Wednesday 23 August 2017

From Malahide Girls U12’s to the NBA Draft – Dubliner Dave Baker’s incredible journey in basketball

Jack O'Toole

Those who can’t play, coach, and those who can’t coach, write. Dave Baker has dabbled in all three, but there was once a time where he was more known for being a sought after Irish basketball prospect than the NBA scout that he is today.

Those dreams were dashed when he collapsed in a gym in Chicago on a sweltering hot summer’s day, and his life was nearly jeopardised later that summer in a similar episode where he collapsed in The Irish Times, in weather conditions that were a bit less blistering.

 He was sent to Beaumont Hospital where doctors informed him that his life was on the line and that his basketball days were all but finished, so Baker did what he’d always done, he turned to basketball.

“It was in the middle of summer in Eureka, which was a small town outside of Chicago, and the air conditioning in the gym had gone on the blink and obviously it’s really, really warm anyway,” said Baker.

“We were going at full pace doing transition drills and I just couldn’t catch a breath. I remember I felt a pain in my chest and then I went down. 

“I actually passed out and they got me to the doctor, they checked me out, and they thought it was a thing called pericarditis where anyone can catch it, it’s just water that builds up around the sac of the heart and creates pressure which gives you a little bit of pain.

“I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but when I was in the Irish Times that day, and I got taken into the ambulance, we knew it was pretty serious because I couldn’t breathe again and collapsed.

“I was diagnosed with myocarditis, which is another level above that, and then I went through probably three of four years of hospitalisation. I was in between Beaumont [Hospital] and St. Joseph’s [Hospital] for two years, and they worked out it was something called a viral cardiomyopathy.

“Which at the time was like sudden death syndrome basically, but they caught it.  My heart was really, really strong then, so it held up, but they put me on bed rest.

“I was like that until I was about 22. I remember my 21st was a sober 21st, I don’t think I’ve been at another since.

“I was basically in and out of hospital all the time, but my love for coaching or the game never changed. 

“I remember at one stage I signed myself out of hospital because a guy I grew up with entered a men’s team into the Leinster League, and I actually signed myself out of St. Joseph’s to go play in the playoffs.

“I had a heart monitor and some equipment strapped to my chest in the game so I could play.

“I remember my parents walking into the gym, because they had found out that I had signed myself out, and they knew where I’d gone.

“They tried to drag me out of the gym so I wouldn’t play the game so that kind of shows you the spirit and love that I had for the game.” 

After doctors told him that he wouldn’t be able to play again due to his condition, Baker ditched the heart monitors for the clipboard, and quickly grew a love for coaching. He had helped out with his sister’s underage teams at Swords as a kid, but now as a young adult, he wanted to run his own team.

So he started  working at camps. He coached school teams, girls teams, boys teams, women’s teams, men’s teams, any team that would have him.

As Baker said – “It takes a lot to realise that you’re not going to play the game that you’ve put your heart into for so long, and I knew while I wasn’t the most talented player, I felt no one would work harder to get there.”

So that’s what Baker did. He worked. He coached Malahide girls U12/13/14, Drogheda in the Division 3 Dublin Men's Basketball league, Aer Lingus, Leinster, Tolka Super League, Ireland U15 boys, Ireland U16 girls, until he decided in 2010 that he needed to look beyond Irish shores to further his coaching career.

So when long-time NBA assistant coach Tom Newell came to Ireland to speak at a FIBA basketball conference aimed at promoting the game internationally, Baker attended, and spent the next two weeks picking Newell's brain to give him any sortof insight that he could, determined to pick his brains on any and every basketball matter, the same sort of determination that saw him sign himself out of St. Joseph’s hospital as a 19-year-old to play a local play-off game with a heart monitor attached to his chest.

Tom told me ‘look, you know what you’re doing, you have such a passion for the game, but you need to see other sides of basketball as well.’

“He could see that in Ireland that you’re never going to make good money doing basketball in Ireland. He said to me ‘look, if you were to pick a team now, where would you go?’

