Wednesday, April 13th, 2011 at 10:58 am  |  19 responses

The Curious Case of Vin Baker

SLAM 148: Vin Baker returned to the game by coaching freshmen at his alma mater.

Yesterday, we ran a video of Vin Baker giving a halftime lecture to a group of high school freshmen, whom the former All-Star is currently coaching at Old Saybrook High School. Here’s the full feature that ran in SLAM 148, which is on newsstands right now. —Ed.

Vin Baker

by Zack Burgess

“Don’t worry, he’s coming.”

I am waiting for a fallen member of the basketball elite. I’m in an SUV with Abel Mason, business manager to this former NBA All-Star, and two other guys I have never met. I am nervous. Not because of the company, but because of the uncertainty. It wouldn’t be the first time Vinnie Baker stood me up. Or let me down.

After three years of searching, I finally found this guy. Once or twice a year I reached out to his parents and gave them what I thought was an awesome sales pitch, on how people wanted to hear his story. The response on the other end of the phone was always: “Yeah, right. Talk to you later.”

Now it was actually happening. Does he look the same? Is he as funny as the guy I traveled with 15 years ago? Are all the rumors and innuendo about the squandering of millions true? Has he—and does he really want to—put his life back on track? Is he really an alcoholic? Good, bad or indifferent—how is his psyche?

Finally a black Jaguar pulls into the parking lot. And there through the glass I see Vin Baker. As my anticipation grows, he steps out of the car, all 6-11 of him. His eyes are clear, his skin is fine and he smiles as if he has never had a bad day. He looks as if he could put on a uniform today and go out and post what was once a usual line for him: 20 points and 10 rebounds. But the reality is this: He can’t.

On this late-winter afternoon, Baker is a long way from the NBA, the All-Star team, the Olympic team, the $86-million contract and the innocent young man who left the University of Hartford in ’93 as the eighth overall pick of the Milwaukee Bucks. He was here to talk about how he had put his life back on track with the same focus and vision that once made him a household name. Life had actually kicked Baker’s ass since he left the NBA, and he was here to answer the questions that everyone wanted to know: What happened?

“I think I experienced success way too fast,” Baker says. “I’m a tremendous competitor, which obviously got me to where I wanted to be as a basketball player. I wanted to get to the NBA, and I got there, but success came very fast for me. Once I experienced it, I think I kind of lost my lust for it. Not to say that I didn’t compete every night, but making the All-Star team four times in five years—after being cut from the basketball team in high school in the ninth grade—was overnight success. Within a span of eight years, I was an NBA All-Star. That’s a tremendous jump for anybody. It’s not exactly the Michael Jordan story, but it’s a story. I don’t know if I was necessarily ready to handle the success that God had given me at the time.”

By the time the Celtics acquired Baker from his second team, the Seattle SuperSonics, in July of ’02, he was already damaged goods. There had been roughly four years of binge drinking; he was out of control. Baker went from NBA All-Star to sparingly used backup center. In February of 2003, Baker was suspended after then-coach of the Boston Celtics Jim O’Brien smelled alcohol on his breath. It marked the beginning of the end of Baker’s career in the NBA. At the insistence of the Celtics, Baker sought treatment. He checked into Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, CT, for a 28-day rehabilitation program. From there it was on to 10 weeks of supervised outpatient therapy, with daily visits and testing at Silver Hill.

Someone should go to Springfield and chisel into the steps leading up to the Hall of Fame the names of the great players whose bodies failed them at the very moment they seemed assured of a spot inside. Penny Hardaway, Bernard King, Ralph Sampson, Grant Hill, Antonio McDyess, Tracy McGrady, Andrew Toney and Yao Ming are players who come to mind. Given that it is classified as a disease, should alcoholism be considered as devastating an injury as the ones that afflicted those players? Should Baker be accorded the same sympathy and concern?

When I run across people with incredible talents that only God could have given them, I can’t help but wonder how something so special could get so messed up. How does a multimillion-dollar athlete have his house foreclosed and owe over a million in back taxes? I don’t completely buy the drugs and alcohol excuse. Because there are those who drink and get high to their heart’s content, yet somehow they hold it together. Maybe it’s just bad decisions. Maybe, in the NBA, sometimes nice guys finish broke.

“I can’t say,” says Ray Allen. The Celtics sharpshooter played with Baker in Milwaukee and on the ’00 Olympic team that won Gold in Sydney. “I never really saw a change in him. He had pretty much been in a small town his whole life. And then going from the University of Hartford to Milwaukee, it was probably the best thing that could have happened to him, like it was for me coming into the NBA, because you didn’t have the trappings of NBA life that exist in other cities.”

