Like countless other players, coaches and basketball obsessives, Vin Baker headed to Las Vegas Summer League last month looking for a job. The four-time All-Star, whose career ended in 2006 after years of on-court decline brought on by off-court struggles with alcohol abuse and ballooning weight, trekked to the desert on the invitation of Jason Kidd.
The Milwaukee Bucks head coach thought the former Olympian — who has since auctioned off the gold medal he won in Sydney as part of Team USA in 2000 — might be able to help the younger Bucks learn the finer points of post play and boxing out as a Summer League assistant coach. Moreover, he could also offer these hoops hopefuls a first-hand perspective on the temptations and dangers of living the NBA fast life.
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As Baker told Yahoo Sports NBA columnist Marc J. Spears during an interview about the ongoing alcohol issues surrounding former Denver Nuggets and now Houston Rockets point guard Ty Lawson, he "was in the process of buying a Starbucks franchise in either Connecticut or New York and was also coaching his son's basketball team" when he got Kidd's call. (Baker's been coaching kids for a few years now.)
While it's certainly possible for a Summer League coaching stint to lead to a regular-season gig — former pro James Posey moved from the bench of the D-League's Canton Charge two seasons ago to a Summer League gig with their parent club, the Cleveland Cavaliers, last summer, to a spot on David Blatt's staff last season — the 43-year-old big man evidently isn't putting all his eggs in the big-league basket.
According to Kevin McNamara of the Providence Journal, Baker's going full steam ahead with the Starbucks plan ... which requires him to undergo the same sort of training as anyone else working their way up the ladder of the coffee conglomerate:
The world’s tallest, and perhaps most famous, barista is stationed behind a busy coffee counter. His smile and easy-going style welcome customers looking for their Starbucks fix as they fastbreak to work or South County’s beaches.
“I love North Kingstown. It reminds me of my hometown, so it’s comfortable,” says the man, who stretches to 6-feet-11. “I like this community. Starbucks draws a lot of repeat customers and so many know me now.” [...]
Now 43, newly married and with four children, Baker is training to manage a Starbucks franchise. He thanks CEO Howard Shultz, the former Seattle SuperSonics owner, with this opportunity. He’s also a trained minister who savors work at his father’s church in Connecticut. Most important, he has been sober for more than four years.
“In this company there are opportunities for everyone. I have an excellent situation here at Starbucks and the people are wonderful,” Baker says.
(This might make Baker one of very few people once associated with the Sonics who still have pleasant things to say about Schultz.)
It might be tempting to some to view this as another lowlight in a long fall from grace for Baker, whom the Bucks selected out of the University of Hartford with the No. 8 pick in the 1993 NBA draft. That's not the way he sees it, though.
Baker signed a 10-year, $17.5-million contract with Milwaukee before playing a second of pro ball and missed just four games in four years, averaging 18.3 points, 9.5 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 1.3 blocks per game and becoming a fixture on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. After being shipped to the Pacific Northwest in a three-team deal that landed Shawn Kemp and Sherman Douglas in Cleveland while bringing Terrell Brandon and Tyrone Hill to Milwaukee, Baker continued to shine for the Seattle SuperSonics, posting career-best per-minute scoring, field-goal percentage and Player Efficiency Rating marks en route to his fourth straight All-Star game and his first playoff berth ... which ended in a 4-1 pasting in the Western Conference semifinals at the hands of Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“That was my first experience of having a meltdown,” Baker told SLAM's Zach Burgess back in 2011. “We were the number one seed and we lost. I put everything on me. After the playoff series against the Lakers, I went into a tremendous tailspin. I just felt like I had let the city down and the team down. I really thought we had an opportunity to get to the Finals. Me and Gary [Payton], who was my best friend at the time, went to Cancun, and I didn’t even leave the room. I remember Gary coming to the room and saying, ‘What you going to do, sit in the room all day?’ I just didn’t feel like moving. It sent me to a place that I didn’t want to go. That’s where the spiral began to happen.”
Despite the postseason disappointment and the beginnings of that "meltdown," the Sonics gave Baker a new seven-year, $86 million contract to anchor them down low into the first decade of the new millennium. But the pressure of stardom, the shaken confidence that resulted from getting blown by by Shaq in that playoff series, and the absence of structure during the 1998-99 lockout combined to derail Baker, both in the immediate aftermath of the work stoppage — his numbers and effectiveness declined sharply in the lockout-shortened season — and thereafter. As Ray Allen, Baker's teammate in Milwaukee and a star for both the Bucks and Sonics, put it in the SLAM feature, "He went from being the best forward in the League at that time — even with Karl Malone in the NBA — to just being non-existent," thanks in large part to his drinking.
The Sonics sent the declining Baker to the Boston Celtics in the summer of 2002, hoping that the Connecticut prep and college star would rediscover his top form back in his native New England. He'd make just 89 appearances over the course of two seasons in Boston, starting strong with a string of double-doubles before reportedly devolving into binge-drinking in hotel rooms after poor performances. He clashed with head coach Jim O'Brien, who reportedly confronted Baker after smelling alcohol on him in practice; the Celtics suspended Baker three times, including an indefinite suspension in January of 2004, before waiving him the following month with $36 million still left on his contract.
"When I finally got suspended by the Celtics, that was my roughest day after I failed another test," Baker told Spears. "That was a dark day. There was nobody I could reach out to who could understand the place I was in. Now people are like, 'This idiot put his whole career, contract and family in [jeopardy] for a drink.' There was absolutely no one who had empathy, sympathy, not to that point."
Baker would hang around the NBA for a few more seasons, spending brief stints with the New York Knicks, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers, but never returned to form. He was out of the league by 2006, at age 34, and continued to struggle in the years after his retirement.
He lost a home and a business to financial mismanagement. In filings in a court case against his former advisor, Baker claimed that "virtually all of my earnings" — including an estimated $105 million in salary over the course of his 13-year career — "were spent and/or my investments lost all or nearly all of their value, such that my home in Durham was foreclosed and I was forced to liquidate substantial assets for little or no value, leaving me without resources to meet my financial obligations and living expenses."
After hitting rock bottom "in every aspect of my life," Baker began climbing back toward the light. He began attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings — he said in a 2013 New York Daily News story that he hadn't had a drink since April 2011 — and began serving as both a youth minister and a volunteer assistant basketball coach in Harlem while working to get a master's degree in divinity.
His lawsuit against his former financial advisor has "been resolved, somewhat favorably," according to McNamara, but Baker's still got to work to support his family. What makes the 43-year-old hopeful as he makes the transition from layups to lattes, though — what makes him feel like this is more blessing than lowlight — is that even after all he's squandered over the years, he's still able to do that work:
“For me this could have ended most likely in jail or death. That’s how these stories usually end,” he says. “For me to summon the strength to walk out here and get excited about retail management at Starbucks and try to provide for my family, I feel that’s more heroic than being 6-11 with a fade-away jump shot. I get energy from waking up in the morning and, first of all, not depending on alcohol, and not being embarrassed or ashamed to know I have a family to take care of. The show’s got to go on.”
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