoria, were they fell in the semifinals a season ago to eventual champion Whitney Young. A year removed from heartache, and thanks to those texts from dad, Peters made sure to avoid another final four letdown.

But when Peters’ 3-point attempt rimmed out with just over a minute remaining against Belleville West on Saturday, reality set in—the Wildkits would be heading back to Evanston with a second-place trophy. He had become almost monotonous throughout the course of the season while speaking his goals into existence.

“My only focus is winning state,” he would say after wins, losses and practices.

Instead, potential relief of finally clinching those objectives was replaced with yet another teaching moment in his young life. He was run off of screens, pushed, pulled and even double-teamed at times. With Belleville defenders tracing his every move, Peters went 1-for-5 from the field in the 71-59 loss.

His sentiments after the game were as facile and resolute as he is: “We’ll be back…”

It was a quiet night for a quiet kid with loud expectations–an anticlimactic conclusion to a year soaked in commotion. But if you spend just a little time around Blake Peters, you’ll realize that no state title, no shot, no accolade, no televised games, interviews, awards shows, Instagram followers or even prospects of playing professional one day will ever be enough to satisfy him.

So what will? And what qualifies as being successful– if not one 80-foot prayer or countless 20-foot jumpers?

“I used to want to be a billionaire and all that, but now I realize once you are gone, all that money and stuff doesn’t mean anything,” Blake said. “If you’ve left a mark on the world, then your impact will be felt long after you are gone. That means a lot more than having the most money or the most cars. It’s just about having a balanced life.

I used to deem [leaving your mark] as if you have a Wikipedia page or not, if my page has a thing on philanthropy [and says] ‘He put his money towards causes, he spends his free time helping others out,  he’s a family man, a kind person.’ Just everything that someone would want to be remembered as.”

“He does things the right way,” Ashley said. “And he keeps everything within the framework of the team concept. He’s an unselfish kid that doesn’t let any of this go to his head. That’s what I’m most proud of, that he’s still the same kid.”

Photo at top: Evanston guard Blake Peters surveys the floor at Beardsley gymnasium. (Casey Bannon/MEDILL)