Lonny Baxter’s life changed dramatically in the summer of 2006. Four years removed from helping Maryland win the national championship, Baxter’s short-lived NBA career was already in jeopardy after he was released by the Houston Rockets– his fourth team in as many years – when the 2006 season ended.
Baxter had been invited to play summer league with the Charlotte Bobcats, but was arrested after firing a shot from his Glock pistol while driving near the White House. He was placed on probation, but another gun charge the following summer landed Baxter in D.C. Jail for a 60-day sentence.
Sitting in his cell, uncertain of his future, Baxter said this week that he knew that “I had to make changes in my life when I got out. ... I kind of grew up after my legal situations.”
The past six years have seen Baxter play for five different teams in five European countries. He played on a championship team in Greece, as well as in Italy, Spain and Turkey, and is now in his second season in the Russian League. His team is located in Kraysnovarsk, a city of a little less than a million people in Siberia.
It is a place that author Anton Chekhov once called “the most beautiful city in Siberia.” Baxter said that he has grown accustomed to the long road trips to play other Russian teams, as well as to the culture that is far different than any country he has played in since leaving the United States.
“When I heard that the team was in Siberia, I thought, ‘What the ...’” Baxter said in a telephone interview this week. “Once you get there, it’s not so bad. It’s different. It’s in the middle of nowhere. But it’s not as bad as it seems. “
While he enjoyed his two stints in Greece the most, Baxter is happy to still be playing basketball for a living at age 33.
“For me, it's all about playing a game and getting paid,” Baxter said. “It doesn’t matter where I play or what team I play for at this stage of my career. I just want to keep playing as long as I can.”
Baxter’s success at Maryland, where he was the NCAA Tournament Regional MVP in both years that the Terps advanced to the Final Four, did not translate to the NBA.
A second-round draft choice of the Chicago Bulls, Baxter was traded to the Toronto Raptors after his rookie season and eventually cut. He was picked up by the Washington Wizards toward the end of the 2004-05. Baxter briefly reunited with former Maryland teammates Juan Dixon and Steve Blake before getting cut again.
“It was great playing with two of my former teammates, but I got there so late in the season, it was hard to mesh with the team,” Baxter said.
Baxter said he has nobody to blame but himself for not being able to make a career in the NBA.
“If I knew the things I know now, about being a good teammate and things like that, I might have taken advantage of things and been around a long time,” said Baxter, who battled weight and conditioning issues in the NBA to the point where his Maryland nickname -- LB -- took on another meaning. “I learned those things a little too late.”
The highlight of his European career was winning the Greek League championship with Panathinaikos in 2005, but it was a lot different than cutting down the nets in Atlanta after beating Indiana in the NCAA tournament final at the Georgia Dome.
“Panathinaikos won the league almost every year, so it was expected,” Baxter said. “At Maryland we came from being the underdogs to being the NCAA champions. That was so much better.”
Though Baxter jokes that “I’m getting so old it’s hard to remember” any specifics about Maryland’s championship run, he laughs when reminded about the infamous fifth foul he committed against Duke in the 2001 NCAA semifinals in Minneapolis.
It came with 2:48 remaining and the Terps trailing after leading by as many as 22 points earlier in the game. Those who saw the game courtside recall some incidental contact between Baxter and Duke’s Carlos Boozer, who said after the game that he thought he had been called.
“He actually started to raise his hand after the whistle, thinking they were going to call it on him,” Baxter recalled. “Those kinds of things happened against Duke.”
Not only did Baxter’s “phantom” foul help the Blue Devils complete their comeback and win the title – Duke received another favorable call two nights later that played a pivotal role in a victory over Arizona – but it fueled the emotions of the Terps and their fiery coach.
After seeing the foul called on Baxter, Gary Williams wheeled around and yelled toward the press table, “How bad do you guys want Duke in the final?" Williams screamed in the direction of Mike Tranghese, a close friend of his who was both the Big East commissioner and the chairman of the tournament selection committee.
Baxter said this week that he never heard Williams’ comment, but added, “I’m happy they called that foul on me because it fired us up for the following year when we won it.”
The past decade has been a blur of new teams and countries and languages for Baxter to familiarize himself with. His old uniform number -- 35 -- hangs from the ceiling at Comcast Center but the 6-8, 270-pound forward wears whatever number he is given. This year it’s No. 6. Next year, who knows?
What has remained a constant is the game.
“The basketball is pretty much the same wherever you play now -- the U.S., Europe, wherever,” Baxter said. “There’s a lot of pick-and-roll. It’s not as fast paced as the NBA, but the competition is pretty good.”
And Baxter is still being paid to play, even if it means being sent to Siberia.