On the first day of spring, inside Hampton University's Holland Hall, two men sweat through a morning workout at one end of the basketball court.
The younger man, Hampton University senior and All-MEAC wing Darrion Pellum, aspires to a professional basketball career. He moves mostly wordlessly through a series of drills — shooting, dribbling, moving and pivoting from different spots on the floor.
The older man, Hampton native Ganon Baker, can help Pellum reach his goal. For nearly 90 minutes, he demonstrates and directs the drills. He moves crisply, precisely and constantly, belying his 39 years. He maintains an almost endless stream of chatter, both instructional and encouraging.
"Come on, DP, you can't miss two in a row. Elevate, elevate, elevate."
"You've got to get it off quicker than that."
"Use your feet to get open and the ball will help you score."
"Every shot's the most important shot. Every shot's the game winner."
"Every miss, you're closer to a make."
"Don't let your mistakes affect the next possession."
"Push through, push through. At the end of pain is success."
At the end of the session, it's difficult to tell who's worked harder. In part, that's why Pellum is grateful that Baker offered his services. And that's why Baker carved out a few days from an increasingly demanding schedule to work out a fellow Hampton High alum.
"It's kind of amazing that a guy from my high school is in his position and willing to come back and work with me," Pellum said.
"I want him to be the first guy from Hampton High to make the NBA," Baker said. "If it happens, maybe he'll inspire the next guy to do it."
Baker preaches possibility, largely because he embodies it. He is Tony Robbins with a jump shot, Dr. Phil with a handle. Maybe more accurately, he is the Johnny Appleseed of roundball, spreading the gospel of hoops and nurturing the game in gyms large and small.
Baker has evolved from a halftime-show, ball-handling wizard to one of the most respected figures in the expanding world of basketball training. He is New York Knicks star Amar'e Stoudemire's regular workout partner and has worked with NBA players Chris Paul, Kevin Durant and Jerryd Bayless.
Baker routinely works the Nike skills academy circuit, including those fronted by NBA stars LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Deron Williams and Vince Carter. He conducts clinics nationally and now internationally, at all levels, year-round. He has upwards of 50 basketball workout videos and aims to establish a coaching and training network domestically and abroad so that others can learn and teach the game as he has.
Local AAU hoops impresario Boo Williams calls Baker "one of the best guys in the country."
Former William and Mary hoops standout David Schneider, himself just getting into the clinic business, called Baker "the Michael Jordan of personal training and basketball skills training."
Baker is flattered by the comparison, though he doesn't buy it. Yes, he is living his dream. Yes, he has had some success. But there's so much more to do.
"I'm just some small guy from Hampton, Virginia, who loves basketball and tells people how to dribble and shoot," he said. "To be able to do what I do and make a living, to me, that's a blessing. I mean, I've never won a game in my life. I never played or coached at the highest level. What kind of credibility do I have? I've just studied a lot and worked at it and try to teach others what I've learned."
Baker overcame whatever limitations and doubts he had through desire and effort. He honed a knack for conveying what he knows, which has helped separate him from the burgeoning list of basketball trainers.
Boston Celtics assistant coach Kevin Eastman, who coached Baker at UNC Wilmington and remains a mentor and sounding board, said there are several reasons why Baker is good at what he does.
"Number one, like anyone who's good at what he does, passion," Eastman said. "Number two, although he knows a tremendous amount about his subject, the workout, he's always willing to learn. So even though he's an expert at what he does, he doesn't conduct himself on a daily basis like an expert.
"The third part that makes him unique is that a lot of people acquire knowledge and then hold onto it. He's willing to impart it to others, to help others reach their goals and become what they want to become, either a better player or a better skill development teacher."
Tony Dorado, Nike's national manager for high school basketball, has known Baker for approximately seven years. He said that Baker's personal charisma, in addition to his energy and knowledge, separate him.
"He's got great knowledge about what he does, and the energy that he brings onto the court is contagious," Dorado said. "The players that he's working with can't help but get fired up and want to work. Not just work hard because they want to get better, but because of Ganon himself, and his energy."
Baker joked that it's a good thing he found a job within basketball because he had no Plan B. From age 8, he said, he knew he wanted to do something related to the game.
He won a state title at Hampton High. He began his college career at Duquesne and finished at UNC Wilmington. He did small college coaching stints after graduation and continued to attempt to play professionally.
Injuries scuttled a couple of his pro opportunities, one in Iceland, and the last, with the Denver Nuggets at age 30. At that point, he began to get serious about coaching and training. He had dabbled in skill training, strictly on the local level. He had even produced a couple of workout DVDs: "35 Street Moves You Can Use" and "22 Game Time Drills."
