Former NBA All-Star Vin Baker rebounds from life of booze, hopes to become a pastor


vin-baker-4There was time when Vin Baker was considered one of the best, leading power forwards in the NBA.

Baker holds career averages of 15 ppg, 7.4 ppg in 32.5 minutes of playing time. He appeared totally in 791 NBA games (604 started), and was a 4-time NBA All-Star.

He even played for the U.S. Olympic Basketball team. However, certain problems forced him to leave NBA.

Now, Baker is a student at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, studying to get his Master’s degree in divinity with the hopes of becoming a pastor, just like his father, who also struggled with alcohol and stopped drinking after a religious awakening.

Baker is resting an elbow on a wooden pulpit, his 6-11 body wrapped in a snappy, plaid suit that seems to stretch on forever. He takes a deep breath and exhales, his long face looking down for a moment. The audience waits patiently, kids sitting up straight. Then, Baker, tells his story, difficult as it might be.

“Delivering a sermon is harder than shooting free throws,” he says.

“At one point I thought having a full armor of God was having a sneaker in my name and having millions of dollars,” he says with a smile, looking out to a small crowd seated in folding chairs. “In my career, I amassed $105 million. Sounds like a pretty big armor, right?”

Most of the adults in the crowd quickly reply with an “Uh huh.”

Baker smiles and goes on.

“When you’re protected by the armor of God, it doesn’t matter how much money you had or how many gold medals you won in the Olympics. No, the armor means praying and having the armor protect you from the enemy.”

He speaks without notes, his voice getting stronger.

“When you get some $100 million, it’s easy to forget about God,” said Baker, who spent some time with the Knicks. “I’m guilty. I forgot about church on Sunday. But he brought me back under his protection.”

As an NBA player for 13 seasons, Baker was an anomaly: a 6-11 forward who could shoot from the outside and dribble like a guard.

As a preacher, Baker is similarly gifted, speaking in a soothing, deep tone, cracking jokes, taking his time. Baker was a man in control as he delivered a sermon to the Abyssinian Baptist Junior Church on a Sunday in early January.

So, it was a surprise that Baker, 41, chose to talk about his own failings, of blowing millions of dollars in his career, and struggling to come to terms with his relationship with God.

And though he didn’t mention it, his failures all stemmed from an addiction to alcohol and with issues of depression — a one-two combination that destroyed his career and nearly killed him, he admits.

Still, he was standing there before the church group that day, clean and sober, looking trim, full of promise.

vin-baker-1In the nearly two years since Baker has sworn off alcohol, he has worked hard to get his life together, abstaining from the hard liquor he favored after games.

Baker doesn’t attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or follow a 12-step program. But he does subscribe to a higher power.

Since May, out of the public eye, in a basement of the Abyssinian Church in Harlem, Baker has served as a youth minister, running Sunday morning prayer services and counseling young adults in the evenings.

He does this for no money, with little glamour or fanfare. He is no longer Vin Baker the Olympian, who once won 61 games alongside Gary Payton with the Seattle SuperSonics. He is far removed from that life.

Now, he is a student at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, studying to get his Master’s degree in divinity with the hopes of becoming a pastor, just like his father, who also struggled with alcohol and stopped drinking after a religious awakening at age 20.

Baker lives in a sparse but pleasant two-bedroom dorm at Union, a change from the 9,613-square foot mansion in Connecticut he once called home.

Baker likes to say: “The sneakers squeak to keep me at peace.”

To that end, he also serves as an unpaid volunteer assistant for the Thurgood Marshall Academy basketball team, located just blocks from the church and a short drive from his dorm.

After a remarkable career that saw him rise and fall with dizzying speed, Baker has rebuilt his life around a desire to help others through a simple formula: basketball-school-church.

It’s a support system that takes the place of AA meetings and sponsors. And despite getting busted for drunken driving in 2007, Baker says he no longer craves the taste of alcohol and hasn’t touched the stuff since April 17, 2011.

“It’s nothing short of a miracle,” he says of his comeback. “Physically, mentally, spiritually, it’s nothing short of a miracle.”

The church has always had a close relationship with recovery, and Baker tells the rapt audience that day about his upbringing, how before NBA games he would sit on his team’s bench and pray, attracting the flashes of photographers.

