Being of the wind and the dirt and the wheat of Kansas, as Ron Baker likes to put it, carries with it another default characteristic: a love for basketball.
So from the time he was about 3 and handed a basketball for the first time, Baker embraced the game — which in his family meant gravitating toward KU’s singular tradition.
He watched almost every televised Jayhawks game, and he put up a poster of KU’s Kirk Hinrich on his bedroom door so he’d see it before he brushed his teeth every morning.
When Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse beat Kansas in the 2003 NCAA title game, he was upset enough that he said a lot of “things a third-grader should not say,” he recalled Saturday. From the bottom bunk in their bedroom, his brother had to tell him to “shut up a couple times.”
A dream came with this, naturally, to play for the Jayhawks.
And the way that dream played out is emblematic of the appeal of this rich NCAA Tournament matchup between KU and Wichita State on Sunday at the CenturyLink Center.
It’s the first meeting between the teams since 1993 and just the second in the NCAA Tournament.
Baker is an established star now for Wichita State, where he honors the game by the way he plays and honors his roots in remote western Kansas with his grace and adherence to his father’s teaching to be “confident on the inside, not on the outside.”
He’s been an instrumental part of a Final Four team in 2013 and the Shockers’ remarkable undefeated run to a No. 1 seed a year ago.
But in this moment, he remembers vividly — and still appreciates — what it was to be a kid who wanted to be a Jayhawk.
“Every Kansas kid growing up wants to be in my shoes: small-town kid playing against KU … ” he said. “Who would have thought?”
This was no lament, though, just a reflection on the realization of a matchup that Baker said led to “every contact” in his phone “letting me know this is the biggest game in their lives.”
“Not mine,” he playfully added. “Hey, I’m the one playing in it. How do you think I feel?”
Nothing might clarify how Baker feels about all this deep inside than one pivotal moment four years ago.
By the time he was finishing high school in Scott City (population is approximately 4,000), he largely had let go of the dream to play at Kansas.
Through his junior year, his best scholarship options were Fort Hays State, South Dakota State, Arkansas-Little Rock and Coffeyville Community College.
But Baker grew from about 6 feet, 160 pounds to 6-3, 190 that summer, and when he led Scott City to a state title he drew more attention.
That included Wichita State, of course.
It also included Kansas.
His father, Neil, spoke to a KU assistant and arranged for him to make an unofficial visit and play some pickup ball with KU players at Allen Fieldhouse either in the late spring or early summer.
It’s unclear who would be watching, but one way or another this was his best chance to audition for his dream, even if it to be a walk-on.
And then it was canceled.
By Baker, who, after all, was in the middle of baseball season.
“I wasn’t in basketball shape; I hadn’t touched a basketball in two months,” he said. “I honestly didn’t want to go down there and embarrass myself. Truthfully. …
“It’s not that I didn’t want to go. It’s just that I hadn’t touched a ball in two months.”
This was a momentous thing in his life, and baseball season and rust notwithstanding, it was in some way letting go of something.
Just the same, it enabled him to flourish elsewhere in ways that he may never have at perennially overstocked KU.
Baker spent that very weekend making an official visit to Wichita State, which was out of scholarships for the upcoming year but where coach Gregg Marshall promised one after he redshirted that first season.
“So I guess I was led down the right tunnel,” he said, “and ended up here.”
Meaning both at Wichita and in Omaha this weekend, where family members on Saturday were at the Omaha Zoo “rolling 20-deep.”
Maybe that was exactly what they would have been doing Saturday if he’d gone to KU, which today would love to have him.
“He’s a terrific player, and I have great respect for how he conducts himself, how he carries himself and how he plays the game,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “You know, people make recruiting mistakes all the time, and people get lucky recruiting all the time and get unlucky recruiting all the time.
“I would say there’s a lot of people that made a mistake on Ron, and we would certainly be one of them … Because obviously anybody would love to have him in their uniform.”
Baker seemed truly touched to hear that, calling it “a sign of respect” and even adding, “I think it’s an accomplishment.”
But he also didn’t need to hear that, either.
“As you can see now,” he said, “I’m pretty happy with the decision I made (four) three years ago.”
A decision that’s served to remind that basketball in Kansas isn’t only about KU.
“It’s really important for us Kansas people that the state can enjoy this,” Baker said, later adding, “Hopefully, it’s a win-win for a lot of Kansas fans and a lot of Wichita State fans.”
Still, old habits die hard:
A KU loss Sunday still would prompt an emotional reaction for Baker — just of a different nature than the one he had in 2003.
“I’d probably shout out a couple things,” he said, smiling, “I probably shouldn’t.”