I grew up in Northwest Kansas.

Which means, I grew up in a basketball-crazy environment. In my younger years, I grew up in Indiana before moving to central Kansas for a couple years. Since I was the son of a coach, I was always interested in sports and around them quite a bit. But after my dad was offered a job to coach at another school and I moved to Western Kansas? It was another level. I moved to a tiny, tiny town in the NW corner on the state called Brewster. After arriving and making it clear that I enjoyed basketball but didn’t breathe it, I was looked at like I was crazy. From there, I began to realize the obsession the area had with the sport.

Brewster was known for being basketball royalty. Coming off repeated state titles and 25+ win seasons, my dad arrived to take over the program in the late 90′s. It was then that I was introduced to the first family of basketball, the Reid family. In reverse order.. Jayde, the youngest and a star player at Topeka Hayden. Jeff, one of my best friends and Mr. Kansas his senior year, followed by careers at Saint Louis & Washburn. Jalyn, in my grade and another star player at Brewster High. Jay, one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen and had more college offers than I could count. Jordan, one of the best shooters I’ve ever seen and the state record holder for 3 pointers. & finally, Josh.

Josh is where the story of Ron starts. I arrived after Josh starred at Brewster, and in the midst of him playing at Kansas State. Being a “small town” kid that had made it, playing in a major conference, he was the goal. It was surreal to us to see one of our own on television, even after he set the all-time scoring record in the state of Kansas. When we would be outside, getting games of 2 on 2 or 21 in until 2 or 3 in the morning, it was because we wanted to be where Josh was. We wanted to be next.

For most of us, it would never happen. Our area did pump out a lot of talent, with most of us settling for junior college ball or NAIA, with the occasional D2 scholarship. But that wasn’t our goal. We gathered around to watch the McDonalds All-American game every year. We watched the Final Four. We watched the NBA playoffs. Those were the goals we had, however crazy they may be.

What’s crazier? Ron Baker, one of our own, is living the dream so many of us had. Ron comes from a small town a little over an hour from Brewster. Growing up, like most kids, I played summer basketball every year. It’s common for “select” type teams to be put together, giving us enough talent to travel to the big tournaments and compete with teams from across the country. In every tournament in the Scott City/Garden City area, you could count of Ron being around. His dad and my dad are longtime friends, and he would usually find his way around the court, even though he would have to work around his games. Timeout on the floor? Enough time to go get a few shots up. Team is late to arrive? That’s cool, we can have an impromptu 3-point contest. You can tell when kids love basketball. I’ve never seen anyone love basketball more than Jase Herl, former teammate of mine and now Juco coach in Kansas, & the aforementioned Jeff Reid. Ron was in the same category.

Another factor Ron had in his favor, being from Scott City. He had two role models as he came into his own and there’s no doubt in my mind they helped in his development. Tim Peintner, in my grade, was one of the most talented players I’d ever seen from the area. We were a little older than Ron, but that wasn’t a problem. Corbin Kuntzsch is another former Scott City star that was able to fill the gap, going on to play at Fort Hays, a D2 school in the area. Ron, similar to Brewster kids, was brought up in greatness and didn’t know anything else. He carried on the success from his run there and the mindset is evident now as a Shocker.

This is the reason that myself, along with so many other NW Kansans, will be rooting so hard for Wichita State next weekend. We take pride in our area, our players and we want to see them succeed. Being from small schools, you will constantly hear that once these players face the big time, it won’t work. They aren’t used to the competition, the athletes and everything else, despite success all through the summers playing D1 talent. There is always a chip on the shoulder and even if we don’t directly get the chance to show out on a national stage, we’ll pull like crazy for one of us that do. It’s a sense of redemption, vindication.

Every kid growing up in our neck of the woods put in hours with the game they love. The neighbors backyard. The playground. Open gym. They did it with the hope they would one day get their shot at the big-time. Their shot at the Final 4. Ron is living that kid’s dream. As he takes the court next weekend in Atlanta, it will be a full-blown reality.

Here’s to making it happen a couple more times.

 

Twitter: @oconnorkyle