You ask Ron Baker if this is what he expected — the Sweet 16, the glitz of Los Angeles, the mayor of his tiny Kansas hometown declaring Thursday “Ron Baker Day” — and he offers up this story, from about two years back:
Somewhere along Highway 56, during the three-hours-and-change drive back west to Scott City, Kan., Ron was on the return leg of his official visit to Wichita State. And he was pensive.
“You know, son,” Neil Baker told his son, “Wichita State is a very good program.”
Full disclosure: Neil was (and is) a baseball coach and a fan of “Danny & The Miracles,” the 1988 Kansas national championship team that defined the program for a generation, especially within state borders.
But he remembered coach Gene Smithson’s Shockers being holy hell on wheels back then, too. With stars such as Antoine Carr and Xavier “The X-Man” McDaniel, the Shox tore up the Missouri Valley Conference. Wichita State had even knocked off the Jayhawks in the 1981 NCAA Tourney to clinch a berth in the Elite Eight, a tussle still referred to in hushed, reverent tones as “The Battle Of New Orleans.”
“Son,” Neil continued, “this is a very competitive program.”
Plus, he noted, it’s three-and-a-half hours from home, snow permitting. South Dakota State? Arkansas-Little Rock? Not so much.
Ron took a deep breath.
“Dad, there are two things I want to accomplish,” he replied.
“First, I want to make nice little run in the (NCAA) Tournament. And the second thing is, I want Bob Knight to know who I am.”
And, boom, there it was. The Baker Manifesto.
“I think I’ve accomplished one of them,” Ron says now, chuckling.
The Sunset Strip? Malibu? Forget it. Until The General gives him some sugar, Baker figures he hasn’t hit the big time yet.
“He’s just someone I always heard about growing up,” explains the Shockers’ freshman sharpshooter, whose ninth-seeded squad is slated to meet La Salle, a 13 seed, tonight at STAPLES Center in an All-Cinderella NCAA Tournament regional semifinal. “If you heard (the words) ‘college basketball,’ you thought of Jimmy V (Valvano), Dick Vitale and Bob Knight. He’s just someone you always grew up hearing about.”
Kids in Scott City are going to grow up hearing about Ron Baker one day, too. The dude with the beach-blond hair and the fearless jump shot. The local boy who took out No. 1.
“When you’re a No. 1 seed and you see a team making every shot like that,” says Baker, who dropped 16 points and six rebounds on top-seeded Gonzaga last Saturday night in Salt Lake City, “especially when you’re the 1, (it feels like) everybody’s out to get you.”
In a span of one minute and 28 seconds, Baker, the All-American boy, became a legend in rural Kansas and a pariah in Spokane. With 4:32 left in the contest, the favored Bulldogs were back out front, 61-57. At the 4:23 mark, Baker drained a trey to cut the lead to one. At the 3:10 mark, he sank two free throws that gave the Shox an edge they’d never again relinquish, 64-63. At the 2:55 mark, out came another Baker 3-pointer; Wichita led, 67-63, forcing the Zags into scramble mode.
“When you’re down like that, that’s obviously what you’ve got to do,” says Baker, a 6-foot-3 guard with a quarterback’s frame — he excelled in football, baseball and basketball as a prep in Scott City — and a quarterback’s icy cool. “You’ve got to pick up a lot of stops and you’ve got to execute on the offensive end … we got the lead at the right time.”
In the Big Dance, sometimes, timing is everything. Last Saturday’s upset was only Baker’s fifth game back since a stress facture in his left foot forced him to miss 21 contests, including all of the regular-season MVC slate.
“Really, 21 games felt like two years to me,” says Baker, who’s averaging 8.3 points and 2.8 boards off the bench. “Going from playing about 25 minutes a game to sitting on the end of the bench with my teammates wasn’t very fun.”
The fracture in the navicular bone was, as Ron recalls it, “kinda freaky.” It had become progressively more irritated over the weeks leading up to a Dec. 13 visit to Tennessee. As always, Baker elected to play through the pain, figuring that some ice and a good night’s rest would solve the problem just fine.
“The very next day,” he says, “I couldn’t walk.”
After that, it was crutches for six weeks — “Seemed like it took forever,” Baker notes — followed by another five-to-six weeks of slow, careful rehabilitation.
“I think sitting around watching,” coach Gregg Marshall observed, “just made him even more hungry and prepared mentally.”
The Shockers preach playing with urgency as a mantra — with power forward Carl Hall and point guard Malcolm Armstead setting the tone, Wichita is probably the closest parallel the MVC has, style-wise, to Michigan State — but for Baker, that sense is especially palpable.
The burly guard makes no secret of the fact he’s trying to make up for lost time. Rather than join South Dakota State or Arkansas-Little Rock, Baker walked on to Marshall’s squad last year, electing to pay his own way and redshirt, as the Shockers didn’t have a scholarship available. In fact, he and Armstead, a transfer from Oregon who was in the same boat, used to sit around last season and share their plans for hoops domination in 2013.
They also lifted weights. A lot. Baker, for example, bulked up from 195 pounds to his current weight of 218, and his maximum bench press jumped from about 225 pounds as a prep senior to 275 now.
“He’s a throwback,” Marshall notes. “Ron’s just an athlete. Got great hand-eye coordination … (he’s) strong and tough. They won state championships when he (was) in high school, so he’s used to winning.”
He’s also used to the bright lights, the big stage. Baker, who’ll turn 20 on Saturday, hit the game-winning shot in the Class 3A state title tilt as a senior at Scott Community High — on a putback, no less — and even dabbled in drama, appearing in a few school plays. The big lug, a diamond discovered by Wichita assistant Chris Jans, likes to joke that while basketball is his favorite sport, football is the one he misses the most.
“I wish I could go back and play (again),” chuckles Baker, a former wing-T quarterback and free safety. “As strong as I am now.”
Baker’s what folks in western Kansas refer to as ‘country-strong,’ and the locals back in Scott City, population 3,796 as of summer 2011, are plenty proud of it. Heck, the mayor has even decreed Thursday to be “Ron Baker Day” back home — complete with a proclamation in front of Ron’s old high school — in honor of its now-famous son.
“I think people are starting to realize,” Marshall says, “why he was second on the team in minutes played through the first 10 games.”
With each passing round, that legend grows a little larger. As long as the Shockers keep kicking down Bracketville doors, you get the feeling Bob Knight will know Ron Baker’s name soon enough.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org