Paul M. Baker, a highly respected Baltimore basketball coach who was inducted into three athletic halls of fame, died Saturday of complications from Parkinson's disease at Genesis Health Care — The Pines in Easton. He was 78.
"He was quite a figure in basketball, and for years in town he was called 'Mr. Basketball.' I always called him 'The Guru,'" said Bill Tanton, longtime sports editor of The Evening Sun.
"Basketball was his life. He was a fiery little short guy and a hell of a talker. He expressed it well and was extremely articulate," said Mr. Tanton. "He was so knowledgeable and everyone looked up to Paul."
"He was always terrifically informed on the game. His knowledge was incredible," said Vince Bagli, retired WBAL-TV sports anchor and a longtime friend. "He was so many things, he was a teacher, coach and a writer who wrote two books. He was one of those guys who made things happen."
The son of a Pennsylvania Railroad ticket agent and a Jos. A. Bank tailor, Paul Martin Baker was born in Baltimore and raised in Irvington and Catonsville.
He graduated from Mount St. Joseph High School in Irvington in 1954. While a student at Mount St. Joe, Mr. Baker did not play basketball but played halfback on the football team and was an infielder on the baseball team.
He began his coaching career while at St. Joe when he coached St. Joseph's Monastery to two Baltimore Catholic Youth Organization titles.
That job "changed my life," Mr. Baker wrote in his 2002 memoir, "La Famiglia Americana." "I had the keys to the building. I was no longer the little Italian kid from Hilton Street."
Mr. Baker earned a bachelor's degree in 1960 from Washington College, where he was an aide to basketball coach Ed Athey.
He then coached basketball in 1960-1961 at the University of Baltimore as assistant to coach Don Newbery.
He was selected as the boys basketball coach at Towson Catholic High School in 1961. He built a 93-32 record, with the 1962 team winning the Alhambra Catholic Invitational Tournament in Cumberland, and his teams winning the Catholic League title three times.
"He had good, competitive teams that were the best in the city," Mr. Bagli said. "He brought Towson Catholic from nowhere."
Mr. Baker returned to the University of Baltimore as head coach from 1965 to 1971, where he compiled a 70-69 record.
One of Mr. Baker's star players at the University of Baltimore was Isaiah "Bunny" Wilson, whom he recruited from South Philadelphia. Mr. Wilson arrived in Baltimore in 1967.
"I met him and he became like my father. There is no question about that. He hollered and screamed at me but taught me so much about basketball that I made All-American twice while at UB," said Mr. Wilson, who went on to play for the NBA's Detroit Pistons and now lives in Philadelphia.
During three years of varsity play, Mr. Wilson averaged 29 points per game and still ranks in the Top 10 of NCAA Division II scorers.
"I always called him 'Coach,' and he'll always be my coach. I loved Paul Baker and he'll always be very special to me. In fact, his entire family adopted me," said Mr. Wilson. "I have nothing but fond memories of Paul Baker."
From 1971 to 1979, Mr. Baker coached basketball at what is now Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, W.Va. While at Wheeling, he compiled a record of 130-106.
In his 1997 sports memoir "Moments in Time," Mr. Baker described his coaching style as "fire and brimstone."
After leaving Wheeling, he worked as an assistant at George Washington University in 1980, before leaving coaching to spend more time with his three teenage sons.