“I said ‘I have no idea.’

“College teams you’re thinking Duke, North Carolina, but you need to start low, so he said look I can get you introduced to people that he’s met over the years.

“So he said: ‘I’m going to start off with this’, so he picked up the phone and called a European coach called Ettore Messina, who was the coach of Real Madrid at the time.

“He said I want you to meet with this guy, you could really do with meeting up with him and learning from him. Then we identified that there were Euro League exams coming up, basically a course where you get a diploma in European basketball.”

Baker sat the exams and passed them, the only coach in Ireland to his knowledge to do so. In his words – ‘the Euro League license gets you noticed by the NBA’ - the basketball juggernaut where only the best belong.

Baker got the notice he was looking for, albeit with some help from Newell, and was invited out to Florida to meet with Winning Ways owner Barry Mestel, the head of a scouting agency in Altamonte Springs, Orlando.

Baker and Mestel discussed recruitment, and how Baker would fit into their European operation. The two quickly became colleagues and then friends, and it got him in the door with the NBA’s Miami Heat and the Orlando Magic.

Baker was appointed Winning Ways Director of European Development and scoured Europe for prospective talent, which the Magic incidentally heeded, as the team now has three European players on its 15 man roster, and more on their summer teams who Baker works with directly.

Most of Baker’s time is spent accumulating stats, watching tape, often attending games in some ‘small place in the middle of nowhere’ as he describes it, but when the Magic had the second-pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, where nine international players were taken from the first 21 picks, Baker was invited to be a part of the Magic's draft process.

The draft in American sports is where general managers, those tasked with curating squads and managing rosters, are hired and fired. 

It’s where you can set yourself up for the next decade, as the Miami Heat did by selecting  Dwayne Wade with the fifth pick of the 2003 NBA Draft, or it’s where you can set your team back years, as former Detroit Pistons general manager Joe Dumars did when he chose Darko Miličić with the 2nd pick of that same draft. 

Miličić is now a kickboxer and has been widely described as one of the biggest draft flops of all time. Dwyane Wade is a future hall of famer.

So amidst some of the top scouts in the NBA,  and with a mountain of pressure with the number two pick, there sat Dubliner Dave Baker. 

“It’s intense,” said Baker of draft night.

“It’s nearly surreal, after you can go back and relax in your hotel room and you say to yourself ‘Jesus Christ I was involved in something massive today.’

“You think about all the things that were said, and the people that we could have brought in, and that we didn’t bring in, and how they are going to work out?

“It’s a lottery, but it’s an amazing experience to be involved in, but the best words to describe it are intense and surreal. It’s really what it is, but I’d hate to be the one actually making those difficult calls because it’s a franchise behind them. 

“It’s not a mistake that you can make work, it’s a huge million dollar mistake you could make if you bring in the wrong person. 

“It’s a gamble, but it’s an unreal experience, especially for someone from Dublin. You just sit there, you stay quiet, you just try not to be noticed and take in as much as you can.”

And that’s the crux of Baker’s story, a thirst to learn, to pick the brains of those with more experience than him and to learn from different teams and situations.

Whether it be rearranging forks and cutlery to going through plays with Tom Newell at Malahide Castle, or whether it’s being involved on draft night, he’s a sponge for knowledge.

His playing ambitions may have been rapidly cut short by viral cardiomyopathy, but his journey in the sport continues, starting with recruiting female players from America for Griffith College next season. 

Scouting female graduates from American colleges is not the million dollar decisions that are made in the NBA, but for Baker, it’s basketball. All he’s ever known.

The Dubliner is currently  preparing the u20 men's national team for the European championships in Romania in July, after a great season with Griffith Swords in which the Thunder won the  Superleague National Cup.

20 years after collapsing in a gym in Eureka, Chicago, he is in great health and has two young boys in Ryan (7) and Jake (4), along with support and care of his wife Suzanne, who he met through basketball, a sport which gave him more than just the love for the game.

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