As a little kid, Ron Baker dreamed of playing basketball in the NBA. There was, however, a small problem with that dream. His hometown of Utica, Kansas, had a population of less than 200. This made high-level basketball far less likely, but he kept pursuing his dream, keeping in mind that God was always watching over him.
After a move to Scott City — larger than Utica, but still small — an hour away, Baker went on to an unexpectedly successful tenure with the Wichita State Shockers. After sitting out his freshman season, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard was named a first team All-Missouri Valley Conference player three times and was considered a possible pick in this year’s NBA draft.
While Baker did not get drafted, he did sign with the New York Knicks after a successful stint in the NBA Summer League. Now, he will transition to the largest city in the country and try to help the Knicks improve on their 32-50 record last season.
Baker, in his understated demeanor, recently spoke of his college days and current goals with Register correspondent Trent Beattie.
Were you surprised not to be drafted?
I was hoping to de drafted. That didn’t happen, but I was happy to sign with the Knicks, and I’m ready to contribute to the team in any way I can. We have the potential to improve a lot, so it should be fun to work at making that happen.
I was born in Utica, Kansas, which has around 150 people, making it much less likely that anyone there will play a sport professionally or even collegiately. There just isn’t the same level of competition to help you get better. That can put a damper on your dreams, but I stuck with them and worked to make them happen.
We moved to Scott City, which has about 3,800 people, when I was 11. That’s still a small population, but it’s much bigger than Utica, so that let me face more teams and get better. Going from a town of less than 200 people to playing a sport professionally in one of the largest cities in the world shows that no matter where you start, you can reach your dreams.
When you first arrived at Wichita State University, were you expecting to do as well as you would eventually do?
Well, I wasn’t originally planning on going to Wichita. As a kid in Kansas, the biggest team by far was the University of Kansas Jayhawks. They always had winning seasons and made the NCAA tournament every year, so they were the team every basketball-playing kid in Kansas dreamed of playing for.
Despite that, my dad told me about Wichita’s great teams from the 1980s. They made the NCAA Tournament four different times in that decade and then again in 2006. Gregg Marshall, my coach for all four years at Wichita, came onto the scene in 2007, won the NIT [National Invitational Tournament] in 2011 and then got to the second round of the NCAA Tournament the next year.
That was good enough for me, so I joined the team in 2012, thinking I’d probably have a nice collegiate career and then I’d work somewhere in the business world. I did not expect in four years of play (after redshirting as a freshman) to get 121 wins, be named a first team All-Missouri Valley Conference player three times and make the Final Four. It was an unbelievable experience shared with great teammates and coaches.
When did you start thinking you could play in the NBA?
When we made the Final Four in my freshman year, the idea of playing professionally became real. Of course, every kid looks up to pro players and imagines being one, but there’s a big difference between that and seriously being able to do it. The Final Four appearance was the transition that made me see that the NBA was something I could do.
As a basketball player, do you appreciate the legacy of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden?
John Wooden was someone who was the best at what he did, but he was also a gracious human being. He was able to take a philosophy of life and use it to pursue excellence. That’s similar to what we were taught at Wichita State — not just to try to be great players, but to be great human beings.
We were encouraged to do three things a day that we knew were good to do but which we didn’t necessarily feel like doing. We were challenged to go beyond our comfort zone and give of ourselves. Some ways to do this are practicing basketball things on your own, without being told to do them by a coach, being respectful to someone when there was no respect shown to you, participating in a class discussion when you just want to sit silently in the back row — things that take a little extra effort.
Do you think being raised Catholic has made it easier for you to exercise discipline?
My parents raised me to treat others as you want to be treated. My mom, who was my third- and fourth-grade teacher, was especially big on that concept. Disrespectful behavior comes back to you in one form or another, and so does respectful behavior. It’s up to us to encourage one of those responses by our own decisions.
Doing what’s right is important, not only to give a good example to others, but for your own well-being. When playing basketball in high school I was always aware that others — including college scouts — were watching me. Yet I was also aware that God was watching me, so I tried to act in a way that honored him.
That’s the case off the court, too. God is always present to everything we do, so the idea that we can get away with things if no one else sees is silly. God knows us better than we know ourselves, so that throws our excuses out the window. He sets the rules in the Bible and gives us the ability to follow them by prayer and the sacraments.
None of us is ever going to get everything right, though. That’s why confession is so important. If someone is haunted by a sin, the Church has the right sacrament for its removal. The saving power of Jesus’ death on the cross is given to us through the confession and absolution of sin. This is described in John 20, when Jesus gave the apostles the power to forgive sins. Peace is mentioned three times, showing that contentment is a result of being freed from sin.
What do you appreciate most about being Catholic?
The family aspect of the faith might be the most important thing. Whenever I came home from college, Sunday was a day spent with my parents, brother and sister. We went to Mass at St. Joseph Church in Scott City and spent the rest of the day doing something together. Sunday was always family-oriented, and at Mass, it was especially so, not only because we were worshipping God together, but doing so with other people in our extended family of faith.
[The small size of] Scott City probably encourages the remembrance of God. New York City is obviously bigger, so it will take some getting used to, but I think there are still ways to maintain an interior silence and remembrance of God. I want to visit different churches in New York, including St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and get an idea of the culture and history there.
My major at Wichita State was finance, so New York is also interesting, from that standpoint. There are countless businesses in the city, so I hope to learn more about using capital to create jobs and give opportunities to people who otherwise wouldn’t have them.
Was there a tough time your faith got you through?
Earlier in college, when I was busy with basketball, my great-grandmother died unexpectedly. Even though she was quite old, she was healthy, so it was a deeply surprising thing. Even though we all have to die at some point, the possibility of her dying didn’t really cross my mind, so that was a tough thing to take.
One of the things that made it easier was Revelation 21:4. It says that God will wipe away every tear, death will no longer exist, and all pain will be gone, too. That’s a profound thing to think about when going through a painful situation. God’s loving power will bring about a totally new way of being that we can get a little sense of now in order to maintain hope in what he has in store for us.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle, Washington.
His book, Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015), contains numerous Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.