SCOTT CITY, Kan. — It is hard to imagine a place less like Madison Square Garden than the cement slab where Ron Baker spent countless hours honing his game in high school.
This is a visitor’s first impression as the Knicks guard gives a tour of the court his father poured in the front yard of the house where he grew up. Baker and his siblings’ names are etched into the concrete. There is an old tractor parked across the street and a cornfield just a few blocks away.
Agriculture, family and sports are infused into every corner of this remote farm town in western Kansas. Scott City has two traffic lights, eight churches, 3,890 residents and about 150,000 beef cattle. The tallest structure in town is the grain elevator and the most important is the football stadium, which looks like something straight out of Friday Night Lights.
“Every small-town cliché you hear, it’s legit for me,” said Baker, who was a three-sport star — quarterback, basketball forward and baseball pitcher — at Scott Community High School.
The visitor has come to western Kansas to see if she can figure out how Baker was able to leave it, to figure out what in Baker’s makeup gave him the confidence that he could play significant minutes for a storied NBA franchise in the biggest city in the country.
No American-born player since John Starks has made a more improbable journey to Madison Square Garden. Baker, who paid his own tuition as a redshirt freshman at Wichita State, is believed to be the first college walk-on to play for the Knicks since Starks started 10 games in 1990-91. Now, after 52 games, including 13 starts in his rookie season, the Knicks are giving him a significant role in their rebuild. Last month, he agreed to a two-year contract reportedly worth $8.9 million.
“I look at Ron as a guy who can play both guard positions,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said last week. “He’s not the traditional point guard where he can blow by you and use his speed to get around you. He does it with strength. The game of basketball isn’t always about speed. If you know angles and create openings, you can make a lot of plays.
“Ron’s a tough kid and plays hard and does whatever you ask. Those are guys who have a chance to grow as players. We feel Ron is just at the tip of it with what he can do out there on the court.”
Knicks fans certainly hope so. Given that it was unclear if Baker, a restricted free agent, had drawn interest from other teams, there were a few raised eyebrows when the contract was reported.
Those who know Baker say having to prove himself is not a problem. He thrives on it, given that he is a player who has been underestimated every step of his career.
“He’s never been afraid of that big stage,” said Brian Gentry, who coached Baker in football and basketball at Scott Community High School. “When he was young, he was never afraid to step in with older kids. The fear of failure never seemed to bother him no matter where he was coming from.”
Playing sports in Scott City once seemed like the big time for Baker. Before moving there in middle school, he lived 50 miles to the east in Utica, where his father’s family owns a 6,000-acre wheat farm. With a population of 152 people, Utica is a city only in name. Not only does it not have a traffic light, it doesn’t have paved roads. In elementary school, Baker never had more than six students in his class.
Like other kids in Utica, Baker helped out on the farm. He talks about agricultural equipment and crop rotation in the same offhanded, familiar manner that kids on Long Island talk about summer camp and trips to the beach. When he wasn’t working or in school, Baker played every sport he could. The nearest basketball court was at a park several miles outside of town.
The Bakers are an athletic family. Baker’s mother, Ranae, played volleyball, basketball and softball on scholarship at St. Mary of the Plains College. Ron’s father, Neil, played baseball at Fort Hays State University. Ron played everything growing up and always wanted to win.
“He’s very, very competitive,” Ranae said. “When he didn’t win when he was little, he would pout. It didn’t matter if it was a board game or whatever.”
In western Kansas, they seem to be able to turn just about anything into a competition. Take the Scott County Free Fair held in July. In addition to carnival rides, chocolate waffle booths and livestock contests, there’s a zucchini-growing event, a table-setting competition, something called cow-pie bingo and a hay bale decorating contest. First prize this year in the hay contest went to a bale that was decorated to look like Ron Baker holding a basketball.
Baker permanently cemented his status as a local celebrity by scoring the winning basket in the championship game of the 3A state tournament his senior year.
Baker had long dreamed of playing college basketball at the University of Kansas, but he didn’t draw even a passing interest from Division I teams until the summer before his senior year, when he began playing AAU ball in Wichita, 233 miles away.
Part of the problem was his size. Baker, a late bloomer, was 5-9 and 140 pounds when he entered high school. But also, Scott City is so remote that even the people who live there consider it hard to get to.
“We have had good athletes who went through Scott City,” Gentry said. “Getting the right people out here in the stands to see what they’re made of is kind of the hard part being out here in the middle of nowhere.”
Baker almost committed to play at Fort Hays State, a Division II school, before his senior year. His mother liked the idea of him playing close to home, but on the way home from the visit, he told her he thought he had the talent to play on a higher level.
“I just don’t think we ever knew how good he was. And I think he did,” Ranae said. “I don’t know that I knew what he was capable of. But Ron knew and he had to go with how he felt.”
It was Baker’s hair, not his game, that first caught the eye of Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall the summer before his senior year when he was playing at an elite camp at the school. Baker permed his hair for his senior class picture in homage to his father, who had done the same thing in high school.
“I kept telling my staff there’s something about that kid with the curly hair that intrigues me,” Marshall said, adding with a laugh that he wasn’t intrigued enough to make the trip to Scott City to see him play.
Marshall told his assistants to keep an eye on Baker and they started a dialogue with the family. He finally saw Baker play in the state championship game and offered him a chance for a scholarship and a spot on the team if he could pay his own way his first year.
Baker took the gamble, and it paid off. Marshall recalls that midway through his redshirt year. teammates were coming to his office to say “the blond kid has to play.” The next year he was given a scholarship and in 2013 helped lead the Shockers to their first Final Four since 1965. There was another Sweet 16 appearance two years later.
Baker finished his college career with averages of 13.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while impressing NBA scouts with his strong body, smart decisions and jump shot.
Scott City rallied behind him and the Baker family. The town held fundraisers so the Baker family could afford to travel to NCAA Tournaments. The mayor declared March 28, 2013, to be Ron Baker Day and a parade was held to celebrate his Final Four appearance.
BOND WITH HORNACEK
Though Baker went undrafted, he worked out for 14 NBA teams and ultimately picked the Knicks, where he slid on to the roster after Chasson Randle broke an orbital bone in training camp. He moved to White Plains, where he lives in a high rise that has more residents than Utica, and he jokes that one of his biggest accomplishments was learning to drive to training camp without his GPS.
Hornacek, who also was undrafted out of college, immediately recognized some of himself in Baker, who eventually became part of his regular rotation.
“We were both guys who weren’t supposed to play and had goofy haircuts,” Hornacek said. “There are some parallels. When I came into the league, I didn’t think I’d play at all when I made the team. John MacLeod was my coach in Phoenix and he saw I played the smart way. I may not have been the fastest guy or the strongest guy or the highest jumper, but I did things that the coach wanted to see. I got the ball to the star guys. Ron came in doing the same thing, and that’s what made him earn minutes with us.”
Baker’s elaborate and enthusiastic handshakes from the bench made him a favorite of his teammates, who nicknamed him Ron Burgundy after the Will Ferrell character in “Anchorman.’’ Baker’s hustle quickly made him a favorite with Knicks fans. By mid-December, fans were chanting his name to try to get him into a game.
“It was overwhelming at first,” Baker said of hearing his name. “I felt like they were baiting me a bit, but then I found out they actually did like me and it wasn’t a joke. New York fans like toughness and grittiness and hustle. That’s the system I grew up in. After a while, I was like, this is pretty cool.”
Pretty cool? Those who know Baker best aren’t surprised that things are working out for him in the big city. Said Gentry: “He’s always been someone you could put at the kids’ table or the adult table and he would fit right in. He has a way of figuring things out.”