When you talk to Baker and the people around him, it becomes painfully clear that his time with the SuperSonics was a turning point. You see, nobody likes to be traded. There’s a new coach, new system, new teammates and a new city to learn all over again. People, especially athletes, are creatures of habit. And Baker was no different.

“The worst thing to happen to him was going to Seattle,” agrees Allen. “As much as Seattle is a great city, I think the company he kept with him in Seattle wasn’t good for him. He was playing at such an All-Star caliber level. He went from being the best forward in the League at that time—even with Karl Malone in the NBA—to just being non-existent. You know, he was still a young man, and any nightlife activity that he was partaking in, the consumption of alcohol, you expect that to go along with the lifestyle. He was making great money, traveling to so many cities. That’s a part of [being an NBA star]…I think there was a point where he just let it consume him.”

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  • Jacqueline Mitchell

    So happy to see Vin looking healthy and focused.

  • http://Philosophervision@blogspot.com The Philosopher

    Great piece.
    Another situation that had weighed heavily on Baker is that he had a child out of wedlock. He felt like he had went against how he was raised, and he felt like he disappointed his family.
    That’s when the drinking got really bad.
    At least, this is what I’ve heard.

  • http://Philosophervision@blogspot.com The Philosopher

    And, shout out to Old Saybrook High School for giving him a job.

  • francis

    Bobcats should hire him. Even MJ launched a shoe for him Jordan Strong. Inspiring Comeback Story.

  • ernied

    best thing that could have happened to him was to give back, and help kids just getting started. Shows there is a good heart inside that giant beast of a man.

  • ernied

    Antoine Walker… are you listening?

  • http://www.slamonline.com Nima Zarrabi

    Great piece, Zack. Glad you never gave up on the search.

  • Rollie Fings

    Pretty good piece, but I must have missed the part where you explained what actually happened to him. Seattle lost in the second round, Baker was depressed, he drank too much, and suddenly he lost millions? This doesn’t actually give any of the story of what happened to him in his waning years in the NBA, nor does it talk about what he’s been doing since then (other than the restaurant investment).

  • Mike

    Great piece!

    I think the main thing is that Vin was able to get his life together. Apparently he didn’t catch a case, as he wouldn’t be able to coach kids.

    For him to give back at the basic, purest part of the game, when he had reached the highest, impurest stage, is absolutely wonderful. It lets you know not all NBAers are egotistical jerks.

  • Chilli

    This is a great piece! I played with him at Hartford and know him to be one of the best kind hearted people I know. I hope he stays on track and with God I know he will. Please don’t speak negative when you really don’t know or care about him!!!

  • Alonza Robertson

    Very good story. Good job Zack. Best wishes to Mr. Baker.

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  • Ryan

    I’d been wondering and I’m glad to read that Vin is okay. Thanks to the author for his long search and quality writing.

  • Milton

    this is a genuinely good guy. I have had the pleasure of meeting this young man and we have talked about the pressure of being a PK. You see even after the Newt Rockney speech, that lovable funny guy still made it to the clip.

  • Griff

    Thanks Zack, for a nice piece on a really good guy who has had his struggles but seems in a really good place right now. Good luck Vin and God Bless You

  • http://Slam Xavier cllllf

    I spend a lot of time with vin throughout the good and bad matter what you say vinnie is a good with a great heart I was there for him when he had it all and when had nothing. And today still by his side like a big brother to!! God bless you vinnie Love you bra!!!!!

  • http://britocenter.myqivana.com/business/opportunity.html Derick S Brito

    I loved this write up about Vin Baker. I am a Correctional Supervisor who is nearing retirement and am currently seeking influential people from the area to become partnered with in a business venture that is quietly sweeping the nation and the world. I believe Vin Baker could be a superstar in this business. Either Quietly or openly depending on how he would like to proceed. I have tried to find him or contact people who could tell me how to no avail. If anyone can. Please get this message to him so I can touch base with him before the major opportunity that is currently in place dissipates. As a fellow Ct native, I would love to partner with another winner! Please get this message to him if you can. Thank you and God Bless.

  • pj

    I was a huge Vin Baker fan. It was sad to see his downfall, hopefully he gained wisdon and will continue to move forward. I sent him a card to sign in the 90′s and he returned it signed.

  • Patrick

    I am so glad to see that Vin is finding his way back. I was branded as a Vin Baker apologist for a few years in Seattle because I always felt that there was so much more there than we were getting to see. As a youth coach, I know that a coach with a good heart can do so much more for young men than just make them better players. He can teach them to be better men. That is a worthy calling, and I am still in his corner cheering him on.