There’s something drivers in small towns like Scott City do, Neil Baker says, that city drivers don’t.
“Driving down the road, we just automatically wave at people,” Baker said. “I catch myself doing that even in Wichita, putting two fingers up to wave. It just comes with the territory.”
Ron Baker, Neil’s son and Wichita State’s fantastic senior guard, still carries around small-town friendliness. Baker drives a Ford F-150 truck, played three sports in high school and is forever proud of the two stoplights in his hometown.
He went to high school in Scott City, on K-96 smack dab between Leoti and Dighton, after spending his first 10 years in Utica, which makes Scott City look like Philadelphia.
Neil Baker was born in Quinter and grew up in Utica. His parents farmed the land he learned to walk and talk on.
Ron’s mom, Ranae, is from Emmett, a town so small meteorologists have to look it up, and went to high school in St. Marys.
The family moved to Scott City in 2004 because Neil and Ranae were tired of transporting their three kids the 24 miles back and forth from Utica for events and activities.
“Everything was just right here,” Ranae Baker said of Scott City. “It’s great. We have lots of friends and there’s something going on every day of the week. We fit in really well here and it was really quick.”
Ron is the son of teachers, although Neil got out of education in May, when he took a job as an insurance agent.
The Bakers go to as many Wichita State basketball games as they can and also watch their 18-year-old, Sloan, play baseball at Butler Community College. Audrey, 21, is a student at Kansas State.
They’ve worn a path between Wichita and Scott City over the past four years. Neil’s Ford Escape has rolled more than 170,000 miles.
The Bakers love coming to Wichita for Shocker games, but they love going home, too.
Scott City is blue-collar proud and the townspeople don’t mind telling you they think their little piece of the world is special.
The Beavers have won state championships in basketball in four of the past six years and have four state titles in football.
Baker was the kind of high school quarterback who probably could have gone on to play at a major college, but was smitten more with basketball.
As a kid growing up, everybody wanted him to become smitten with food.
Baker, they say, was almost frail. His parents worried that if he was hit squarely on the football field, he might snap.
“Probably 5-foot-8, 110 pounds as a freshman,” Neil Baker said. “Maybe 120. But the thing is, he played a lot as a freshman on the varsity basketball team. He has a drive to be competitive and not to lose.”
Baker’s drive wasn’t necessarily unique in Scott City, where kids pound basketballs on their driveway and toss footballs around in their backyards as habit. It’s part of being a kid in Scott City.
And when you drive around town, the first thing people want to talk about is sports. Not their jobs, not their families, not their pets.
So why in the world is Glenn O’Neill, Scott City’s basketball coach the past 20 years, leaving for Topeka Seaman after the school year ends?
“Tough call,” the 55-year-old O’Neill said. “The pieces of the puzzle just came together. At this stage of my career, I want to try coaching up at a bigger level — see if I got what it takes. I’m excited but at the same time I’m sad about closing the chapter here.”
That chapter includes a lot of Ron Baker, whom O’Neill will always gush over.
“He had obvious talent,” O’Neill said. “But the thing that really made him special was his willingness to be a great teammate. There are kids that are All-State caliber that have to make sure they get theirs every game and he wasn’t one of them. He was happy to be the guy scoring in some games and in other games to give somebody else the ball.”
In the biggest games, though, O’Neill knew Baker would step up.
“After he started getting exposed to the outside world of basketball, outside of western Kansas, I think he developed the mentality that, hey, ‘I’m just as good as about anybody out there.’ I think that gave Ron the confidence to go ahead and take over.”
The best thing about Baker, Scott Citians say, is his unwavering humility.
He’s been one of the best college basketball players in the country for a while now. He played for the United States in the Pan American games last summer. He’s likely to get a shot in the NBA.
Yet when he comes home, he’s just Ron.
“Watching him come up through the ranks was really interesting,” said Mike Thomas, a family friend. “We have good athletes here but I wouldn’t say we have the best athletes. What we do have is a tradition of winning and some great coaches.”
Nobody would have imagined that the skinny Baker kid would grow into a 6-foot-4, 215-pound piece of granite. When Baker was a feisty kid hanging with the older kids out of sheer will and tenacity, people worried he’d never grow enough to do much as he aged.
“A lot of us have always discussed which was Ron’s best sport,”’ Thomas said. “I think he could have been a Division I quarterback just as easily as playing college basketball. And he was a heck of a baseball player. Even in a sports town like Scott City, you don’t get guys like Ron very often.”
Baker threw 88 or 89 mph as a pitcher, too, his father said. And he was an outstanding shortstop, offensively and defensively. Put a sport in front of him and Baker would gobble it up. Since he arrived at WSU as a basketball-only athlete, Baker has often expressed how much he misses playing the other sports he was obsessed with.
“We were really excited, though, when Ron decided to go to Wichita State and sit out a year,” Neil Baker said. “He really matured in that year. Ron has always learned a lot about games by just watching and he’s always been intrigued by watching other people play. There were times as a young boy when we’d be watching a game and other kids or parents would try to talk to him and he wouldn’t even realize it was happening.”
Baker always made good grades. As the child of teachers, was there a choice?
His aptitude was at its sharpest when he was competing, though.
“I think when Ron was coming through school here, he always had that never-afraid-to-fail attitude,” said Scott City assistant basketball coach Brian Gentry. “Kids that have that fear, that can really keep a lot of kids from reaching their potential. But Ron never struggled with that. From the time I knew him when he was a freshman in high school, there wasn’t any situation that was too big.”
Something else that sets Scott City apart athletically, and from other small-but-struggling towns in Kansas, is that former athletes return after college and raise families.
“Yeah, a lot of people come back here,” Gentry said. “There were some really good football teams here in the 1980s and now a lot of those players live here. And everybody in this community goes out of their way to provide opportunities for kids to participate in sports. I came here from northeast Kansas wondering what I was getting myself into. But you get here and you feel that right away.”
Scott City made it to the Class 3A basketball tournament this year, but was knocked off in the first round. After winning four of the previous five state titles, that qualifies as a disappointment.
That string of success started when Baker made a putback at the buzzer in 2011 to give the Beavers a win over Minneapolis. He had first passed the basketball to an open teammate, whose shot glanced off the rim. Baker was there, though, for the game-winner.
Baker left his mark and it’s one today’s players recognize and respect.
“I don’t know Ron personally that much,” said senior Dylan Hutchins, a senior guard who averaged 13 points this season. “But he’s one of my top inspirations because of how he came from a small 3A school and now he’s probably on his way to the NBA.”
Hutchins said he used to hang out with Ron’s little brother and that his older brother knows Ron pretty well.
“I got to see Ron over at my house a little bit,” Hutchins said. “He would come over and play backyard basketball. He’s shown everybody from here that it doesn’t matter where you’re from, you just have to get somebody’s attention and go from there.”