Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Baker-VanVleet friendship ages like fine wine

Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet congratulates Ron Baker (31) as they walk off the court after defeating UNLV 56-50 on Dec. 9.
Wichita State’s Fred VanVleet congratulates Ron Baker (31) as they walk off the court after defeating UNLV 56-50 on Dec. 9. The Wichita Eagle

Their legacies will not be defined by statistics, unless it’s the number under the win column.

Nor will their legacies be separate, because you can’t mention one without the other. They’re the Shaq and Kobe of Shocker basketball, except they’ve stayed together. And they have a friendship bonded by years of hard work that led to success.

Is there a stronger bond than that?

Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker — excuse me, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet — actually, the order doesn’t matter. The results have helped to build the golden era of Wichita State basketball.

One comes from the hard streets of Rockford, Ill., where he had to fight to survive. The other is from the flowing prairie, Scott City, and has the flowing blond hair and Ford F-150 pickup truck that speak to his western Kansas roots.

Basketball brought about their confluence. And the river that is Shocker basketball has been raging since.

“Our friendship is damn-near the same thing as me and my brother,” VanVleet said of Baker. “Whether we’re talking every day or not, it’s still there. There’s an actual real love and trust, a real friendship. He’s one of the best friends I’ve had.”

It’s not, perhaps, a conventional friendship. Baker and VanVleet don’t spend every second of their spare time together. But when they need one another, they know they won’t be disappointed.

They’ve been in this Shocker basketball thing together for almost four years now, five if you count the time VanVleet was being recruited while Baker was a redshirt freshman. They’ve gone from surprising freshmen to invaluable seniors and helped take a team on rides Disney World hasn’t thought of. A Final Four, a 35-0 run, a win over Kansas to reach the Sweet 16 and Missouri Valley Conference dominance like no other.

And through it all, not a tinge of jealousy, envy or animosity, they say.

These are two star players who get along. They don’t fight for headlines and they’re content to be what they have to be, do what they have to do, to help the team succeed.

“Fred’s a really good friend,” Baker said. “That’s a pretty good explanation right there. He’s someone you can trust, someone who’s always going to be with you 100 percent on and off the court.”

When Baker returned from the Pan American Games this summer after playing for the United States — a team VanVleet was cut from — he felt like going to lunch. His sister was going to tag along and Baker wanted VanVleet to join them.

All it took was a text message. The three of them ate, then Ron and Fred talked for a long time about their upcoming senior seasons and the importance of going out in style.

“We might not hang out together all the time off the court, but anytime something comes up you can text Fred and say, ‘Hey man, you want to go get lunch?’ It seems like he’s always on point and he’s going to respond. He could have told me he had something else going on when he actually doesn’t, but he’s not like that. I enjoy being around him. Fred is wise beyond his years and that’s what makes it so nice.”

Shocker fans are going to miss these guys when this season ends, and that’s a massive understatement. Baker and VanVleet represent more than basketball. They have provided Shocker fans young and old with lifetime memories.

So many that it’s difficult to imagine WSU basketball without them. Around the Missouri Valley Conference, opposing teams, coaches and fans grumble that it feels like VanVleet and Baker have been around forever. Shocker faithful, meanwhile, just smile.

“They have certainly been the yin and the yang and done a great job of playing off one another to lead us to some pretty nice heights,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “There could be jealousy or some of that stuff, but we’ve been fortunate because we haven’t seen any of that.”

VanVleet was a top-100 recruit while Baker was passed up by almost every Division I school and eventually had to settle for a redshirt, walk-on role at Wichita State. Early on, though, it was obvious these two were going to make some beautiful music. And it started, really, against Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament.

The Bulldogs were ranked No. 1 and the favorite of many to win the whole thing. But Baker and VanVleet had other notions. They combined for 29 points and made several key shots late in WSU’s 76-70 win.

They were freshmen.

It was just the beginning.

“Our personalities are much different, but I think our stories are similar,” VanVleet said. “What we’re going through is so similar that we can be two completely different people but we still have so much to relate on. Like last year and the whole NBA thing and the different stresses in our lives. We have so much in common other than our personalities and it just works for us.”

Baker and VanVleet both considered leaving Wichita State after last season to see what the NBA or other levels of professional basketball might offer. Ultimately, though, they decided to get back together for one last run at a national championship.

VanVleet, though, injured a hamstring early this season and has been slow to recover. The Shockers lost four of their first six games with Baker trying to carry a load even his farm-strong back couldn’t sustain.

But with VanVleet healthy, or at least healthier, the Shockers have won 8 of 9 to get to 11-5. They look more and more like the team we thought we would see.

Baker, more than VanVleet, likes to be seen.

“He’s more friendly to strangers,” VanVleet said. “I think he may like the spotlight a little more than me, which is fine. When I’m the focus, I would really rather just not be noticed at all and go on about my business like a regular person. I know that someday I’ll probably look back and be mad I didn’t soak it all in because somebody is going to stop caring about me eventually.”

Baker said he enjoys living in this moment because he, too, recognizes it won’t last forever.

“Fred doesn’t necessarily hate being in crowds, but he might be a little slower to give a stranger a chance,” Baker said. “Maybe being from a city you’re not as likely to trust someone you don’t know. But I’m from a small town where everybody knows everybody. I guess that’s the difference.”

