LAS VEGAS — In the land where indulgence is encouraged, where bad decisions turn into lifetime tales, and where dreams can become reality on games of chance, Vin Baker is trying to resurrect his reputation and begin a new NBA career.
The four-time NBA All-Star who was one of the league’s top centers before his career was derailed by alcoholism and weight issues is a member of the Milwaukee Bucks’ summer league coaching staff. Joining summer league coaching staffs for many NBA veterans is the first step to beginning a coaching career.
Former Celtic James Posey parlayed a summer league position on the Cavaliers to an assistant coaching position. Baker is trying to do the same, but he has much more to offer younger players than post moves or rebounding positioning.
Baker can instruct these young Bucks about life off the NBA floor, where here at the Las Vegas Summer League, they are just beginning to be exposed to the temptations of a life that is alluring, irresistible, and sometimes harmful.
It harmed Baker, who was on his way to a stellar career before he became lost in the darkness, alcoholism affecting him during his prime years with a carousel of teams hoping he could regain his form. Baker was done by 34, a cautionary tale about the perils of NBA high life.
Nine years after his final NBA game, Baker looks healthy and refreshed. He smiles constantly. He said he’s in a good place, an ordained minister at his father’s church in Connecticut, having had years to recover, reflect, and re-energize after dealing with losing his career and reputation.
He is eager to pass along his experiences and his knowledge to this younger generation, many of whom have to Google his name to learn of his All-Star appearances.
“It’s been a great experience to give back what I know from the game,” said Baker, who played with six teams over 13 seasons. “It would be totally irresponsible for me to have had the opportunities and learned what I learned and not share it with these young men.
“I think it’s funny because we look at each other for a moment and I’m like, ‘I don’t think this guy knows who I am at all.’ ”
While many first-year players are busy looking through Instagram or texting during the rookie symposium, Baker has real life stories. Drinking turned him from a standout player to an average one, and eventually the mediocrity and the struggle to stay sober ended his career.
“I think the great part of me having the opportunity to speak with them is they know [my] story,” he said. “When I talk to them, that goes a long way. But the main message is to take every day one day at a time and it’s important. Don’t take this for granted. Don’t take your abilities or your opportunity to play in the NBA for granted.
“The professionalism and the talent run hand in hand. The off-the-court stuff will definitely affect you on the court and set you back.”
Baker understands his NBA place and perception. He understands people view him as a “could have been” or a cautionary tale when they see him stroll the summer league grounds. Baker was an All-NBA second-team center in 1997-98 with Seattle. He reached four consecutive All-Star Games, the final one at age 26.
He was never the same after that first season in Seattle.
“From a basketball perspective I know I left so much on the floor,” he said. “That’s somewhat disappointing to get off to such a great start my first five years. But I’ll be honest, from a spiritual standpoint and understanding where God has put me now spiritually, I felt like it was all worth it. A lot of people go through certain things and obviously mine was more documented but if you learn the lesson, no matter [what] level of the lesson it is, it’s about learning it.
“I think I can make up for a lot of what I left as a player on the floor by giving back to these young people.”
One of his most disheartening stops was Boston, and it was even more disappointing since he was a New England kid with family and friends eager to embrace his career in Green. After two uneven seasons, Baker was eventually released for violating the terms of his alcohol treatment program in February 2004. He played just 89 games with Boston.
“I think it was disappointing that I fell into that place in my life, a fan of the Celtics and a fan of all the great teams and being from Connecticut, I think that’s the biggest disappointment,” he said. “That I didn’t give my very best from a talent perspective to the city of Boston and to the community. But I hope through my ministry I can double back one day and help the young people there. Great fans, the history that I knew and grew up around, not being in the space that I needed to be as far as a player and a person to give my very best to that organization.”
Lamenting the past won’t enhance his future, and Baker feels as if he can compensate for his past by ensuring that these youngsters strolling the casinos of Las Vegas and tasting the league’s off-court offerings understand that sometimes it doesn’t end well.
“This is not a redemption story for me, it’s what I have,” he said. “The redemption is I steer kids away from the things that I went through. That’s the redemption, making sure those kids don’t go down the road I went down.”Gary Washburn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.