Another Knicks Novelty: Ron Baker's Journey from Farm to Madison Square Garden

Yaron WeitzmanFeatured ColumnistFebruary 3, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - DECEMBER 22:  Ron Baker #31 of the New York Knicks in action against the Orlando Magic at Madison Square Garden on December 22, 2016 in New York City. Knicks defeated the Magic 106-95.  (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Mike Stobe/Getty Images

NEW YORK — New York Knicks guard Ron Baker takes his craft seriously. Like an artist attacking a canvas, every one of his moves is premeditated, every wave meticulously planned out.

It's not easy, after all, to choreograph a personalized handshake with nearly a dozen teammates.

Take, for example, the ones Baker wields with center Marshall Plumlee.

"We changed it during the holidays," Baker said. "For Christmas we had a present handshake; for New Year's we had a ball drop. Now we're trying to decide if we should do something for Valentine's Day, but I don't know what."

His favorite handshake, he said, is the one he and teammate Kristaps Porzingis use when embracing. It begins with two palm slaps. Then they mime making a three-pointer, which is followed by two backhand slaps, which is followed by Baker pretending to build a bomb with his hands and Porzingis "putting some black powder into it," which is followed by a one-second pause…and then three more backhand slaps, representing the plethora of three-point bombs they intend to drop on opponents.

"It's a lot, and you can forget it, but we play so many games you get them down," Baker said. "It's a great way to have some fun and show that you have guys on your team that you enjoy being around."

Sometimes Baker pretends to peer through a gun scope after a teammate drains a long jumper. But mostly he flashes these handshakes immediately following pregame introductions as he makes his way from half court down the sideline toward his usual spot on the end of the Knicks bench.

Over the past month, though, he's been spending increasingly less time in that seat. In a season that seems to have gone awry, the 23-year-old Baker has emerged as one of the few bright spots for the 22-29 Knicks.

"Ron just competes. He's in the right spot, almost all the time," Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said earlier this month. "If he's supposed to be on the weak side digging or helping out, he's there. If he's supposed to bump a roller, he does it, hustles back out to his man.

"He's a very solid player and you saw he's not afraid of anything...he's a confident player."

Baker, who went undrafted after graduating from Wichita State last year and was signed by the Knicks prior to the 2016 NBA Summer League, is averaging a solid 10.7 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.4 assists per 36 minutes, per Basketball-Reference.com. But it's his willingness to use his body on defense and drift into the background while initiating the team's offense that has struck a contrast to the headstrong styles of Brandon Jennings and Derrick Rose, and endeared him to his new head coach.

Baker has played in just 24 of the Knicks' 51 games, but they've outscored their opponents by four points per 100 possessions in the 287 minutes he's seen the floor. His bursts of competence and, at times, brilliance earned him a guaranteed contract in the second week of January and could thrust him into a larger role as the Knicks continue to search for ways to ignite their offense while simultaneously slowing opponents on the other end. 

And to think, Baker may owe all this success to his old perm.

These days, Baker's dirty blond hair is straight and floppy. It falls down over his ears and forehead, like Scooby-Doo's friend Shaggy's. In fact, Shaggy is one of the two nicknames Baker's teammates use for him. The other? Ron Burgundy.

But back when he was just a skinny high school kid from tiny Scott City, Kansas (population as of 2013: 3,889), Ron, the oldest of Neil and Ranae Baker's three children, grew out his hair to pay homage to a picture he found of his dad and uncle in an old yearbook. 

"The older you get, the harder it is to remember names, especially when you see hundreds of kids out on the recruiting trail," Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall, who coached Baker for four seasons, told Bleacher Report.

"Physical features help jog your memory. Ron's play always stood out, but his hair is what I used to reference him."

Baker went to high school in Scott City but grew up 48 miles east in the even smaller Utica, a city (at least officially it's considered one) with a minuscule population of 157. He never had more than five or six kids in his childhood classes. He'd spend summers helping his dad harvest wheat on the family farm. He honed his basketball skills at a park a few miles away, but because there were never enough kids to divide into sides, he'd often grab a couple of friends and play the pickup game, 21.

"All the small-town cliches, those are legit with me," Baker said. 

