Basketball – Former NBA Guard Highlights Fundraiser Game in Red Bank
Steve Blake played 13 seasons in the NBA, won a national championship as a collegiate basketball player, and is currently transitioning into a career in coaching with the Portland Trailblazers while living in Oregon.
He has almost no connection to New Jersey whatsoever, but when he heard his former college teammate and good friend could use some help in the form of his presence – and basketball skills – he hopped on a red-eye across the country in order to get to Red Bank.
Blake was the headliner Saturday morning at the Max Strong Alumni Basketball Game at Red Bank Regional High School, which was the first part of a day-long fundraiser for the young son of former University of Maryland teammate Tahj Holden.
“For Steve to make the effort to be here is incredibly generous of him,” Holden said. “I haven’t seen him in quite some time. I talk to him from time to time, but to get to see him here today along with a lot of other guys I played with and against in high school was great.”
Two months ago, Holden’s 18-month-old son, Max, was diagnosed with a rare type of cancer called neuroblastoma, which affects almost exclusively children. Fundraising efforts for Holden and his wife, Carrie, have been ongoing since news of the diagnosis broke in early March and Saturday’s alumni game featuring Blake was the first organized fundraising event for the Max Strong New Jersey Non-Profit.
Holden and Blake were integral players on Maryland’s 2002 NCAA National Championship team, with Blake the starting point guard and Holden playing the center position. They also became good friends and according to both men, their wives are even closer with one another. Blake’s wife, Kristen, is godmother to the Holden’s youngest son, Cole, and she and Carrie have kept in close touch over the years, according to the former Terrapins teammates.
“Just following the whole situation and understanding what they are going through, when the game was being put together, I wanted to help in any way I could,” Blake said. “I was going to do anything I could to get out here and support the family. I’m glad I could make it and I had a great time.”
Blake’s last year as an active NBA player was in 2015-16 with the Detroit Pistons and the 38-year-old has since occupied a spot on the Blazers practice squad while also helping in a coaching capacity. He showed off his NBA skills on Saturday, most notably by drilling four three-pointers from beyond what would be the NBA three-point line and significantly beyond the high-school three-point line marked on the Red Bank gym floor.
“I can’t shoot from the high school line, but if I back up a few feet, I’m good,” Blake joked.
Although Blake made the longest journey to Red Bank, he was not the only one to fly in for the event. Former Red Bank and Penn State football star Eric McCoo flew in from his home in Illinois to support his childhood friend.
“Tahj and I grew up around the corner from each other and we played sports together since we were little,” McCoo said. “Actually, I was little. Tahj was never little.
“We’re like family. We’re a tight-knit group. Red Bank always shows out when someone in the community is in need. Tahj has always been a giver. He has always been there for everyone, so anytime you have an opportunity to be there for someone like that, you do it. The reason you see people here giving their time to help him is because of what he has given to them.”
McCoo and Holden were part of a golden age of Red Bank Regional sports, with McCoo breaking records as a running back on the football team and playing a supporting role on a basketball team that boasted a dominant front court led by Holden.
“To continue to be able to come here and support the program and show the kids who are here that there is life beyond sports – that’s what it’s about,” McCoo said. “Tahj went to Maryland. I went to Penn State. We had a lot of doors opened to us because of sports, but we’re both living life after sports and kids need to see that side of it. When we were growing up here, it wasn’t easy to see that, so to be able to show young people that side of things is really important.”
McCoo went to training camp with the Chicago Bears out of college and has been living in the Chicago area ever since, now with his wife and family.
Tony Racioppi was another participant Saturday with an NFL connection. Raccioppi was an all-state quarterback at Red Bank and went on to enjoy a record-setting career at Rowan University. He later played in NFL Europe and signed briefly with both the New York Jets and the Miami Dolphins. After a brief stint as the head coach at Franklin High School, he is currently the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the Hun School in Princeton.
There was also strong support from members of the Shore Conference coaching fraternity Saturday, with a handful of area coaches trading in their whistles for a pair of basketball shorts to support Holden.
