Few people can credit a sport to changing their life more than Brayon Blake.
Basketball became more than just a hobby for — a junior forward on the Idaho men’s basketball team — It became a way of survival.
Blake spent his early years in Seattle. His father was absent for a large part of his childhood. His mother did her best to provide for him, his two brothers and one sister. For Blake, growing up in the Emerald City was anything but easy.
“It was very challenging, especially in my neighborhood. I was on the East side and the South side. There’s a lot of gang activity out there, especially where I lived,” Blake said.
His brothers eventually succumbed to the gang lifestyle. One of his brothers died at the hands of gang violence.
Blake said that though he was constantly surrounded by gangs in Seattle, he decided to take a different route.
“Luckily, I had a community center that I could go to that kind of helped me not get in trouble and not go off into the gang route. I just stayed with basketball and just stayed active in sports. I felt like that kept me off the streets,” he said.
Blake struck an agreement with his mother: If he could find transportation to the community center, she would find the money for him to go. Blake said he would his ride his bike from home to school, from school to the center and back home every day. Among the rest of the chaos in his life, the community center provided some stability.
Blake’s family was constantly on the move. He said he transferred schools at least seven times and had to adjust his lifestyle to accommodate the constant relocation.
Just before he was getting ready to attend middle school, his mother decided to move again, this time across the country to New Orleans. Blake was only 10 years old.
“I just missed all of my friends and the support system I had back at home. I had to rebuild it in New Orleans,” Blake said.
As he grew older and more independent, Blake began to yearn for his old home back West. One by one, each of his siblings moved back to Seattle. At age 12, Blake returned. He bought his own plane ticket back to Washington and moved in with a close family friend who he called his uncle.
“I stayed with my uncle for about three years into my high school career. Then, my mom came back up and we stayed with my sister for a while. It was challenging, for sure, to go through a struggle like that,” Blake said.
Blake’s uncle was a foster parent in Seattle, and when Blake arrived, he shared the house with five other boys.
“It was a great experience, I would say, to go through, because it kind of humbled me and showed me that I’m not the only one out here going through the same things,” Blake said. “We were there for each other. It turned into a brotherhood.”
While in the house, Blake turned his focus to graduating high school and building on his basketball skills. He earned an assortment of accolades early in his career. He was named freshman of the year and at the end of his senior year, he led his team to a state championship.
“Senior year, I finally won the gold ball. That was the moment, right there,” he said.
When it came to school, Blake’s cousin encouraged him to get good grades. Blake said that as a student, he performed better than many expected him too. He made the honor roll his freshman year.
“My uncle, he was really the driving force on my education. He told me you can’t do nothing in life if you don’t have a degree,” Blake said.
When it came to athletics, Blake did all he could. He said he played almost every sport the school offered, and still misses playing football. He said it was his high school basketball coach that pushed him to focus on one sport.
Blake’s grades began to slip during his senior year, he said, because a serious case of self-diagnosed senioritis. His average grades were enough to make him the first in his family to graduate high school.
Blake still focused on basketball but it became apparent that he would need to attend a junior college first if he wished to reach a four-year university in the future.
His first stop was Cochise College in Flagstaff, Arizona. While he enjoyed his teammates and the staff, Blake said it was a place he could not stay for two years.
“Horrible,” he said. “Just horrible. Capital H.”
Blake turned his sights on Idaho, but not the University of Idaho. He instead went to North Idaho College and enjoyed a lucrative career, leading the Cardinals to a 30-0 season.
After making waves in Coeur d’Alene, Blake was recruited by former Idaho assistant coach Kirk Earlywine.
“He was coming to my open gyms literally every week. They stayed really true to me, and that’s why I kind of respect them,” Blake said. “They stayed in the recruiting process more than any team.”
Now, Blake spends his days in a house with the Perrion Callendret, and Nate and Chad Sherwood. He said coming to Moscow has been one of the best decisions of his life, as it has let him grow in the one game that changed his life.
“I appreciate the game, I respect the game. I have so much love for the game,” he said.
Brandon Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @brandonmtnhill