“Let me break it down. It was phony,” Baker says to the small congregation. “It was kind of a double life. Everyone knew my father was a preacher. But when I left the arena I was jumping into my fast cars, hanging out in my mansion, doing all the wrong things.”

vin-baker-2“DOUBLE LIFE” in the NBA

Baker is eating a thick slice of steak at a barbecue joint in Harlem, aware that people are looking at him.

He knows what you’re thinking. He’s a walking cliche, a famous athlete who blew his fortune, only to find salvation in the church. He claims to be a changed man, but is he really different?

“There’s a danger in saying, especially in this city, ‘Look at me now,’” says Baker. “Even when you go down and you come back, there are traps set for you. I have to keep in perspective every single day that what got me doing those crazy things (are still out there).”

Baker didn’t always have a problem with alcohol. He began as a recreational drinker and didn’t start to go off the deep end until the 1998-1999 NBA lockout, just as the Seattle SuperSonics signed him to a massive, seven-year, $86.6 million deal.

“Too much time, too much money, not focused,” he says in his small office inside the Abyssinian Church. He’d always been a player who starved for attention, beginning at the University of Hartford, when he was the “small kid from the small town from the small college trying to be amongst the best,” he says.

After five years of hard work in the NBA, he accomplished those goals. He was a four-time All-Star and one of the top power forwards in the league. And alcohol was always available.

“I wasn’t at a point where I was getting inebriated,” he says. “For me, it was getting it to calm nerves.”

Professional sports are the “Disneyland of drinking,” according to Leigh Steinberg, the former super agent and inspiration for the title character of the hit film “Jerry Maguire” who struggled with alcoholism and is now trying to rebuild his sports empire. “Alcohol is pervasive, ubiquitous,” he says in a phone interview.

“The lifestyle of banquets and dinners and clubs has the ready availability of alcohol. At many of those events it’s easier to get a drink of alcohol than a drink of water.”

Baker described his existence in the NBA as leading a “double life.” He practiced and played in games and drank heavily at night. And he kept his habit a secret. His father James Baker describes him as a “closet alcoholic.”

Says Baker’s longtime former accountant, Donald Brodeur Jr., “I never witnessed Vin intoxicated during the whole time that I was working with him.” Baker is currently suing Brodeur for mismanaging his finances.

Baker admits that he indulged in the exotic back story that surrounded him. The son of a preacher, he had an added, religious dimension that put him on a higher, moral pedestal, he says. When he went on a bender, he thought he could handle it.

“And I knew better,” Baker says. “But everything I was doing, from the basketball to the hanging out — it was working. Like, in my first five years, what wasn’t working?”

Eventually, Baker’s on-court performance began to dip. He was traded to Boston before the 2002-2003 season. By that point, Baker was a binge drinker. “Everything in my being, from my smell, to my game, to my attitude was that of an alcoholic,” says Baker.

vin-baker-3Baker admitted to showing up to practice while reeking of alcohol, and he was suspended by the Celtics on Feb. 27, 2003 for violating the terms of his treatment. A week later, Baker checked himself into the Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan.

Baker told others in the facility his name was Mike Evans, a character from the sitcom “Good Times,” that he says was part of an overall arrangement with the Boston Celtics to protect his privacy. He was addressed as “Mike” while he was there.

“I never said, ‘Hi, I’m Vin Baker and I’m an alcoholic,’” Baker says. “I never got to stand up in a meeting and say that, and that’s part of the recovery process.”

He relapsed again following his release from the hospital, failing a urine test, and the Celtics released him on Feb. 18, 2004, a move that cost Baker “in the $16 million, $17 million range” after the two sides reached a settlement, according to Brodeur.

Isiah Thomas and the Knicks pounced and signed Baker on March 12, 2004. Baker cried at his introductory press conference, but was soon traded to the Rockets and former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy. He didn’t stick there either, eventually washing out of the league in 2006.

In the process, he blew nearly all his money on bad investments, such as a restaurant he opened in 2005 called “Vinnie’s Saybrook Fish House” that drained “nearly all of Baker’s remaining assets,” according to a copy of the complaint against Brodeur, obtained by the Daily News and provided by Brodeur.

“You don’t open a restaurant when you’re an alcoholic,” Baker explains. “I mean, that’s not rocket science. Bad life changes because of my alcoholism landed me into a place of financial — a terrible place financially. You don’t wake up from X amount of years of being an alcoholic, and saying, ‘Well, at least I still have my money.’ It’s very rare.”

