Wichita State Great Ron Baker Turns 30

by Kevin Burton

   Ron Baker, the shooting guard who helped usher in the greatest era of basketball at Wichita State, turns 30 tomorrow.

   Some of us may not be ready to hear that.

   Some of us overlooked, downtrodden people clung tightly to those Wichita State teams, underdogs who routinely slayed giants (I’m talking to you, Ohio State, Gonzaga, Kansas).

   It was so easy to identify with those teams. And Baker, a native of tiny Scott City, Kansas, was the picture of youth and strength, guts and determination.

   Today is his last day as a 20-something. 

   From what I have heard about him, he won’t think twice about turning 30.  He’ll leave that to people like me.

   The day I turned 30 I took half a day off from my newspaper reporter job and went and ate, alone, at a Hardees in Muscatine, Iowa. 

   Reporters used to type “XXX” at the bottom of a story to let the editor know that was the end.  The Roman numeral equivalent, thirty, also came to mean the end.

   I’m sitting at Hardees, alone, turning 30. Over the system, music is playing. It’s the Beatles’ “Nowhere Man.”

   That old ouch from my 30th birthday is now a thoughtful sigh on the eve of Baker’s.    

   In Baker’s freshman year at Wichita State he sustained a foot injury that kept him out of action for 21 games. The Shockers were doing fairly well without him but when he became available again late in the year, they became a different team, a dangerous team.

   The Shockers’ second-round NCAA-tournament win over Gonzaga that year, taught us all how dangerous they were and would be for the next three years. Baker was instrumental in that win.

   WSU trailed by as many as seven late into the game, but Baker’s three pointer with 4:18 to go brought the Shockers to within one.  He delivered both ends of a crucial one and one with 3:10 to put the Shockers up one.  After a Gonzaga turnover, Baker nailed a three with 2:51 to go to push the lead to four. 

  So in less than 90 seconds of game time, Baker scored eight points.

  “Ron Baker introducing himself to the nation here,” said play-by-play announcer Spero Dedes.

   Nation and Baker would be well acquainted, as the Shockers made the Final Four that year and won five more tournament games during Baker’s career.

   In his senior year, early-season injuries to Baker’s running mate Fred VanVleet limited  the Shockers to an 18-14 record going into the Missouri Valley Conference post-season tournament. 

   Baker scored 25 points in the opening round come-from-behind win against Loyola Chicago. SB Nation wrote, “Ron Baker may have saved Wichita State’s NCAA Tournament bid.”

  That proved to be true, but barely. The Shockers were sent to Dayton for a play-in game.  They dispatched Vanderbilt 70-50.  They then stifled Arizona in a 65-55 win that wasn’t that close.  It was the last of the Baker-VanVleet Wichita State bracket-busting upsets.

   After they were eliminated in the next round, Shocker fans knew something truly special had ended.  Others got it too.

   The Monday after Baker’s last game as a Shocker, Michael Wilbon on ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption, uttered the words, “Baker and VanVleet forever!”

   Couldn’t have said it better myself.

   That June I fought sleep to listen to every pick of the 2016 NBA draft, waiting for Baker’s and/or VanVleet’s name to be called. They were not, though both would sign as free agents.

   As a pro, VanVleet has exceeded everyone’s expectations except perhaps his own. He went on to be an NBA champion, then an NBA All-Star with Toronto.   

   Baker was signed out of college by New York, which made me a Knicks fan at least temporarily.  Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek saw some of himself in Baker, as the two had similar size and skillsets.  Knicks fans and coaches loved Baker for his hustle and intelligence.

   But in his third year in the NBA, Hornacek’s successor David Fisdale cut Baker, ironically to make room for Allonzo Trier, one of Arizona guards humbled by Baker and the Shockers in that 2016 tournament game.

   Baker caught on with Washington for a handful of games, but his NBA career was essentially over. He played one year for a team in Russia before retiring from what had been his dream job.   

   On his way out of New York Baker got high praise. Coaches and teammates called him a “consummate pro.” His head coach speculated that he would make a good NBA coach someday.

   “I’m telling you, his understanding of the game, work ethic, communicator, leader — he’s got all those intangibles,” Tisdale told the New York Post. “I think when it’s finally said and done for him, I think he has a career in this league if he wants to [as a coach].”

   After the Shockers upset Gonzaga in 2013, Baker’s post-game analysis sounded much more like that of a coach than a player, to the point where the interviewer told him he needed to be more excited.

  “I’m a humble kid,” Baker said.

   That was then, ten years ago as Baker was about to turn 20. This is now.

  These days Baker works as the Project Manager in the Business Development department at Ascension Via Christi, a medical center in Wichita.

   I won’t be shocked if Baker someday works as a coach or athletic director for Wichita State. Whatever he does though, Shocker nation is proud of him and wishes him the best.

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