Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Young admirers of Wichita State seniors are in for an emotional Saturday

Fred VanVleet, left, and Ron Baker have made admirers out of many younger Wichita State fans over the past four years.
Fred VanVleet, left, and Ron Baker have made admirers out of many younger Wichita State fans over the past four years. The Wichita Eagle

Ron Baker remembers how he felt as a young kid when he met one of his sports heroes, Kansas basketball guard Kirk Hinrich.

“It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” said Wichita State’s 6-foot-4 senior guard. “And that’s one of the reasons I try and treat young kids today with respect when they’re seeing me in person.”

Baker and teammate Fred VanVleet have reached iconic status as Shocker basketball teammates. Along with fellow senior Evan Wessel, they have been huge parts of some of the best teams in WSU history. And Saturday afternoon they, as well as Anton Grady and Bush Wamukota, will play their final regular-season game at Koch Arena.

There won’t be a dry eye in the house, especially among the kids who have come to idolize Baker and VanVleet, especially, for their incredible careers and charisma.

Young people are drawn to Ron and Fred the way I was drawn to Dave Stallworth more than 50 years ago, and the way kids have been drawn to their favorite athletes since sports have existed.

Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said he had a poster of “Pistol” Pete Maravich on his bedroom door when he was a child.

Wessel said he grew up idolizing Michael Jordan.

VanVleet said basketball was all he watched on television growing up and that Kobe Bryant was his guy.

And Baker, a three-sport athlete at Scott City, was drawn to Hinrich and former Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis.

Now, across Wichita and south-central Kansas, kids are emulating VanVleet and Baker. They’ve been to a Final Four, played huge parts in a 35-0 run in 2013-14 and helped beat Kansas in the NCAA Tournament last year.

Twelve-year-old Jakari Watson said he’s a VanVleet guy because he has a basketball signed by the Shocker guard.

“I did have a hat signed by Ron Baker,” Jakari said, “but then it got all tore up. I don’t know how, but I came home one day and the hat was torn up. I think it was my aunt’s dog, maybe.”

Abby Kranz, a freshman basketball player at Buhler, has a mature take on her affinity for Baker and VanVleet.

“They’re good leaders on the floor and they move without the ball, so I’m always learning from them when I watch them play,” Kranz said. “And they both have good form when they’re shooting.”

There’s an emotional connection, too.

Kranz said she attended basketball camp at WSU a few years ago and Baker and VanVleet were her group leaders.

“They have really good personalities and are easy to learn from,” she said. “They didn’t make anything very complicated. I was trying to dribble between my legs and I couldn’t do it, so Ron Baker said I needed to be looser and not so uptight when I do it. And it worked. I’m going to miss them both. A lot.”

Join the club, Abby.

It’s so strange to think of a Shocker team without these guys, although I’m sure folks in Carbondale, Terre Haute and Springfield can manage. The running joke elsewhere in the Valley is that Baker and VanVleet, in particular, have been at Wichita State for what seems like a decade.

Easton Elliot, a 13-year-old Shocker fan from Andover, said he grew his blond hair long because of Baker and that he wears the same style of sneaker, a limited edition Kyrie Irving brand from Nike.

“I like Baker because he never takes plays off and it’s the same thing for Fred VanVleet,” Elliot said. “They’re always hustling.”

Jamir Johnson, 15, said he was a KU fan before Baker and VanVleet stole his heart.

“I’m a really big fan of both of them,” Johnson said. “Fred seems like a good guy who does a lot of good stuff on and off the court. He’s phenomenal to me.

“And I love Baker because he’s so well-rounded and consistent. I love the way they play as a unit. It’s going to hit hard when they leave, it’s going to hurt a little bit.”

Braden Atherton, a 10-year-old fourth-grader, said VanVleet’s ankle-breakers as a ball handler are fun to watch.

“They’re both really competitive with a mindset to win,” Atherton said. “And they’re really nice to everybody.”

Then there’s Noah DeVault, whose mother, Amy, is an instructor in the Elliott School of Communications at WSU. He was 4 during Baker’s first season and while he loves VanVleet, there’s something deeper to his relationship with Baker.

They first met, Amy DeVault said, at the end of Baker’s sophomore season, around the same time Noah was finishing his Kindergarten “research” project about the Shockers.

When they met again last season, Noah asked Baker how many three-pointers he had shot so far in the season.

Baker invited Noah to the Shockers’ locker room to look it up and a friendship was cemented.

“After the Shockers lost to Kentucky (in the 2014 NCAA Tournament),” Amy DeVault wrote in an e-mail, “Noah cried when he saw a closeup photo of Ron wiping a tear out of his eye in The Eagle the next morning.

“He’s often wore his hair shaggy like Ron. He chose ‘31’ as his basketball number. He’s invited Ron to his last two birthday parties (but he understands that Ron is a busy guy). He dreams that Ron will play for his favorite NBA team, the Oklahoma City Thunder.”

And Noah isn’t alone in his adoration for these special Shockers. Kids all over town, all over the county, all over the state, love Ron and Fred.

They will remember them forever.

Illinois State

at Wichita State

  • When: 1 p.m. Saturday
  • Where: Koch Arena
  • Records: ISU 18-12, 12-5 MVC; WSU 22-7, 15-2
  • Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
  • TV: ESPN2
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