Hammond boys basketball guard Chris Baker leads the team in scoring with 20.1 points a game, but the senior also sets the level of play for his Golden Bear teammates through his vocal encouragement and his physical efforts.
"He's very talented, but more important, he is continuing to step up with his vocal leadership," said coach Karl Friedheim, whose team is 18-3 and will play Atholton for the county championship Tuesday. "It's very important because Chris takes us to a higher level. He sets the tone on defense. He's really what we need. Everyone else tries to reach his level."
Baker is "5 feet 10 going on 6 feet," says his coach. He draws the opposing team's toughest defender and plays defense on the opposing team's best shooter.
"Defensively, he's made a lot of big blocks this season," Friedheim said. "It's his timing on the ball and body control. The amazing thing is that while he may pick up fouls at times when he shouldn't, he doesn't get called for any when he's making those blocks."
Baker, 18, averages 7.1 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 3.9 steals and 1.6 blocks. In the classroom, he has pulled his grade point average up from an overall 2.57 to a 3.57 this year.
Have you always played basketball?
To be honest, I didn't like sports at first. But I have two older brothers, and they hated seeing me in the house watching TV and playing video games on a wonderful day outdoors. So they started dragging me to a court to play with them. I was like 12 or 13, and they saw I was starting to get pretty good, and they would pick me to play on their pick-up teams, and I'd be breaking down and scoring on people who were supposed to be really good ... and I started to like it.
Did your brothers teach you the basics?
My brothers, Sheldon Jackson and Michael Jackson, taught me the basics. But when they started getting more serious about their own academics, I had to take it on myself to practice and play more. ... And I had a good coach in middle school, Coach Walker at St. Anthony's in Washington. He basically restructured my fundamentals and increased my skills.
Were there any pros or college players who you watched that figure in to how you play?
It is really college basketball that shows you how a team works, that shows how desire can make the difference and how a team that works together can pull off the upset - like Georgia Tech beating North Carolina. But I like the old, old basketball players from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. They were awfully good because they knew the game. They knew they didn't have to have the best shot or the highest jump to score the points. George Irving, Walt Frazier inspire me. Larry Bird, he really couldn't jump, but he had a jump shot. They were team leaders with a supporting cast all around them.
With this team, are you the No. 1 guy with the supporting cast?
I hear people say, "Don't let him get the ball," because they feel I'm the toughest guy to guard. But I love to say my teammates are more important really. I dish, and my teammates can knock them down. Avery Terry, our point guard, and Leo Rogers, our small forward, are both in double-figures. And people forget our center Ira Blossom and power forward Cedric Blossom. No one sees what they do in the box scores. Those guys are diving for balls, getting rebounds, creating fast breaks. We'd be hard put to win without any of them. We have a really good team atmosphere. That's why we score 85 points a game.
I read Hammond came out of nowhere this season. Weren't you expected to be good?
We were 3-18 last year. It was embarrassing. It stopped being fun. My coaches and my dad told me, "If you're not having fun, you shouldn't be playing." That's when I and my teammates discovered the pleasure that can come from just playing the game, just you and your teammates. We could forget everything else that might have been bothering us - teachers, girlfriends, detentions. This year it is more fun because we're winning, but last year we discovered how much fun it is just to play the game.
You mentioned your dad. Has he helped you learn the game?
My dad played football, but he's given me lots of pointers. The most important has been helping me get over being afraid to drive to the basket. He told me only three things can happen: you get fouled and shoot free throws; you make the basket and get fouled and shoot free throws; or you get blocked. Then he practiced with me, throwing his elbows, pushing me to the ground. See this bruise [on his right shoulder], that happened when I was about 14. I went up and I flipped and landed on my shoulder on the ground. Now, when I get fouled going to the hoop and land on the floor, I bounce right up. Nothing's as hard as playing against Dad. My dad says [getting back up] shows how much guts, how much heart you have.
Are you planning to play basketball in college? And do you know what school you want to go to?
I want to play, but I'm still deciding on a college. One of the most important things in my choice is the school's athletic graduation rate. That's important to me and my parents. My dad says basketball will leave you one day, but no one can take your academics or education away. It's important to me, because if basketball doesn't work out, I'll be able to get a high-paying job or a job I like to do in business management or international business.