I meet the kid in a conference room in a corner of the Sports Center. He certainly has the NBA size, tall and slender. He is trying to add weight and has picked up 17 pounds since the end of last season. He is young, turning 21 on Nov. 23, so there is a chance he will grow in various ways. He remembers that when he was in eighth grade, a 6-foot guard, he told his friends that he was going to grow to be seven feet tall and play in the NBA. His friends laughed. He will probably fulfill both predictions.
He was able to learn the skills of a ball handler, a passer, before his body suddenly took him from the backcourt to the front-court. He was cut from the varsity as a sophomore in high school, on the bench as a junior and a small-school all-stater as a 6'8" center in his senior year.
His history is suburban, almost rural. How good is he? Even he has had trouble answering the question. He grew up in Old Saybrook, a quiet little town along the Connecticut coast. He was one of the few black kids in the town, "not so much a chocolate chip environment, but more like one chip in a big box of vanilla ice cream," in his memory. No problem. The big sporting events were soccer games and field hockey games, the stuff in television commercials for station wagons. Basketball? It was never an overriding concern.
"I remember we'd go down to the YMCA to play." he says. "There'd be mostly older guys on the court. You'd work on a move and try it. The older guys just wouldn't react to what you did. You'd have to ask yourself. Did I get past them because of the move? Or did I get past because they couldn't move?"
The biggest tests came in the summers. His dad, James, is an auto mechanic and a Baptist minister. His mother, Jean, works at the Chesebrough-Pond's factory. He is an only child. In the summers the family would visit his mother's relatives for a month or so in Lake Wales, Fla. This was a black environment, a basketball environment, playground games played all day and into the night. He would appear each year, magically taller, bigger and better, this cousin from the North. He would have a summer of funk, then go back to the station wagons in the fall.
"The games in high school...they were like something out of Hoosiers" Baker says. "The teams we played, a lot of the kids were still wearing those Chuck Taylor sneakers. We played all small schools. In my senior year the centers I played against were mostly 6'2", something like that. The centers that I played against would be guards if they were playing college."
The interest in a small-school all-state center was not great. For two years he had gone to the summer camp run by University of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, but Calhoun wasn't particularly charmed. Maybe...if we don't get a commitment from this other kid. Maybe. Rhode Island showed some interest. Northeastern. Hartford was the one constant. Hartford wanted him. O.K., he wanted Hartford.
"I want the education, the degree," Baker says. "Hartford has been very good for me. It's close to home. I suppose if you went to one of those big schools, those basketball schools, that the competition would be better every day, but this is line."
His numbers have risen with each season, All departments. Last season—the abysmal team season—was a personal challenge. Three projected starters were injured and missed all or most of the year. He was asked to do things he had never done. He sometimes dribbled the ball up the court. He shot the three-pointer. He picked off 9.9 rebounds per game to go with his 27.6 points and 3.7 blocked shots. In a 78-73 overtime win over Lamar, he scored 44 points, blocked 10 shots and had 15 rebounds.
There were thoughts, whispers, that he might enter the NBA draft, one tout sheet listing him as the possible 13th pick, but he decided to stay at Hartford. The injured starters will return this season. The new coach, Brazeau, has brought that new coach's intensity to the proceedings. Baker figures he can work on the skills the NBA will want on his own time. He will work with the skills his team needs, under the basket, playing center, in the games. How good is he? He will give everyone else a chance to find out. He will give himself a chance to find out.