ST. LOUIS Ron Baker an introvert?
Thats one of the words Wichita State assistant basketball coach Chris Jans uses to describe the Shockers 6-foot-3 sophomore from Scott City. And Baker himself doesnt deny his more sedate side.
I keep to myself around people I dont know, Baker said. When Im with my friends, Im pretty outgoing. I like to think Im funny every now and then.
Life is crazy for Baker and the rest of the Shockers, as you might imagine. An unbeaten season so far creates craziness, especially when it happens on the heels of a Final Four run last season.
And Baker, with his mop-top blond hair and devilish grin, is arguably the most popular of the Shockers.
People love his story as a former walk-on who paid his way to Wichita State the first year only to become a star of stars on one of the nations best teams.
Baker is one of those people who win people over immediately. He is down to earth, though he feels the forces as they attempt to lift him to the mother ship and zoom off toward outer space.
Its pretty tough to have a normal life right now, said Baker, who averages 13.1 points and has played through an ankle injury. A lot of eyes are on you and you can hardly go anywhere.
Baker did make it out to Hartman Arena last week to watch his brother, Sloan, play in the Class 4A-Division I tournament. Even that was dicey.
A lot of people were watching me eat my hot dog rather than watching my brother play basketball, Baker said. Its kind of tough going places, but thats a good thing. I guess.
Baker gets it. Fans come out of the woodwork for a team that is doing what the Shockers are doing. Hes easily recognizable.
People love Ron Baker. And he loves them back. But it doesnt necessarily come naturally.
Rons definitely on the quiet side, Jans said. Hes got a good sense of humor and all that, but hes not a life-of-the-party guy. Hes not going to be in the middle of scrums or doing the chants. He leads by example more than he does with any verbage.
Baker is a small-town guy and spent the first 10 years-or-so of his life in a town even smaller than Scott City, a booming metropolis compared to Utica, a town in Ness County with a population of 158 (according to the 2010 census).
Growing up, I did just about anything, Baker said. No cops.
Theres that sense of humor again. Baker is at ease in front of the media and his teammates gravitate toward him. His popularity didnt come by accident. Hes popular because, well, hes likeable.
Yeah, hes quite the favorite of a lot of people, but especially young ladies and some older ladies as well, Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. I get texts and e-mails regularly, on at least a weekly basis, about their daughter usually theres a story involved and they would like for Ron to have lunch with them or sign something and send it to them or go to the prom with him. So hes getting a lot of play.
Some even appreciate Baker the Basketball Player.
Hes consistent every day, every possession, Jans said. He never, ever takes a possession off. He doesnt have a bad day. He may not always shoot the ball well, but his effort and focus hes able to get lost in the moment every day in practice.
But lets get back to Bakers popularity. Hes genuinely embarrassed by the attention he receives. He likes it when his teammates are in the spotlight, and given the Shockers accomplishments this season there is no shortage of spotlights. Westar Energy cant keep them all lit.
He stays humble, said junior Evan Wessel, Bakers teammate and roommate the past three years. Its a real quality Ron has. He enjoys the ride and wants to have fun with his teammates and friends. But he knows what he needs to do.
Baker hinted that its not even the same when he returns home to Scott City, where hes not just another guy anymore.
Ah, its just hard to find a comfort level right now, Baker said. Things are really, really crazy. You cant go out in public much. I dont really get uncomfortable when I do, but people are always looking at you funny or wanting a picture with you. Once theres one picture, there are 10. Thats just how it is.
Hey, life could be worse, right? We all seek attention, until the attention becomes unbearable.
It wasnt like this last year, Baker said. It wasnt like this until after the Final Four. Its just a perk that comes with college basketball.
I really love the NCAA Tournament. Its really exciting. The attention is just a part of it so I try and enjoy it the best I can.