Basketball

Mo Baker Blues

PBA/Nuki Sabio

You could be here one day and be gone the next.

For American players in basketball leagues outside the United States, job security is, at best, a tenuous concept.

But imports are held to a particularly high standard in the Philippine Basketball Association, where fans have been spoiled by the near-mythical exploits of imports past, such as Billy Ray Bates. Team executives and fans are quick to call for the head of underperforming reinforcements, who could be replaced at any point in the season.

PBA imports can be cut one or two games into the season, or they could be replaced late – really late. In the case of Antonio Lang, for example, the import played for Red Bull the entire 2002 season before getting the pink slip on the eve of game 7 of the PBA Commissioner’s Cup finals.

You could be here one day and be gone the next.

Former Talk ‘N Text import Maurice Baker was talking about his tenure with the Grand Slam-seeking team, but he seemed to imbue the words with a deeper, Zen-like meaning.

Looking into his past, it’s easy to see why there are more to those words than meets the eye.

IN 2001, MAURICE BAKER was a 21-year-old star at Oklahoma State University, averaging 19.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 4.2 assists in 30 games. For the guard with NBA ambitions, it should have been a memorable year for his impressive play on the court.

But the season is memorable for much more somber reasons.

On January 27, the OSU Cowboys boarded three planes bound for their Stillwater campus following an 81-71 loss to Colorado on the road. Players, coaches, staffers and broadcasters piled on to the trio of aircrafts, with some even switching planes at the request of head coach Eddie Sutton, for what turned out to be a life-changing ride for everybody who boarded a plane that evening.

Three planes left Colorado that night. Only two planes made it home.

In what may have been the darkest moment in OSU basketball history, the tragic 2001 plane crash took the lives of ten individuals. Two players, a student manager, three OSU staffers, two broadcasters and two pilots were lost.

“That’s why I got this tattoo right here,” Baker shared as he pulled his practice jersey to show the part of his chest where the design was inked, a stylized number “10” to commemorate the number of the victims, decorated with wings.

“Me and one of the guys, Daniel Lawson, we were close. We shared the same birth date, same year. He’s from Detroit, I’m from St. Louis.”

Something of this magnitude isn’t just forgotten and the memories don’t just fade away. Lessons from that evening remain with Baker to this day, his character forged through the events of that one tragic January night.

“We had a game, we got on a plane and then that happened,” said Baker. “It affected me a lot.”

You could be here one day and gone the next.

Mo Baker knew, perhaps more than anyone else, how things are fleeting. How things can be taken away from you in an instant.

A DECADE LATER, Baker found himself on the roster of one of the more successful teams in recent PBA history. From halfway around the world, Talk ‘N Text scouted Baker and found him suitable to help them in their bid for a historic Grand Slam, after winning the first two tournament titles of the season.

PBA/Nuki Sabio

The franchise was held to certain restrictions because of a newly-instituted rule that imposed handicaps on the more successful teams to ensure league parity.

While one team had an import that was 6-foot-6, the Tropang Texters were allowed to have an import that stood no taller than 6-2. And the team was willing to cast its lot with Baker.

Baker came over with sterling credentials. Right after his college career at OSU, he spent a summer with the Phoenix Suns in the NBA but was released before the opener.

“I got hurt so they released me,” said Baker. “Then I went overseas.”

He alternated stateside gigs with overseas stints, but found most of his success in the CBA and the NBA D-League, particularly with the Dakota Wizards. He stamped his name all over the Wizards record books, leading the franchise in most major categories, including points, assists, steals and even rebounds, an impressive feat for a point guard.

His performances even led to a few call-ups from the D-League to the NBA, leading to stints with the Los Angeles Clippers and the Portland Trailblazers.

“It was wonderful,” he said of the experience. “I happened to play with a couple of guys I knew growing up when I played at Portland. So I really enjoyed the NBA life.”

In the PBA, Baker averaged 15.4 points, 6.9 rebounds, 3.0 assists and a steal in eight games for Talk ‘N Text – nothing extraordinary for a PBA import

But while he led the Tropang Texters to a league-best 6-2 record, the team came close to dropping from the top spot at certain points in the tournament.