Baker’s third- and fourth-grade teacher was his mother, Ranae. His dad was the P.E. teacher.

VanVleet’s father, Fred Manning, was shot to death when Fred was 5. His mom, Susan, eventually remarried and she and her husband, Joe Danforth, made sure Fred and basketball developed a relationship strong enough to keep him from the temptations that surrounded him.

“I think it’s fairly odd that our backgrounds are so different, but I think our similarities start with how we were raised,” Baker said. “I think our parents raised us the correct way to where we were always trying to do the right thing. I know Fred is big on treating others how you want to be treated and that was something my mom always stressed. It’s the little things you see your parents doing that help you know what’s right from what’s wrong. And Fred is always trying to do the right thing, whether it’s something little or big.”

Soon, though, it will be over for VanVleet and Baker at Wichita State. Time marches and paths divide.

“It’d be nice to be able to peek through a window, a future window in 20 years and to slow down and look back and what you really had,” Baker said. “For us, I think we want to look back and say we had the most fun and cherished our time together. Not a lot of guards in the country are able to play with each other like we have been and to experience the things we’ve experienced.”

It’s not all basketball, either.

Last spring, Baker and VanVleet took a road trip to Ulysses, of all places, for a basketball camp being run by Washburn coach Bob Chipman. They piled into Baker’s pickup and headed west.

VanVleet slept most of the way, Baker said, unimpressed by the western Kansas terrain. And if you ask VanVleet where they were, to this day he still doesn’t know. “Somewhere out west,” is about the best he can offer.

One morning, as VanVleet was coming out of his motel room, he encountered a dog. A stray dog that Baker now says looked like a rabid hyena.

“I’m instantly on my toes, ready to run,” VanVleet said. “Where I grew up, you see a dog like that and he might bite you so you’re hopping over fences and jumping on cars. I ran to Ron’s truck and jumped in.”

Baker, though, recognized the threat for what it was. He picked up the dog, put it in the back of his truck and took off.

“I”m looking at him like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ ” VanVleet said. “Why are you putting this random dog in the truck?”

Later, Baker called Ulysses police and the dog was picked up.

“That could never happen where I grew up,” VanVleet said.

Said Baker: “You could tell Fred wasn’t used to stray dogs running through neighborhoods.”

That’s one of the stories they will be telling in 30 years. One of many.

“This is a friendship that will last a lifetime,” VanVleet said. “I think it’s one of those deals where we could go months, years, without talking and end up in the same place and be friends like no time has passed. It just feels so genuine.”

Indiana State at Wichita State

  • When: 3 p.m. Sunday
  • Where: Koch Arena
  • Records: ISU 10-7, 4-1 MVC; WSU 11-5, 5-0
  • Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
  • TV: None
  • Internet: ESPN3

Indiana State at Wichita State

P

Indiana St.

Ht

Yr

Pts

Reb

F

Matt Van Scyoc

6-6

Jr.

9.9

3.5

F

Khristian Smith

6-6

Sr.

10.8

6.1

C

Brandon Murphy

6-7

So.

4.6

2.8

G

Devonte Brown

6-2

Sr.

15.3

x-2.9

G

Brenton Scott

6-1

So.

14.9

4.2

P

Wichita St.

Ht

Yr

Pts

Reb

F

Evan Wessel

6-4

Sr.

3.8

2.3

F

Zach Brown

6-6

So.

7.2

2.6

C

Shaq Morris

6-8

So.

6.0

3.1

G

Ron Baker

6-4

Sr.

14.8

x-3.4

G

Fred VanVleet

6-0

Sr.

11.1

x-5.3

x-assists

Indiana State (10-7, 4-1 MVC): The Sycamores are winning with defense and an offense perking up in MVC games. They average 73 points a game in five conference games, up from 68.1 in non-conference play. They are making 38.2 percent of their three-pointers in MVC games, 33.3 percent in all games. Indiana State played solid defense most of the season, holding opponents to 41 percent shooting, second in the MVC, and an MVC-best 31.8 from three-point range. In MVC play, only Loyola made more than 31 percent of its threes against Indiana State.…G Everett Clemons has started 10 games and averages 4.4 points and 6.0 rebounds. He grabbed 13 rebounds in a win over Illinois State and seven against Northern Iowa.… Van Scyoc, a transfer from The Citadel, is 37 of 92 (40.2 percent) from three-point range.… The Sycamores rank third in the MVC with an average of 7.1 steals.

Wichita State (11-5, 5-0): The Shockers are protecting a 39-game home win streak (three at Intrust Bank Arena), the fourth-longest in MVC history...… The Shockers lead the MVC in conference play in scoring (76 points), margin (plus-18.2), assists (16.4) and steals (8.0).… Freshman F Markis McDuffie is 18 of 30 from the field in his past five games.… VanVleet averages 6.8 assists in MVC play, best in the conference. Baker is fourth at 3.4.… Brown is 6 of 10 from three-point range in his past five games.… The Shockers have won six straight against Indiana State and nine of 10. In two wins last season, WSU held the Sycamores to an average of 55 points and 34.3 percent shooting. They totaled 33 baskets and 29 turnovers.

RPIs as of Saturday: ISU 134, WSU 41

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