I follow the directions through an intricate maze. I enter the campus of the University of Hartford at the gate at 200 Bloomfield Avenue. I am at the top of a road shaped like a figure eight, and the Sports Center is at the bottom. I ride over assorted speed bumps and weave through all the activities of college life, past classroom buildings and dormitories and a special display of a crashed automobile of indeterminate make that has been left on a lawn to illustrate the terrors of drunken driving. I reach the Sports Center when I can reach nothing else, when I run out of real estate.
Here. This is where Vin Baker plays basketball.
I enter the modern brick building with only the sketchiest background information packed into my briefcase. Height: 6'11". Weight: 232 pounds. Year: senior. I know that Baker was the second-leading Division I scorer in the nation a year ago, fifth in blocked shots. I know his team finished an abysmal 6-21 in the decidedly low-powered North Atlantic Conference. I do not know much else. I am like the school's new coach, 33-year-old Paul Brazeau. I hadn't heard about this kid until recently.
"No, I didn't know he was here until I applied for the job," Brazeau, an assistant at Ohio State for the past five years, says. "I read up on the school, talked to some people before I came for the interview, so I heard soon enough—but before that? I didn't know who Vin Baker was."
I imagine the conversation. Brazeau asks someone about the team he might inherit. The abysmal 6-21 record is mentioned. Brazeau grunts. He asks about returning players. Baker is mentioned. A potential All-America. Potential All-America? A potential lottery pick in the NBA draft. Lottery pick? A center who made 41 three-point field goals last year. What? I imagine the smile starting to creep across Brazeau's face.
How good is this kid? He is supposed to be this year's word-of-mouth wonder, a fine winter rumor. Visions of Scottie Pippen at Central Arkansas and Dennis Rodman at Southeastern Oklahoma State and John Stockton at Gonzaga hang lightly in the gymnasium air. The scouts seem to know all about Baker; a year ago at least eight of them followed the figure eight through the snow to pick up credentials to watch him play. It is the rest of us who are in the basketball dark.
"It's like turning back the clock," Brazeau says. "Back to the '50s. If you want to see Vin Baker play, you have to sec him live. It's like seeing Elgin Baylor or Jerry West in college. You have to go to the game. Did Frank Selvy really score those 100 points in a game for Furman? Only the people who were in the gym know for sure."
There will be no national television for Hartford unless somehow it goes from last to first and wins its league and moves along to the NCAA tournament. There will be only one regional TV shot, on pay cable. The kid will be out of position, really, playing in the middle when he is projected as a forward, maybe even a small forward, in the pros. He will be double-teamed and triple-teamed, caught in the web of defensive gimmicks every night. How can he really show what he can do? A projection. He will be a definite projection.
"How good is he?" I ask Brazeau.
"It's crazy, but I still haven't seen him play," Brazeau says, because this is before Nov. 1, the date when practice begins. "I've watched films, of course, but I haven't been able to watch him play basketball live. That's the NCAA rule. Crazy. He is playing here every day, and I can't watch."