The modest numbers, combined with the lofty expectations of an organization so used to success, put his job in jeopardy.

Talk ‘N Text flew in Scottie Reynolds, a lethal guard from Villanova who finished college second on the university’s career scoring list, to replace Baker.

The Tropang Texters then gave Baker a choice.

“They gave me the option, I could stay or I could go,” he shared.

If he chose to remain in the Philippines, he would merely be helping out behind the scenes as Reynolds took over his old spot.

And that’s where most imports would cut and run. After all, there were always other employment opportunities in other countries, and ones that would give him an opportunity to actually play.

But Baker was different.

“I’m all about the team,” Baker decided. “I wanted to stay here and watch these guys be successful. I wanted to stay and help them win.”

Bankrolled by mogul Manuel V. Pangilinan – or MVP, as everyone calls him –Talk ‘N Text is known to have deep pockets.

“It’s a world-class organization,” Baker shared. “They treat you first-class over here and that’s one of the reasons I stayed.”

IT’S 3 P.M. ON A SATURDAY. At the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center in the Ateneo campus, Talk ‘N Text was scheduled to practice for an upcoming game against Ginebra.

Though the training session was not scheduled to begin for another hour, Tropang Texters stars Jimmy Alapag and Kelly Williams were among several players who were already on the floor practicing their shooting.

Baker observed them quietly from the sidelines.

“I can still score right now,” said Baker. “But we got a lot of guys who can do those things.” He understood his role on the star-studded team, and was more concerned about fitting into the team concept and what was needed of him.

“I think I did good. I did what the team wanted me to do, like score, rebound and defend. We were in first place.”

But his role now is a lot different from when he put up 22 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in just his second game a little over a month before.

“I practice with the scouting team,” Baker explained. “So we have an import on the scouting team. I’ll be the other team’s guy. Like today, I’ll probably be (Ginebra import Donald) Sloan.”

Baker also maintains a good relationship with his replacement.

“I also try to help Scottie out,” Baker said. “I try to push him to bring the best out of him.”

Reynolds arrived a while later, looking like he just crawled out of bed. Baker cracked a joke, saying the younger man looked like he had a late night. Reynolds shrugged it off, saying he just had trouble sleeping.

The previous evening, Reynolds poured in 37 points in a semifinal game against the B-MEG Llamados.

Despite reports that Baker could return as the import should Reynolds not pan out, Baker wishes nothing but the best for the man who replaced him.

“I want him to play well for the team,” Baker shared. “If I push him, he’ll play well.”

Practice began soon, with Baker sitting through video scouting before participating in the on-court training session with Reynolds and his other teammates.

He laughed as backup Mark Yee comically posted him up with goofy pivots and shakes. Baker still looked very much like part of the team, as he was when he was stuffing the stat sheet for the league-leading squad.

THE NEXT EVENING, all the hard work in practice would pay off for Talk ‘N Text, as they clinched a spot in the finals with a 102-90 victory over Sloan and Ginebra.

Sloan had a good shooting night, scoring 27 points for the losing team, but the Tropang Texters corralled most of his teammates as they cruised to their third win in four games without Maurice Baker on the floor.

He understands how important that historic third championship will be this conference. “My agent told me they were chasing the Grand Slam but I didn’t really know what it meant then,” said Baker. “But since I got here, I’ve come to see what it means. It’s big.”

His role has changed in a big way. He doesn’t take the floor, except when nobody’s watching. He doesn’t have the big scoring games anymore; his name doesn’t even appear on the stat sheet. But in his own little way, he continues to help his team in the chase for the elusive Grand Slam.

Baker is now the ultimate role player, one who gets none of the glory and none of the recognition. And it takes a person with such a unique personality, such strong character, to be able to do so much for so little in return.

In the import business, most players just come and go. Few stay long. And even fewer stay for the same reasons that Baker does.

But then, there are few people who are like Baker, who have been through what he has.

“There were other opportunities but I liked these guys so much I just wanted to stay here and help them win,” said Baker.

“And I want to be here to see their faces when they win.”

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