There are more modern-day, small-town, Larry Bird-esque notes as well (so many that this past summer, a publisher commissioned Baker to write a children's book about his life). He was a natural athlete: a deadeye golfer, a star quarterback and a stud baseball player. His dad, a teacher, was his coach; Baker's mom teaches kindergarten. His skills quickly surpassed those of the few boys around him; Baker had to travel to a rec center in Scott City to find competition until the family moved there when he was in high school.

Still, it took some time for him to catch the eyes of major college basketball programs like Wichita State. Though he's now 6'4" and 220 pounds, Baker entered high school as a 5'9", 140-pound skeleton and didn't fill out until his senior year. He garnered some interest from less-than-mid-majors like South Dakota and Arkansas Little Rock, and the local junior colleges, too.

But it wasn't until his junior year that Marshall—thanks to a recruiting camp ran by Wichita State the summer before Baker's senior year—caught wind of the local guard who was running circles around everyone in his small Kansas town.

Baker walked on to Wichita State's basketball team as a freshman. The next year he was given a scholarship and helped lead the Shockers to their first Final Four since 1965. There was another Sweet 16 appearance two years later. Baker finished his collegiate career with averages of 13.2 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while impressing NBA scouts with his strong body, silky jump shot and shrewd play.

He became a hero in Scott City, where March 28, 2013, was known as Ron Baker Day. He was a beloved figure throughout the region, particularly among members of the opposite sex. 

"I had a few inquiries from females, women who'd call the office and say something like, 'My daughter is a senior, she's really tall,'" Marshall recalled. "That became pretty commonplace. And there were some older ladies, too.

"I told Ron and he said, 'Coach, what you're getting is tame.'"

These days, in his new home of New York, Baker no longer has to worry about having one of the more recognizable faces around and constantly being courted because of it. Being in a big city, though, has brought on a host of new difficulties. 

"The first couple of times I pulled up to the MSG parking lot and told the security guard I was a player, the guy did a double time and seemed skeptical," Baker said.  

"But now when they see my Hyundai Sonata roll in, they know who it is and that business is coming."

He then proudly rattled off the names of the highways he takes from his home in White Plains—a suburb about 45 minutes north of Manhattan—to MSG. It was hard, he noted, to learn how to avoid the reckless cab drivers and biking delivery boys ("They're everywhere") and also figuring out how to navigate to work without his preferred compass. 

"In Kansas, you base all directions on where the sun is—it's something you just naturally do," Baker said. "Here, sometimes you can't see the sun because of the buildings and I'll be like, 'I don't know where I am.'"

Baker is routinely among the first Knicks players out on the floor before games, where he can be seen three hours before tipoff working with assistant coaches Joshua Longstaff and Dave Bliss on pick-and-roll reads and other point guard fundamentals. (Baker was a shooting guard in college.) All that sweat, coupled with his sarcastic and gregarious personality, has made him a favorite among teammates.

"Sometimes when I walk into the locker room, Carmelo (Anthony) will start talking like a cowboy and be like, 'You from Kaaansaas, home of James Naaaaismith,'" Baker said with a drawl. "It's gotten more hysterical as I've gotten to know the guys."

Fans, too, are finding themselves drawn to Baker, the latest NBA bench player to morph into a crowd-pleaser. Games at MSG now regularly include calls from fans—no doubt yearning for a second coming of Linsanity, or at least a new Langston Galloway—for Hornacek to put Baker in the game. A loud ovation frequently greets the announcing of his name. Subtle chants of "M-V-P" can occasionally be heard when he steps up to the foul line.

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 31: Ron Baker #31 of the New York Knicks reacts after being fouled and scoring a basket against the Washington Wizards during the first half at Verizon Center on January 31, 2017 in Washington, DC. NOTE TO USER: User expressly ack
Patrick Smith/Getty Images

But for now, Baker said, he's just focused on getting better, on learning how to appreciate how far he's come while still yearning for more. He's also enjoying staying up to date on the latest episodes of Vampire Diaries and Supernatural, and it's there where he feels that his newfound celebrity might actually be of most use.

"I'm a big C-Dub guy," Baker said, referring to the CW Network.

"I like how they combine drama with a lot of sarcastic acting. Hopefully this article can give those shows some good press."  

    

All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats unless otherwise noted from NBA.com and accurate as of Thursday, Feb 2.

Yaron Weitzman covers the Knicks, and other things, for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman and listen to his Knicks-themed podcast here