Baker's 'Time' turns back clock Book: The longtime coach recaptures a bit of local hoop heaven with his scrapbook/autobiography.

January 02, 1998|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

Paul M. Baker was scheduled to chat over breakfast about the book he recently published about his career as a basketball coach and playing various sports while he grew up in Baltimore.

You know, Memory Lane stuff.

But just 48 hours before Christmas, Baker unexpectedly had something else playing on his mind -- a funeral. The Mass at St. Leo's Roman Catholic Church in Little Italy definitely was not how he had imagined spending that morning, but he had to go.

That's because Baker, an ex-coach who still squeezes a living from basketball, is working through his extensive attic of Baltimore sports memories, and indelibly, Felix Bucci was among them. Now, Bucci was dead at 51, killed by a car that struck him and his 8-year-old son as they crossed a highway in White Marsh.

Baltimore basketball in the 1960s was the common denominator at this breakfast meeting to talk about "Moments in Time," but for Baker, memories of Bucci were obviously evocative of some of the thoughts -- about players, referees, trainers, bus trips and games -- his book captures.

It was a time when Baker, now 62, had completed four years of coaching at Towson Catholic and was on his first college coaching job, at the University of Baltimore, which in one of the periodic shuffles of Maryland higher education eventually dropped intercollegiate athletics.

For six years, Baker's Bees were blue-collar teams that achieved a measure of local fame under his self-described "fire and brimstone" coaching style. Bucci was an early Baker recruit, a hard-working, eventual co-captain on his 1966-69 teams and to his death a basketball maven looking forward to teaching his son the game.

Baltimore basketball aficionados will smile while reading Baker's recollection of another player from the Bucci era, Bunny Wilson, possibly "the best player to have ever played local college basketball in Baltimore."

Wilson, whom Baker recruited out of rough South Philadelphia on the suggestion of a basketball friend, "appeared one summer day at Penn Station with all his earthly belongings in a straw suitcase," Baker writes.

In three years of varsity play, Wilson averaged nearly 29 points, not to mention a 40-point average as a freshman in a time when freshmen could not play varsity ball. Wilson, who still ranks in the Top 10 of NCAA Division II scorers, played professionally for two years and now works at a Philadelphia hospital.

Baker would subsequently coach and serve as athletic director for eight years at Wheeling Jesuit College, a struggling West Virginia school with a moribund basketball program that he was hired to resurrect, which he did -- with a Baltimore twist.

The best-known player in Wheeling's rebirth was Dicky Kelly, a Dunbar High product whom, at 25, Baker took to the mountains from Bay College, a two-year school that had both a brief existence in Baltimore and, largely because of Kelly, a fling with basketball notoriety.

Kelly led Wheeling to a 47-19 record before graduating two years later, scoring more than 1,400 points and causing Baker to write fondly:

"His time was a little too early -- had he been born 10 years later, he would have been in the National Basketball Association. Today, Dicky Kelly works for the Baltimore City Fire Department, the only Jesuit-degreed, NBA-caliber firefighter in captivity."

Baker's basketball remembrances touch on feisty referees Charley Eckman and Fred Hitel. He also reveals reporting as an )) NBA scout that Muggsy Bogues, the Dunbar player who starred at Wake Forest and has been a pro standout for more than a decade, "will become a cult figure in any NBA city."

Baker tells of having learned basketball mainly through Catholic Youth Organization leagues long before summer camps came into vogue as training grounds.

Too short for basketball at Mount St. Joseph High School even though he did play football for the Gaels, Baker persisted in the sport he loved in a 16-18 CYO league at St. Joseph Monastery in Irvington, his home parish. He also coached younger CYO teams -- a seeming side trip that kept him in the chilly gym but laid the foundation for a career.

Baker's book, which he says he wrote so "my grandson will someday be able to know something about what I was all about," sometimes detours entertainingly from basketball. In places, the volume -- subtitled "A Broken Field Run Through a Lifetime of Baltimore Based Sports Stories" -- is more scrapbook than autobiography.

The range includes numerous memories of Memorial Stadium -- Baker's highlight was seeing Army's famed Mr. Inside, Doc Blanchard, and Mr. Outside, Glenn Davis, help beat Navy, 23-7, before 66,000 in 1944.

For the record, Baker predicts that 40,000 will show up the day Memorial Stadium's demolition begins, hoping for a souvenir.

Baker also offers baseball recollections, one of a Southern-Mount St. Joseph game at Carroll Park in which a Southern player named Al Kaline slid fearlessly home, leaving a set of spike marks in the catcher's shinguards.

Baker, who says he still misses coaching, fashions a quieter living now with a summer basketball camp, a newsletter, two basketball dinners per season, and by evaluating referees who work Atlantic Coast Conference games at the University of Maryland a dozen or more times a season.

Thus, he continues a passion that began at St. Joseph Monastery, where as "a sweaty 12-year-old walking home after a hot, summer day of baseball," he found "the holy water was always cold," and where about the same time, CYO basketball won his interest.

"I noticed the towel boy was Terry, who lived one street over," he writes. "I envied him. For the next few years, I paid my 15 cents on Sunday night and was hooked for life."

Pub Date: 1/02/98

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