Baker described himself as now being “comfortable” financially, even though his mansion was foreclosed on in 2008.

Baker is suing Brodeur Jr. and his financial firm for mishandling millions of dollars of his money in an explosive eight-count lawsuit filed in Superior Court in Middletown, Conn. on Jan. 9, 2012. Baker alleges that Brodeur and his company “were negligent in performing the management services they agreed to provide and breached their duties . . . by mismanaging Baker’s assets through inadequate oversight” such as the restaurant and an investment in a sports museum that Baker lost money in, according to the complaint.

Baker is trying to recoup $12 million. His attorney in the matter, Neal Moskow, did not return a call for comment. According to Brodeur, the case is still in the discovery phase.

“I tried my hardest for Vin and I wish him the best,” Brodeur said in a phone interview. “During the course of his career, he had control of his finances. He was on all the accounts. When you have someone not always thinking rationally, you can use your imagination to what can happen, especially with an addiction issue.”

Baker declined to comment on the case.

vin-baker-bucks-winCOACHING BASKETBALL

For someone so tall, it’s easy to overlook Baker in a basketball gym.

Before a recent game at Thurgood Marshall, Baker leans against a wall, staring intently as Thurgood coach Abdu-Allah Torrence readies his team. “This is our house!” he bellows.

Baker does most of his coaching in quiet, hushed tones. Several times, he can be seen pulling a player aside during a lull in the action, gently resting an arm on the player’s shoulder, giving advice.

“He shies away from the attention,” says Torrence. “He’s more like: ‘It’s about the kids. The kids need the attention. It’s not about me,’ and I think that’s why he takes a reserve role where he doesn’t say as much and is more behind the scenes.”

Torrence didn’t hesitate to say what Baker gets out of coaching: “I think he gains peace of mind.”

While Baker is understated in how he presents himself, the parents of some of the players were understandably surprised when they found out who their new assistant coach was back in September.

“When I walked into the gym, I thought I was dreaming,” says Kweku Gibbs, whose son, Jhedayah, is a junior guard on the team.

The principal of Thurgood Marshall, Sean Davenport, is a deacon at the Abyssinian Church, which led to Baker working with the team. Davenport calls Baker “an inspiration to these kids, a human textbook about the meaning of perseverance.”

Baker has coached high school basketball before. Two years ago, he presided over the freshman team at Old Saybrook High School in Connecticut, the same school he attended. Baker calls that period among the lowest of his life. He was hanging around his hometown, living in the house he grew up in, his playing days over.

Asked what Baker was doing, his father, James replies: “Not much of anything.”

vin-baker-6
Baker’s schedule consisted of waking up after a night of heavy drinking “upset, bitter,” he says. He rarely left his home in those years, and only sobered up to coach the freshman team for the 2011 season (he says he never drank or was inebriated when he coached).

Baker never considered suicide, but he realized he was headed toward a messy ending if he continued on that path.

“I just got tired of being tired,” Baker says. “I just got tired of feeling sorry for myself.”

Baker checked himself into the Rushford Center in Middletown, Conn. for a week, the fourth and final time he would seek help for substance abuse, he says.

“I’ve always had ministry in my heart,” he says. “So when I left detox I went straight to the church. I just committed myself to the Lord.”

Baker credits former Seattle Supersonic owner and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz with helping him come to New York and turn his life around.

Schultz had a relationship with Rev. Dr. Calvin Butts III of the Abyssinian Church. Baker and Butts hit it off when they met, and Baker moved to New York this past summer. For seven months, Baker quietly went about his business at the church.

It wasn’t until a reporter saw him at a local basketball tournament in late December that he agreed to speak out for the first time. And he did so only because he wanted to bring attention to his ministry and to the students he coaches. One of those is Dimencio Vaughn, a star sophomore forward on the Thurgood Marshall basketball team.

When Vaughn’s grandmother died of a heart attack on New Year’s Day (“Right when the ball dropped,” Vaughn says), it was Baker who counseled him.

“He’s like, ‘You got to keep pushing yourself, don’t let it stop you,” Vaughn said. “ ‘I know you loved her, just do this for her and yourself.’ It made me cool down.”

The two often meet for dinner after school or at the Abyssinian Church for services.

“He’s a great leader,” says Vaughn. “He keeps me focused on grades, church, being loyal to God. He’s there for me when I need something.”