In the case of Christian Brothers Academy coach Geoff Billet, he had to do some rummaging to even find a pair of shorts to wear. He settled on his game-used shorts from his days as a standout guard at Rutgers University in the late 1990’s.
Red Bank coach Scott Martin was an instrumental part of setting up the game and also knocked down a pair of three-pointers in his home gym.
Few players looked sharper that former Long Branch star and Seton Hall guard Raheem Carter, who has spent recent years as an assistant for the St. Rose girls basketball team – one of the state’s most successful programs during his time there. Carter raised his game even more once Savior Akuwovo – the starting center at the Ranney school this past season, a Howard University signee and the youngest player in Saturday’s game – stepped up to guard him on defense.
There is another connection between Carter and Akuwovo beyond the buckets Carter was dropping on the All-Shore center. Carter’s son, Kishaun, is a freshman on the track and field team at Howard.
John Tierney left his post as the head coach at Pinelands and joined Holden in 2016-17 as an assistant at Ranney. The Mater Dei alum not only mixed it up in the game, but also had a hand in the planning of the event.
Will Guerin and Milton Gray were teammates of Holden’s at Red Bank and have been a key part of the fundraising efforts for his friend and his family since Max’s diagnosis. Guerin not only played in the game but was the chief recruiter of talent for the two rosters – including passing word of the game along to Blake, according to Tierney.
Holden himself did not suit up the play but played his more familiar role as head coach of a winning team.
“I was probably worth about 15 points,” Holden joked. “I let us take our foot off the gas a little at the end, but we finished it off.”
The alumni were split into one team representing alumni from Red Bank, Ranney and Maryland, while the other team featured alumni from other Shore Conference schools. The Red Bank squad, which featured Blake and Akuwovo, won, 84-78 and Bucs alum Ryan Johnson also won the three-point shootout at halftime.
Following the game, the Max Strong Non-Profit held a silent auction at Red Rock Tap and Grill in downtown Red Bank. Among the prizes up for bid were Giants tickets, Yankees tickets, an on-field experience and tickets to a Washington Nationals game, signed photos of Larry Bird and Carl Yastzremski, a football signed by Eli Manning, and lots of University of Maryland memorabilia.
A good portion of the memorabilia was donated by former Mater Dei head coach Keith Glass, who also coached under Larry Brown at UCLA and is currently a sports agent.
“The support from the community has been incredible and so many people have reached out and given not just their money but their time,” Tierney said. “It’s one thing to give money, but giving your time to help out is what really stands out. Every donation, every dollar helps but when you see people asking ‘What can I do to help?’ and showing up to events and helping organize, that’s how something like this comes together.”
The fundraising efforts for Max Holden and the Max Strong Non-Profit will continue, but Saturday was another example that the Red Bank and Shore communities are behind the Holdens in their time of need. A GoFundMe Page for Max Holden raised more than $100,000,000 in its first 48 hours back in early March.
Holden also has the fundraising power of his current players, who have already demonstrated not only a charitable nature, but also a knack for raising a good deal of money. Center Chris Autino ran a successful three-on-three tournament to raise money for families dealing with ALS last summer and in the fall, five-star guards Scottie Lewis and Bryan Antoine hosted a basketball benefit for the homeless in Monmouth County. Since Max’s diagnosis, the players have been outspoken in their support for their coach and have lent their time to both of Holden’s sons.
Max still has a long road ahead during a treatment program that could take as long as two years, but the path to getting him cancer free is getting a little shorter and a little clearer with each successful fundraising undertaking.
“I wasn’t sure how this was going to go because of the weather and the time,” Holden said. “We didn’t do a ton of marketing, but we were able to get the word out and I’m pretty pleased with the turnout. A lot of people helped make this happen. Whenever you’re going through a tough time, it’s always nice to see that people have your back and that’s probably been the one good thing about this situation. A lot of people have showed their support and it’s definitely give strength to our family.”