Long before he spent his days on Beacon Hill, Governor Charlie Baker could be found in an entirely different arena — one that relied more on his height than his political prowess.
With the announcement Thursday that the outgoing governor will take over as the NCAA’s next president in March, Baker’s past as a basketball player at Harvard University came to the forefront, with people musing about his athleticism with humor and curiosity.
His background as an avid sports fan and collegiate athlete, according to one account, may have even factored into the decision to hire him to lead the NCAA, an organization facing an array of issues.
“I mentioned to Sam [Kennedy, CEO of the Red Sox] the NCAA is looking for an executive who has four things: passionate about higher education; ran a business as CEO; was also in government; and was a student athlete and could dunk a basketball,” said Len Perna, chairman of TurnkeyZRG, according to the Sports Business Journal. “Sam laughed and said: ‘I think I might actually have somebody. Ever heard of Charlie Baker?’”
In a press release after the news was announced, Baker said he’s “honored” to be taking on the role, and referenced the “awesome opportunity college athletics provides to so many students.”
Long ago, Baker was an all-conference basketball player at Needham High School, where he played center and did most of his work near the basket, the Globe reported in 2014. In that role, Baker said he would “set picks, rebound, short shots, play defense.”
During an interview on WGBH’s “Boston Public Radio” in 2015, a caller faulted Baker for once losing the Bay State Championship. The man, who identified himself as Brian Keaney, recounted how his uncle told him Baker “inbounded the ball with 13 seconds left in the game once,” causing the team to lose “the big game.”
Baker played ball — and denied any wrongdoing.
“That’s so funny,” Baker said. “You should tell Frank there were not 13 seconds left. There were two. Okay? And I threw the ball inbounds and Jeff Dillon blocked it. No excuses. Jeff Dillon blocked it, he laid it in, we lost by one point.”
Although he later went on to play for Harvard as a freshman, Baker skipped his sophomore year to concentrate on schoolwork. But he regretted stepping away from the team, he has said.
When coach Frank McLaughlin gave him the chance to don the uniform again, after Baker approached him, Baker took him up on the opportunity. Between earning his degree and rocking out with friends at Aerosmith concerts, Baker, who is 6 foot 6, was a defensive-minded power forward for the Crimson during the 1977-78 season.
“He was a defensive specialist, which means you can’t shoot,” McLaughlin told the Globe in 2014. “What I remember about Charlie was that he was a guy with tremendous enthusiasm and how hard he played.”
Baker later went on to become an assistant coach of the JV squad at Harvard. He referred to his time coaching and playing as among the most special memories he created at college, saying it was a “real center of gravity” for him.
Nowadays, you probably won’t find Baker running up and down any courts. And an old Achilles tendon injury from his college days has at times acted up, landing him on crutches and wearing a protective boot in 2015.
But in the years since he was in the Ivy League, the Republican governor hasn’t been shy about expressing his fondness for the sport.
“I haven’t played a lot of full-court,” Baker said, “because I lose my legs.” But the game “was a constant source of joy and entertainment.”
In the past, Baker has said he plays casual half-court matches when he could find the free time. He has also dropped by his old stomping grounds to speak with players, or attend games court-side with his wife, Lauren Baker. He’s even showed off his skills at the Auerbach Center, the practice facility for the Boston Celtics.
His love for basketball is one he shares with Governor-elect Maura Healey, who played point guard for Harvard from 1988-92 — a collegiate career that included the Crimson winning the Ivy League Championship her junior year, and Healey being named co-captain her senior year.
Bonding over their mutual love for the sport, the two played a game of Horse at the Globe’s request in 2014, when Baker was the governor-elect and Healey was the incoming attorney general. The bipartisan shootout was held at Harvard’s Hemenway Gymnasium.
Baker boldly — and jokingly — predicted he would lose from the get-go, asking if it “was time to get this massacre on?” (He was right; Healey edged Baker and emerged victorious.)
In a tweet on Thursday, Healey recalled that moment by sharing a picture from the day of the contest, and congratulated Baker on his next steps with the NCAA.
“I know he knows the important role athletics can play and I’m excited for the future of college sports and student-athletes under his leadership,” she said.
Congratulations to @CharlieBakerMA on his new position as President of the NCAA. I know he knows the important role athletics can play and I’m excited for the future of college sports and student-athletes under his leadership. pic.twitter.com/cfirpjJ4P9— Maura Healey (@maura_healey) December 15, 2022