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."
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.
"Right now I have a better idea than I've ever had," he says. "I'm confident about playing with anyone in the country. I'm going to work for it. I want it because I feel it's very close."
We talk about other parts of the future. He is a junior deacon in his father's church and sings in the choir. He would not mind being a singer and a minister and a basketball player like Terry Cummings of the San Antonio Spurs.
We talk about the overpowering presence of the University of Connecticut in his state. He says people will ask him if he has actually met Scott Burrell or Donyell Marshall or any of the other UConn kids, as if that were an important basketball fact. We talk about obscurity.
"Just let me say this," Baker says at the end. "Thank you for taking the time to come here and talk with me. It means a lot."
"Really. Thank you again."
I make some calls a few days later. I talk with Calhoun, the UConn coach. I talk with Marty Blake, the NBA superscout. I read some quotes from the Boston Celtics' Kevin McHale, who played against Baker at a camp during the summer. McHale thinks Baker can play in the NBA. I talk with Bakers lather, the minister and mechanic. He says his son's point guard shooting range is returning now that he's a big man. I talk with Walter Luckett, a family friend. Luckett, a Connecticut high school whiz who went to Ohio University and was on the cover of the SI college basketball preview issue 20 years ago, left school early for the pros. He was a second-round pick of the Detroit Pistons in 1975 but injured a knee and never played much. He says he encouraged Baker to stay in school.
How good is this kid? Everyone says he is very good.
"I was looking up our report on him just the other day, the report when he was in high school," Calhoun says. "We had him rated as three plus, which is a low major-college rating. He was 6'5", 6'6", but you couldn't project those extra four or five inches into him. Now? I'd like to see him very much in our lineup. He has quick feet, and he's an intuitively bright kid. You can say he loses things by playing where he's playing, but it's not all bad."
"He's not a sleeper," Blake says. "Don't call him a sleeper. He's a household name as far as the NBA is concerned. We've known about him for four years. I saw him when he had the shoulders of a nine-year-old. Now he's filling out. He can run the court, he can shoot the basketball, he should be an NBA player."
Alone in a room, I type out all the quotes, catalog all the predictions. The spoken word, the winter rumor, gains substance. The mystery star. The hidden gem. The best player nobody knows exists. I suppose it all is true. I wish him well. I also wish I had seen him play.
Soon Hartford students won't be able to keep the word about Baker from getting out.
Baker, who canned 41 three-pointers last season, is just as happy going to the hoop.