Nestling his 6-foot-11-inch frame behind the Milwaukee bench at Fiserv Forum, Vin Baker already felt the thrill of victory, the reward for his perseverance and discipline even before the Bucks faced the Bulls in Game 1 of their first-round playoff series.
Baker, 50, a Bucks assistant coach, team mentor, and guide, was celebrating 11 years clean and sober that Sunday afternoon. In his mind, he is already winning, surviving a 15-year descent from All-Star and franchise cornerstone to an alcoholic who lost all of his NBA earnings and dignity.
His story is not a tragedy, however. Baker’s return to respectability included a stint as a Starbucks employee. He served lattes in a small-town Connecticut coffee shop while embracing humility, faith, and self-respect that fostered his resurrection.
“Yes! I say that every time, I was just like everybody else once upon a time,” he said. “When it started for me, I developed into an alcoholic just like any other person; once it starts to become part of your life, it’s alcoholism.
“Initially for me, it was the lifestyle. I was in Seattle, we just won 61 games, I had just been named All-NBA Second Team, so this is what we do — we go out, we party, we go to Cancun. It never crossed my mind that at this point this could become an issue, a life-and-death issue.
“That’s how it started for me, and one day I woke up and I started having withdrawals. I was just partying and it was normal and now it feels like I just need to do this every single day.”
After a brilliant career at the University of Hartford, Baker was a first-round pick of the Bucks in 1993, quickly becoming one of the team’s top players. Life was good. He was named to the All-Star team in his second season, beginning a stretch of four consecutive appearances.
Prior to the 1997 season, he was traded to Seattle and thrived in his first season with the Sonics. But that’s where his trouble began.
He began drinking and partying, enjoying the Seattle nightlife. A few drinks a week became a few drinks a night, and Baker was suddenly addicted.
He lost more than $100 million and became a cautionary story of substance abuse and the dangerous NBA lifestyle after a troublesome stint with the Celtics.
Baker’s toughest times occurred in Boston. The Old Saybrook, Conn., native could never enjoy his return to the Northeast because alcoholism was such an obstacle. The son of a pastor abandoned nearly all of his religious principles and beliefs for the sake of a good time. He couldn’t help himself.
“It was really tough, growing up in New England, growing up in Connecticut, getting the opportunity to come back and play for the Boston Celtics, a storied franchise throughout the league, it was way more personal for me,” he said.
“Part of being in that world of struggling with addiction is I knew mentally that I wasn’t prepared to come back home and be in that situation. But the thinking is I’m trying to fight the lifestyle, and at that particular time, the lifestyle of drinking overcame me and I didn’t give myself the proper chance to have any success here.”
He was suspended in February 2003 by Celtics coach Jim O’Brien for violating the terms of his agreement with the club after showing up smelling of alcohol to practice. After another relapse a year later, Baker was released by the Celtics, and the remainder of his career was spent as a declining journeyman.
“When you’re struggling with addiction, the denial part often times pushes away the help,” he said. “It wasn’t necessarily that I didn’t receive help from the Celtics, from the NBA. I received a lot of help. A lot of people offered to help.
“I was just at a place in my life where I wasn’t ready to receive it.”
It wasn’t until he checked himself into his fourth recovery center, on April 17, 2011, that he became serious about sobriety.
“My health started to fail me,” he said. “I felt like I was deteriorating. I went to the mirror and said, ‘God, I need your help. I have nothing else. I didn’t have my reputation, I didn’t have money, I didn’t have friends.’
“I didn’t have the NBA and I was ready to change. My spirit was gone and I had lost hope.”
The first step was something to keep his mind off alcohol, and former Sonics owner Howard Schultz, who also owned Starbucks, offered Baker an opportunity to work at his store in Old Saybrook in 2012. He put on a cap and apron and served coffee.
While some might consider that the ultimate low, Baker said it was the beginning of his renaissance. He felt needed. He learned the coffee business. He studied the ministry. He forgave himself for his transgressions and regenerated his passion for life.
Two years into sobriety, Baker began talking to others about following his path. He became comfortable in his own skin. He is unapologetic about his journey because he believes his rise and fall and rise were preordained.
“There was times I had regrets, a lot of regrets, especially when I was dealing with the addiction,” he said. “Man, I should have gotten sober. I should have done this.
“But I say this all the time: If you get to a certain point in your life, you’re doing well, spiritually, if you’ve overcome obstacles and you feel better, and those obstacles made you better, then no regrets. I’m better because of what I went through.
“Not only am I better as a person and I have this testimony and this journey to share, I can help other people come through it. It was all worth it at this particular juncture.
“A purpose-driven life is what we all should strive for, and it’s what I have now.”
Baker is opening up his first Vin Baker Recovery Center in September in Milwaukee. He works with the Bucks’ big men, including superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo. The players listen to Baker’s story, digest his tales about the NBA lifestyle that can be tempting but also damaging.
“The best part of the story is I crashed and I lost it all,” he said. “These are the reasons I lost it all. The basketball stuff gets me in the door. Everything was about losing hope. The disease took my hope. Everything was taken away, the talent part and after that the spiritual part and then the physical part.
“Because you went through alcohol addiction, you can become better than you ever were before. The message is you can be better.
“People who overcome addiction are very unique and special people. The statistics are not designed for us to overcome, especially with these opioids; they are designed to take us out. That’s the message of hope.
“I get a chance to save move lives. I want to keep getting better at trying to provide hope. At some point, I was forgotten about and I remember that feeling and I can’t let it happen to anybody else.”