Baker choked up as he described what it meant for a player such as Vaughn to be thankful for his company.

“That means that everything I’m trying to do is working,” Baker said. “So it makes me want to continue to go every single day. I have kids that I’m responsible for, so turning back (to alcohol) is not an option.”

vin-baker-boston*****
Baker is shaking hands with the Gompers basketball team following a 74-68 loss on Jan. 11, the players and coaches looking up as if glimpsing a skyscraper.

“If you go from the NBA and you’re working at a high school, that means that you’re really just coming all the way back to the community,” Gompers coach Ned Jackson said. “I love to see that.”

After the game, Baker chatted with a couple of parents, wearing a knapsack and looking very much like the student he is. He and Mike Bond, an old college buddy, then hustled into Baker’s Lincoln Navigator and drove to the Abyssinian Church, where Baker was running a class that night called HYPE, which stands for Helping Young People Excel.

Baker is careful about bringing up his past with his students, but he did so last month with Tyshay Washington, an 18-year-old high school senior, who was having trouble balancing her ongoing relationship with Christianity with Baker’s desire to try to increase the size of the class — a dynamic that Washington feared would upset the chemistry in the room.

Baker listened carefully and said that once he embraced Christ, he learned to love everyone, even those who crossed him. Though Washington didn’t seem to grasp what he was saying at the time, Baker wasn’t bothered. He patiently listened, gently guiding her toward other solutions.

Several days later, Washington said the message had sunk in. She said that Baker’s openness about his own past made his voice seem more authentic and easier to accept.

“He’s very genuine,” she said. “He cares about us and wants our faith in God to grow. It’s good to have someone like that who went through so many traumatic things in their life to have someone to look up to. It’s inspiring in a way because he was able to choose a different path when things weren’t going his way.”

vin-baker-bucks-paint*****
Baker can’t stop laughing. He’s eating Mexican food with Bond at a local dive spot not far from Union Seminary. The Bulls are pummeling the Knicks on a flat-screen TV overhead. A crowd at a table to his left keeps glancing over to see who this tall man is.

Sipping on a diet soda, Baker tells a story of how a 16-year-old Tim Duncan once came to Hartford on a recruiting visit, hoping to meet the big man on campus. But Baker demurred, not wanting to be bothered.

“I was like, ‘Get him out of here. I have to sleep,’ ” Baker says, slapping his knee and unleashing a beautiful laugh at the arrogance of his old self.

An hour later, Baker is standing in his apartment at Union. He stretches his long arms, nearly touching the ceiling and switches on the TV. It’s nearing midnight and Baker is in for the evening.

As a former teammate of Baker’s at Hartford and Baker’s personal assistant throughout his NBA career, Bond had a front-row seat for his friend’s ups and downs. So he understands if some are skeptical of Baker’s latest attempt to remake his life.

“I’m sure there are certain people out there, knowing his history toward the tail end of his career that expect and assume that he may relapse again,” says Bond, a Brooklyn resident who won a state Federation title with Grady High School in 1990.

“So having that in the back of his mind, which I’m sure he does — him being a competitor, he’s like, ‘I’ll never let them see me like that again.’ So that’s part of what motivates him.”

Baker doesn’t like to use the word ‘redemption’ to describe his current situation. But it’s hard not to see the liberating message of what he’s doing.

vin-baker-5In addition to one day becoming a church pastor, Baker also hopes to counsel young players about the hazards of life in the NBA.

But most of all, Baker wants to inspire others who are struggling with alcohol and depression, becoming, as he puts it “the face for this disease.”

Now a licensend minister, Baker believes that at some point he will talk about his dependence on alcohol during one of his sermons, a topic he has left untouched to this point. It’s just one more part of a process of self-discovery and sobriety that Baker takes day-by-day.

“I think that will come over time,” Baker says. “I went to one of the lowest levels you could possibly go to, being where I was. And He was able to bring me back up. And it didn’t have to do with me becoming a millionaire again. It had to do with me changing my lifestyle, changing my addiction patterns. And that’s everything to me.”

Baker gave a hint of how central his work with the church and the basketball team is to his sobriety at the junior church service last month.

At the end of a sermon, after delivering his message about the artifice of material possessions and how through God he found his way, Baker thanked the audience for listening, growing emotional as he spoke.

“It was special for me to be here,” he said to them. “It means a lot —more than you will ever know.”

/NY Daily News/

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