Baker's training career began to take off in the spring of 2004. He recalled one April evening when Boo called. He said that a couple of Nike reps were in town, and asked Baker if he was available to conduct a workout. When Baker hustled to Kecoughtan High, he saw only Boo, his assistants and one of his AAU travel teams.
"I was kind of annoyed," Baker remembered. "I remember thinking, Boo just wanted to get his team a workout. But I went and got my stuff and ran through my normal workout."
Unbeknownst to Baker, former Nike honcho Don Crenshaw was indeed in town, and watched from outside through the gym window at Kecoughtan. Sufficiently impressed, Crenshaw introduced himself to Baker afterward and subsequently helped him gain entree into Nike's various camps and skills academies. It was a valuable experience on a couple of levels.
"That told me that no matter who's in the gym and no matter what you feel like," Baker said, "you've got to bring it every day because you never know who's watching."
For a time, Baker vacillated between trying to get an NBA assistant's job and continuing his training work. Much as the league and the best players in the world appealed to him, in the end, he kept coming back to skill training.
Baker still has the opportunity to work with pros at various clinics. Stoudemire saw him at a clinic in 2008, liked his work, and the two have been workout partners since. Baker spent the better part of three months with Stoudemire in Miami last fall during the NBA lockout.
Indeed, Baker could do more NBA work, but he's rejected several invitations from players to parachute into their towns for several days or a week because he fears that it would take time from some of his grassroots efforts.
"To me, I don't think you're a true teacher if you don't teach everybody," he said. "I believe that you reap what you sow. I think you have to pay it forward. I think the reason I'm still in business is that I truly love the game and I love what it can do. It can bring people together. It can tear down racial and cultural barriers.
"I believe sports can change the world. It can eliminate racism and poverty. Sports can change people's lives."
Baker's business has been on an upward spiral for the past few years, because of his own gifts and his NBA associations. Working with elite players has sharpened his perspective for what's necessary and has ramped up his credibility among younger players.
"He's going to tell you the truth and work you every day," Pellum said. "He knows stuff that most people don't know. He's worked with some of the best players in the world."
"Truth be known," Eastman said, "he'll be able to impact more players all over the world by staying where he is. I don't know where Ganon's head is today — does he have that great yearning to be in the NBA? The NBA's a great life, but he's affecting many, many more lives by doing what he's doing. That's part of is fiber. Whatever he gets into, he's going to give 100 percent to. He's not going to jump with something that just sounds good or looks good."
Baker's services don't come cheaply. Check that. Sometimes, they do. For example, a camp next month in Birmingham, Ala., for 7th-12th graders has a $300 registration fee. But Baker is a notoriously soft touch for a parent or kid who he senses shares his desire.
"They'll say, 'I don't have $100' or whatever the fee is," Baker said. "I'll say, 'What do you have?' I'll take $20 or $50 if I think they're sincere and really want it."
It's not the textbook path to Fortune 500 status, but Baker isn't exactly aiming for that, either.
"I'm a coach trying to run a business," he said. "I'm not a businessman trying to coach."
Baker's ascent hasn't come without costs. His unrelenting pursuit of a career in basketball cost him his first marriage, which he said was entirely his fault.
"I realized that life isn't just about passion, it's about balance," he said. "I had no balance."
He has since remarried, to a women's college basketball coach he met at a clinic, of course. Melissa Baker — he refers to her as M.J. — just finished her first season as head coach at Bluefield (Va.) College, an NAIA program that went 22-12.
Their relationship and subsequent marriage prompted Ganon to sell the house he maintained in Wilmington, N.C., and relocate to Bluefield.
Though Baker's new home isn't exactly a travel destination hub, he can manage his business from anywhere. He figures that he's on the road approximately 200-250 days out of the year. He has several employees in Ganon Baker Basketball, LLC, and hopes to grow the brand.
"We're always evolving, in terms of wanting to help players get better," Nike's Dorado said. "As long as Ganon is doing what he does and continues to evolve himself and get better and stay on top of things, I think he'll be a part of what we're doing."
In addition to the clinics that he runs and attends, Baker conducts coaching certification seminars, since his eventual aim is to have Ganon Baker-trained coaches in every state and however-many foreign countries are interested.
But he is the primary asset at present, and he knows it. As such, he is in phenomenal physical shape. His concession to age is more rest, stretching, massage, ice and better nutrition. But he knows guys who are well into their 40s and even 50s who still run full-court and perform remarkable physical feats. Why not him, too?
Because when you watch Baker running around the basketball court at Holland Hall, coaching and coaxing a young man toward his dream, he appears 18 all over again, with a world of possibility in front of him.
As Baker cooled down afterward on that spring morning, he grinned and said, "My office is a gym. How great is that?"Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun