The nation is getting to know Ron Baker, and Baker is making sure it also gets to know Scott City.
The Wichita State freshman basketball guard has given shout-outs to his hometown on national television and radio since he helped the Shockers upset Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament on Saturday. So a thankful and jubilant Scott City is returning the love.
Thursday is Ron Baker Day in Scott City, a town of about 4,000 people on the high plains of western Kansas, north of Garden City and south of Oakley. A rally is set for 10 a.m. at the high school. Mayor Dan Goodman will read a proclamation. The high school band will play the Shocker fight song. Speakers will speak.
Now all Scott City needs is a place to gather to watch WSU play La Salle in Los Angeles that night.
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“We don’t really have a sports bar right now,” said Katie Eisenhour, executive director of the Scott City Area Chamber of Commerce and the Scott County economic development committee.
Still, she said, the town is abuzz over Baker.
“It’s a really, really exciting time. The energy level is high,” Eisenhour said. “The seasoned gentlemen that have been following Beaver sports forever can’t talk about it without getting misty-eyed. They’re just so filled with pride.”
If WSU wins Thursday, the team will play the winner of the Arizona-Ohio State game on Saturday for the right to go to the Final Four. Saturday is Baker’s 20th birthday.
Much of the town will be decked out for the week’s activities in T-shirts designed by Jan Huck, owner of PlainJan’s in Scott City. The shirts are gold, with a drawing of Baker in his Shocker uniform on the front, along with the words, “Ron Baker. Scott City High School. Class of 2011.”
On the back is a cartoon of a Scott City Beaver basketball player wearing Baker’s jersey dunking a basketball, and the phrase, “Just Bake It.”
On the bottom of one of the Beaver’s shoes is a Beaver logo. On the bottom of the other are the letters “WSU” and a small shock of wheat.
The first 1,000 T-shirts sold within 24 hours at $5 apiece, Huck said. More orders are coming in and more shirts are being ordered. Huck said the money will go to recover her costs, and she will give $1 per shirt to the high school.
The community also is pulling together to raise money to help defray expenses for a trip to Los Angeles by Baker’s parents, Neil and Ranae.
All-American, western-Kansas kid
The town loves Baker because Baker is your basic all-American, western-Kansas kid, said Randy Huck, Jan Huck’s brother-in-law and the athletics director and associate principal at Scott Community High School. That’s where Baker competed in three sports and led the basketball team to the first of three straight state Class 3A championships as a senior.
“I wouldn’t say he’s a shy kid. He’s very respectful,” Huck said. “He’s well-respected by his peers and his teachers. He was brought up right. He wasn’t somebody who walked around with his chest pumped out. Everybody loved Ron.”
He can also be outgoing and light hearted. Shairlyn Wasinger, who teaches speech, theater and English and coaches debate at the high school, said Baker was good-natured and fun. When he was a junior, he approached her about auditioning with some of his basketball teammates for the all-school play. Baker’s initiative opened the way for athletes to cross over to drama, she said.
“When those boys decided to be in the play, we increased our ticket sales,” Wasinger said.
Baker appeared in a couple of school plays. In the first, called “Zap,” a series of smaller plays within the main play, he was the Duke of Buckingham from Shakespeare’s “Richard III.” He wore tights and other Elizabethan garb on the stage and had to recite lines from Shakespeare.
In the other, “The Perils of Lulu,” Baker had roles as a retired, over-the-hill athlete named Lank Lamonica, and a large gorilla that swept the heroine up his arms. “He played it really well,” Wasinger said.
The next year, she brought in somebody to teach soft-shoe dancing to the basketball players to the song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” from the movie, “Toy Story.”
“Ron was a big part of that, too,” Wasinger said. “Some of those boys weren’t comfortable dancing in front of an audience, but because he did it, they went along with it.”
“I guess that crossover was really natural for him,” she said. “The basketball court is a stage as well. It’s also a strict discipline, as is the theater.”
Baker’s composure on a stage or court seemed to come naturally, according to those who know him.
Glenn O’Neil, his high school basketball coach, said Baker had the ability to make games seem normal to himself at the most critical times.
“He looks relaxed and confident. That’s the key to success,” O’Neil said. “Being basically a humble western Kansas kid, he doesn’t get too high or low. When there’s a chance to make a big play in a game, Ron has confidence he’s going to make it.”
Baker was born and raised in Utica, his father’s hometown. Neil and Ranae Baker found teaching jobs in Healy in 2000, and moved to Scott City four years later when Ranae got a job teaching kindergarten. Ron was in the seventh grade.
They knew Scott City was a big sports town, and as former athletes with three children, that’s what they were looking for, Neil Baker said.
“We came through here one day and I asked my wife if she wanted to drive around looking at houses,” he said. “Next thing you know, we’re moving in here.”
Neil now teaches strength and conditioning at the high school and is head baseball coach. Ranae is head softball coach and still teaches kindergarten. She also is assistant volleyball coach at the junior high.
WSU assistant coach Chris Jans scouted Ron Baker when Baker was a senior leading Scott City to the state title. Baker visited Arkansas-Little Rock and South Dakota State and considered NCAA Division II Fort Hays State. But he chose WSU because of its proximity and its success under head coach Gregg Marshall.
Baker was asked to walk on, pay his own way and redshirt his first year at WSU, with a scholarship guaranteed this season.
Same old Ron
When a stress fracture in his left foot sidelined him earlier in the season, he would return to Scott City occasionally and see family and friends. They noticed nothing about him had changed. Same old Ron, they said.
“The kid just knows where he’s from,” said Rod Haxton, editor of the Scott City Record who has known the family for years. “He’s humble about it. He’s still Ron Baker.”
Last summer, Baker even spent a day or two helping O’Neil and his sons shingle a roof.
”He’s not afraid to put in an honest day’s work, for sure,” O’Neil said.
Launching three-point shots in the crucial moments of an NCAA Tournament game as a freshman coming back from a long layoff may have surprised some people, but not those who know him.
“Nothing Ron does surprises me. I know he’s an amazing competitor,” O’Neil said. “I don’t know if you’re born with it, or you grow up and develop it. For Ron, it’s kind of second nature.”
Against Gonzaga, Baker scored 16 points, including a few late three-pointers, to help lead a comeback victory and draw the attention of the national media. On Tuesday, Baker was interviewed by radio sports talk-show host Jim Rome, giving him another chance to talk about Scott City.
He told Rome the town had two stop lights and 55 kids in his high school graduating class.
He told Rome about all the text messages he has received from his friends back home, and how important those friends are to him.
“They can talk to me whenever they want,” Baker told Rome on the radio. “I love those guys back home. It’s just remarkable where I came from and where I’m at right now. I wouldn’t probably be here without the friends and community I grew up in.”
A role model
Prior to the Gonzaga game, Baker was best known in Scott City for hitting the game-winning shot in the state championship game his senior year. The play revealed two characteristics about Baker to those who know him.
Expecting him to take the last shot in a tie game, Scott City’s opponent, Minneapolis, defended Baker tightly. Rather than force something, Baker passed to a teammate to take the final shot from the corner, showing his lack of selfishness and trust in his teammates.
The shot glanced off the rim, but Baker swooped in from the other side, got the rebound and scored just before the buzzer, showing his instincts for the game.
Baker casts a long shadow for his brother, Sloan, a sophomore at Scott City high school who plays the same three sports — basketball, football and baseball — as Ron.
“He’s a big role model. He’s kind of set some high expectations for me, too,” Sloan said.
The best person to talk to about it is Ron, he said.
“He’s always been there for me, someone to talk to. It’s hard having an older brother who’s good in sports in a small town. He’s a good person to talk to. It’s definitely hard at times when people expect more out of you, but I’ll get there.”
The two often went to war playing basketball in the yard.
“There were some bloody lips, definitely,” Sloan said. “There were some times I’d win, but he may have been going a little easy on me.”
Baker’s sister, Audrey, a freshman at Kansas State University, may be his biggest fan.
Neil Baker remembered a Scott City game at Hugoton when Ron was a senior.
“Every time Ron got the ball or did something, the student body would yell out, ‘Ron, who?’ ” Neil Baker said. “Audrey would stand up and yell, ‘Ron Baker.’ ”
It’s the same question the rest of the country is asking now.
Same answer, too.