About the time he was in eighth grade, Ron Baker seemed ready for a rite of passage. So on his grandfather’s farm in Utica, Kan., (pop: 158), he drove a wheat truck into the grain elevator.
And then he started suffocating as his lungs shut down.
He could barely get out words and felt more and more scared as his mother drove 15 minutes to the closest hospital.
“At that point,” Baker said Saturday, “it felt like life or death.”
Baker, it turned out, was severely allergic to wheat dust.
That bears a certain irony as the sophomore guard has become an icon of the school with the Wheatshocker mascot that’s in the national spotlight for a second straight March.
In its encore to last season’s Final Four burst, Wichita State is the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region and 35-0 entering today’s game at the Scottrade Center against No. 8 seed Kentucky.
“You think of Kentucky, you think of basketball ” Baker said. “When you think of Wichita, you think of Kansas: Wind. Dirt. Wheat. But the last couple years, I’d like to think people started thinking about basketball.”
In the clash of blue-blood Kentucky and blue-collar Wichita State, perhaps no one is more emblematic of the contrast than Baker: The Wildcats have seven McDonald’s All-Americans; Baker grew up without a McDonald’s even in range.
But now his distinct combination of game, mane and disposition — plus his rise from walk-on status — have made him a virtual cult figure, the fabulous Baker boy.
It’s not just Scott City (pop: 4,936), which declared “Ron Baker Day” last March and features him on the front page of its website, that has what coach Gregg Marshall calls “Baker Fever.”
Sure, everyone there knows when he brings his 2005 Ford F-150 home, so they immediately call or pop over to the house.
But now he can hardly go out anywhere without feeling all eyes on him.
It was awkward, for instance, at his brother’s state tournament game in Wichita the other day, when Baker sensed more people “watching me eat my hot dog” than watching his brother play.
People “are looking at you kind of funny, and a lot of people want a picture of you,” Baker said. “And once there’s one picture, there’s 10 more after that.”
And then there’s Baker’s apparent heartthrob appeal.
“He’s quite the favorite of a lot of people, but especially young ladies and some older ladies as well. It’s amazing,” Marshall said, adding that he routinely receives texts and e-mails inquiring about Baker’s eligibility. “Usually, there’s 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 (them).”
Some of that fuss is about superficial stuff, like the long blond hair that his father, Neil, believes he inadvertently inspired.
For some reason, Neil Baker said, in high school he and his brother had “felt we needed perms.”
Ron saw pictures and thought he’d do it, too. It just keeps flowing.
“I like being unique,” Baker said. “It’s just a preference.”
And that’s swell. But it’s not really what makes Baker resonate, at least not by itself.
The reason he tends to trend is because of how he plays the game: Typifying this team, Baker is fundamentally sound, team-oriented and consumed with winning.
His personal one-word theme for the season is “benefit,” because “as an individual I want to help my team out the best I can, play my hardest and everybody can benefit from me. And then if we all do that then I can benefit from them.”
His refreshing attitude also is reflected in his abiding sense of sportsmanship and how to carry himself, most vividly on display in the Shockers’ Missouri Valley Tournament title victory over Indiana State.
When Sycamores senior star Jake Odum left the game late, Baker vigorously clapped for him and gestured for Shockers fans to do the same.
“The soft side of me in my heart just said to do the right thing and give the kid some love and support him,” Baker said.
To some degree, this grace is his natural disposition. But it also was forged by his parents, who had been college athletes and were his first coaches.
His mother, Ranae, preached the golden rule, to treat others as you’d like to be treated. If you want attention, she’d tell him, “be a good sport and do the right thing and people will notice him more.”
Along the same lines, his father would urge, “Your actions speak. The way you carry yourself, that’s what people see. You don’t need to talk about it; justbe
about it.” And “be confident on the inside, not the outside.”
Those teachings radiate the sensibilities of Baker’s upbringing in remote western Kansas, first in Utica, then 50 miles away to Scott City to attend high school.
“Growing up I did just about anything,” said Baker, flexing his dry sense of humor by adding, “No cops.”
And no movie theater, for instance, unless you wanted to drive 40 minutes to Garden City.
But in the tight-knit farming community where Baker actually said “everybody loves one another,” sports were “a big deal.”
Enough so that for the second year in a row the area has raised money to support his family’s travels to watch him in the NCAA Tournament.
So Baker played every sport he could, though most likely his first inclination actually was basketball.
“I have memories of when was I very, very little, holding a basketball in my dog’s doghouse when I was about 1,” he said.
He remembers playing in the sand driveway at Utica, where it was easy enough to dribble because the dead grass was pretty much like concrete.
And he probably came to play the game more than anything else because, well
“It was easier to haul him around and easier to get five or six to play basketball than to play baseball, where you’d need 12 to 14,” Neil Baker said.
As he grew, Baker felt an allegiance to the Kansas Jayhawks and dreamed of becoming one.
Yet even as he was turning into a fine player, he was slow to grow and came to realize that the KU thing probably wasn’t going to happen.
So by the end of his junior year of high school, Baker’s best scholarship options were Fort Hays State, South Dakota State, Arkansas-Little Rock and Coffeyville Community College.
But he sprouted from about 6 feet, 160 pounds, to 6-3, 190, that summer as he went on the AAU circuit through Wichita.
By the time he was playing on a state championship team in the spring, he was getting noticed in a new way.
“I finally grew into my body a little bit ” he said. “And I got some coaches interested in me. And when that happened, I started getting some confidence in my game and realized I could possibly play college basketball.”
Then a funny thing happened.
Kansas didn’t have a scholarship left but suddenly got interested enough to want him to come spend a day or so in Lawrence.
Maybe he’d even scrimmage while he was there, he remembered thinking, and maybe he’d have a chance to walk-on at KU.
But he was in the middle of baseball season, had just taken a recruiting trip to South Dakota and felt his basketball game was rusty. The prospect of scrimmaging at Kansas, Neil Baker said, “kind of gave him cold feet. He didn’t want to embarrass himself.”
Meanwhile, Baker had become comfortable with Wichita State, which also was out of scholarships so sought to simply have him pay his way for a year before giving him one.
So he turned down a chance at what he thought was his dream for something that felt right, that fit.
To this day, Baker doesn’t know why.
But maybe it was because he came from the wind and the dirt and even the wheat.