Baker Brings Small Town Toughness to Big City

Ron Baker isn’t in Kansas anymore, a fact he’s reminded of every time he looks up.

Baker was born in Utica, Kansas, a population of 158 as of the last U.S. Census report. Like most natives of the Great Plains that hail from small towns, Baker has his own system of finding his way. It doesn’t involve a GPS or a Smartphone; not even a map.

“In Kansas, you can always tell where you are at because you can always see the sun,’’ Baker told MSGNetworks.com. “Here in the city, because the buildings are so tall, you can’t tell where you’re at.

“And when you’re not from here, you don’t understand that the avenues run north and south and the streets run east and west. So it’s definitely overwhelming; obviously the size of everything. Everything is on top of one another. It’s very overwhelming.”

Baker is not accustomed to being overwhelmed. Overlooked? Certainly. Overwhelmed? No. He possesses the calm and friendliness common in the heartland.

“Ron loves to be with his friends and he has a lot of them,’’ his father Neil, a former basketball coach said. “He knows who he is.’’

Baker was raised in Scott City, Kansas, with a population of about 3,500 and two stop lights.

He led the Scott City high school basketball team to its first-ever Class 3A state title, putting back an offensive rebound at the buzzer for the game winner. Baker scored 26 points and grabbed nine rebounds.

He didn’t get a single college scholarship offer from a power conference school.

Kansas, the college program of his dreams where his idol Kirk Heinrich had played? Nope.

South Dakota St., Arkansas-Little Rock and Eastern Illinois were his options.

His mother, Ranae, a former basketball player and coach, wanted her son to dial down the expectations and play at Division II power Fort Hays State.

But Baker, 23, has always had an old soul’s insight: you don’t regret what you’ve done; you regret what you haven’t done.

When another in-state school, Wichita State, expressed interest, Baker didn’t even take an official visit. The Shockers were out of scholarships, but coach Gregg Marshall invited Baker to walk on.

In two years, the overlooked Ron Baker became the must-see Ron Baker.

In his redshirt freshman season, despite missing 10 games with a stress fracture in his foot, Baker helped lead the Shockers to the Final Four for only the second time in school history.

Wichita State won its first 35 games the following season before losing to Kentucky in an epic NCAA Tournament game.

The last win of his junior season was a 78-65 thrashing of Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.

“This was a game I dreamed about, but I dreamed about being on the other bench,” Baker said after the game. “I had to let loose my emotions and slap myself across my face that this was reality.”

This was a reality, too. Baker was named a second-team All-American as a senior.

“It was a wonderful experience but more than that, Ron learned from coach [Gregg] Marshall that if you want to be successful, surround yourself with successful people,’’ Neil Baker said. “He’s always been open to that. A very coachable player.’’

Unfortunately for Baker, that trait, in addition to toughness and basketball IQ, isn’t as highly valued as height, vertical jump and quickness in NBA scouting reports.

Projected to be a solid second-round NBA draft choice, Baker’s named was never called.

Overwhelmed? No. Overlooked? Yes.

“From high school to college was a very similar story as from college to the NBA,’’ Baker said. “I think that was a good thing for me. It helped me focus in that much more, work a little harder on places I need improvement.”

“And deep down I knew if I could play the best I could, regardless of whether I made the team or not, I would be satisfied with that because I put my best foot forward.”

Which is what Baker has been doing every day since the Knicks signed him to a free-agent deal. The Knicks, 14-10, after a 118-112 win over the Lakers on Sunday night – their sixth win in the last seven games – play at Phoenix Tuesday night.

Baker has only appeared in six of 24 games, but he knows there is a niche for himself in the NBA. In fact, he knows exactly who he wants to emulate –  Matthew Dellavedova, the tough-as-nails backup point guard for the Milwaukee Bucks.

“Right now I think being the next Dellavedova would be awesome,’’ Baker said. “I have a lot of respect for him and what he’s done in his years in the league.”

“For me, I’m just trying to be a system guy. That’s kind of what Dellavedova does – runs his team, is a good communicator on both ends of the court. Little things like communication, defense, those type of things on the basketball court are every important. I’m trying to hang my hat on those.’’

Tyronn Lue, who coached Dellavedova last season when the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA title, smiled when he was told of Baker’s goal.

“He played hard every single night,’’ Lue said of Dellavedova. “And he was a great teammate also. When he wasn’t playing, he was up cheering.”

“He was a hard-nosed player. That’s what guys like about him, cause when he stepped on the floor, you knew what you were going to get every single night. There’s always going to be a spot for guys like that.’’

Baker looks every bit the Midwestern farm boy, which belies his toughness. He played quarterback in high school and did get some interest from Division I schools. He was a terrific shortstop and a pitcher with a nasty slider.

But he was 5-foot-8 and about 120 pounds as a high school freshman.

“After his freshman year in high school, we knew he was a very good baseball player,’’ said his mother Ranae. “He had a better build and height for baseball.”

“But he said, ‘Mom, I really love playing basketball.’ I said, ‘Well, you better figure it out.’ I thought he was too little. As a youngster, he was on the puny side. But he grew and not a day went by when he wasn’t working on his game.’’

Baker had grown to a solid 6-foot-3 by his junior year in high school. ‘Puny’ was gone. Basketball was all in.

Baker committed to Wichita State and insisted on redshirting so he could gain confidence. Baker got that, he said, of the Shockers’ Final Four run when they beat Pittsburgh, No.1-seed Gonzaga (Baker scored 16 points on 4-of-6 shooting on 3’s, six rebounds, four assists and one steal), La Salle and Ohio State.

Now he’s writing the next chapter, literally. After graduating from Wichita State, Baker authored an illustrated children’s book, ‘You’re Too Big to Dream Small.’

So here he is, from Scott City (two stop lights) to New York City (bright lights), working to make sure that his dream continues.

He has been astounded by the amount of individual work that an NBA player puts in. He’s learning about recovery methods and, for the first time in his life, he has individual video clips of himself that break down every facet of the game.

“I’ve got a coaching staff that believes in me, so that helps me come in every day, enjoy my job, work hard,’’ Baker said. “There’s things that we’re doing here that I’ve never done before. I like that because it’s a challenge to me.”

“But I think if you play really good defense in this league, there’s always a spot for you. That’s something I’ve always tried to hang my hat on.’’

Baker doesn’t look up much these days. He looks ahead.