November 14, 2001
Catawba Coach Baker deals with loss of fatherBy Ronnie Gallagher, The Salisbury Post
It was a few days before Catawba was to scrimmage Wofford College. Jim Baker had doubts.
Not about his team. About himself.
Did the Catawba College men’s basketball coach have the drive to prowl the sidelines so soon after his father, the legendary Walt Baker, had died of cancer?“I was actually thinking, ‘How can I go ahead and coach this year?’ ” Baker remembered asking himself. “Then I thought, ‘How could I not?’ ”
Baker’s father had died in a hospital room less than a month earlier with his sons Jim and Chip clutching his hand, praying for their pop to hang on.
“And that tends to stick with you,” Baker says.
So even though he has one of his most talented teams, he had to do some soul searching.
“I didn’t know if the competitiveness would be there,” he said. “You’ve got to have an edge if you’re going to make it.”
But deep inside, Baker knew better.
Was he not the son of a career coach? Did he not grow up following his dad around the North Rowan High School athletic fields and into the locker room, all the while listening to him preach discipline and loyalty?
Baker went to the Wofford scrimmage, and early in the game, he was fussing at players and hollering at the officials. He did have the drive after all. The competitiveness was still there.
He had made the right choice.
“Dad would be totally teed off if I laid down,” Baker said.“He really would. That’s what he was all about.”
Walt Baker was about a lot of things in a sterling career that stretched three decades. More than wins, his sons watched him teach values and hard work.
And he taught those things by being hands on.
“I remember him push mowing the football field,” Baker marvels. “I remember him dragging the cinder track and lining it off by hand.
“He’d take us to practice and we’d stand on the side shooting a volleyball.”
The one thing Baker was most proud of was that his dad never got too high or too low after a ballgame. But there was that one time Walt kicked a locker ...
“I remember him breaking his toe,” chuckled Baker.
“The only time I ever heard Dad say negative things was when the administration got to messing around with athletics. It bugged him when somebody got involved and didn’t have the background.
“He never liked using athletics to discipline kids, either. He always asked, ‘Why take away athletics when that keeps the kid involved?’ He always thought athletics kept kids straight.”
Walt Baker married his high school sweetheart and decided he would spend his life as a coach and P.E. teacher.
Much to the delight of his sons. Both were star Cavaliers and both pretty much knew early on they’d follow in their dad’s footsteps and coach.
While Jim decided to do battle in a gym, Chip turned to baseball. He is currently the assistant coach at Florida State.
“It was such a great life,” Baker said of his youth. “I had keys to the gym in the ninth grade. We ran with all of the former players.”
The ultimate compliment is that Baker uses the same principles as his father.
“I try to be even-keel,” he said. “I’ll get after our kids at halftime but you won’t see me grabbing one on the bench. I tell them, ‘I won’t embarrass you and you don’t embarrass me and we’ll get it done.”
Jamie Baker is only 312 years old but you sense that he’ll notice something’s wrong when the season gets under way Saturday.
His favorite seat is gone.
“My little boy sat on Dad’s lap every game,” Baker said.
In his early 70s (he turned 72 while in the hospital), Jamie’s grandpa was loving life. He had a beautiful grandson, both sons were successful and happy, and he got to see practically everything they did. In the winter, he watched Jim. In the spring, he followed Chip.
And just like a coach, Walt Baker refused to acknowledge his cancer.
Baker said, “He told my mom about a month ago, ‘I’ve got to get well. I’ve got a whole lot more games to watch.’ ”
Walt was in the hospital for what he thought was a short stay. A staph infection turned it into a 21-day ordeal.
“He was having his fourth round of chemotherapy,” Baker said. “I thought it had run its course.”
The sons were told their father had the “major league” of doctors taking care of him.”
On Oct. 15, Chip and Jim were awakened in the hospital lobby at 4:15 a.m. Their father was on a dose of morphine. For two hours, the father and sons talked.
“You could see tears in his eyes,” Baker said, reliving the moment.
“We’d squeeze his hand and he’d squeeze back. I touched his toe. He wiggled his toe.”
By 12:30 p.m., the breaths had slowed. When he passed 22 minutes later, the two sons were there, knowing he left for a better place.
It will hit Jim Baker that his father is no longer around at the most unusual times.
He said he cried one day while mowing his dad’s grass. Recently, when getting out of the shower, he noticed his dad’s workpants hanging on the back of the door. And the emotions flowed.
One way he copes is the outpouring of affection for his family, especially his mother, who is still receiving cards on a daily basis.
“It has been a shock losing dad but the funeral and the visitation were packed. It’s overwhelming when people tell us how he affected them.”
Practically every coach who ever met up with Walt Baker came to the funeral: Sam Moir, Pete Jones, Bob Hundley, Gary Sherrill, Larry Thomason, Mike Martin, Joe Ferebee ...
Charles Love, Charles Weddington, Ralph Shatterly, Buddy Lowery — the list was endless.
“I told somebody there were a lot of wins going through that funeral home,” Baker said.
Catawba’s players want to wear armbands in honor of Walt Baker. Charles Parks wants to change the C.F. Parks Basketball Classic to the Walt Baker Classic.
And it leaves Walt’s basketball-coaching son feeling mighty good.
“After the funeral, you miss your dad,” Baker says. “But you’re so damn proud to be his son.”