Ron Baker has long been aware of his Native American heritage. It’s woven through his character and his competitive-yet-thoughtful attitude. It also played an important role in shaping his career.
Earlier this year, the 24-year-old Citizen Potawatomi Nation tribal member and Navarre family descendent signed an almost $9 million contract with the Knicks and planned to stay in the NBA’s basketball-lovers’ mecca: New York City.
During a courtside interview at Chesapeake Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, before the Oct. 19 OKC Thunder-Knicks season-opening game, Baker explained he’s always loved sports but didn’t see many professional Native athletes while he was growing up playing basketball in school and surrounded by rural farmland in western Kansas.
“I knew I was Potawatomi at a young age,” he said. He realizes he’s probably a role model for many aspiring athletes, and especially for Native American youth. “I knew there were a couple of players in college when I was in college — a couple that went to Wisconsin and one that went to Kentucky. I definitely watched them, but there weren’t a lot of guys I watched growing up.”
And for Baker, discussions about his heritage invariably include his family — and sports.
“Growing up, your family is what molds you,” he said. “We got ahold of that [heritage]. … My parents did a great job teaching me life lessons and life skills that not only I used when I was younger, but I can carry on in this world as I get older.”
His dad Neil has taught weightlifting and coached the Scott City basketball team. His mom Ranae played softball, volleyball and basketball in college and teaches kindergarten.
Always up for competition, Baker graduated from Scott Community High School, where he played basketball, football and baseball.
During his senior year at Scott High, he helped lead the Beavers to a 25-1 season and became a Kansas First-Team All-Stater. The highlight of the year was Baker’s game-winning put-back buzzer beater in a Division 3A championship playoff game against Minneapolis High School, marking the school’s first title win.
Before moving to Scott City (population 3,816), Kansas, during middle school, he lived on his family farm in Utica (population 158), a town where his classes usually included fewer than 10 students.
“While growing up on the farm, there are different life skills you get to learn and be a part of, and then you go to college and you actually experience the city life,” Baker said. “There’s been a lot of culture changes for me along the way, but I learn a lot as I go, and that’s all I can ask for.”
A Citizen Potawatomi Nation scholarship helped carry him to Wichita State University in 2012, where he became a walk-on redshirt for the Shockers his freshman year. Soon enough, he had mastered his free throw and became known as a premier shooter in the NCAA Missouri Valley Conference. He and teammate Fred VanFleet were named first-team MVC for three consecutive seasons, an achievement unduplicated for 30-plus years prior.
Multiple news outlets have reported that Baker “paid his own way” through college. While being a walk-on redshirt at Wichita means he did not receive a sports scholarship, Baker told the Hownikan he credits his tribe for supporting his education and basketball career.
“There’s a lot of benefits and things I’ve seen and heard about throughout my years in high school and college,” he said. “I think their scholarship was a great aid when I was in school, and I’m very appreciative of what they gave me along the way.”
Today, his teammates comprise the New York Knickerbockers, aka the Knicks, in New York City — the most populous city in the nation. Their home court is Midtown Manhattan’s iconic Madison Square Garden, where nearly 20,000 fans — about 126 times the population of Utica — have attended each home game so far this season.
“You’re at the mecca. Basketball is the biggest sport in New York — the city really backs us. They know the game very well, and you’re playing in one of the best arenas in the world,” he said. “So not only are you in the NBA, but you’re in New York City playing in front of 1 million people a night and it’s very, very humbling.”
He’s a component of what sports media somewhat pokingly calls the team’s “youth movement” and is believed to be the first American-born college walk-on to play for the Knicks since Oklahoma born-and-raised Muscogee (Creek) Nation athlete John Starks tried out for the team’s 1990-’91 season. (Starks played eight seasons of his 14-season NBA career with the New York City organization.)
Like Starks, Baker also went undrafted before joining the team.
Baker played during the 2016 Summer League and then signed with the team for its 2016-2017 season. In August, the restricted free agent inked a two-year, $8.9 million deal that includes a player option in the second year. He launched the season against the OKC Thunder Oct. 19 in Oklahoma City, facing his recently traded teammate-turned-opponent Carmelo Anthony.
But, as his record shows, competition only drives him to work harder and “do what’s right.”
“I’ll probably get matched up on Melo [Anthony] here and there,” Baker said. “Last year, he taught me a lot being the veteran that he was to me, and that’s just the NBA for you.
“You never know when things will change. You always get the opportunity to play against everyone and just take it as a challenge. Obviously, he’s one of the best scorers in the game. Just have fun with it — it’s an opportunity not a lot of guys get.”
Baker’s positive attitude was reinforced by Anthony early in their last season as teammates.
“He said, ‘You don’t gotta do too much. You just gotta do you.’ That stuck with me. You don’t have to be flashy. You don’t have to be the fastest player on the court. You just have to be yourself,” Baker said of Anthony’s guidance. “And he also said, ‘If you play hard and have fun, everything will usually take care of itself.’”
In turn, the professional basketballer works hard to reflect that attitude in his hustle and represent it in his daily life. He also knows that many young players in rural and Midwestern communities like the ones he grew up in cheer for him, whether his team wins or loses. His goal is to keep improving.
“I want to be a positive role model for every generation out there. Doing the little things and doing the right thing goes a long way in today’s world,” he said. “It’s a pinch-me moment every time I set foot on an NBA court. I never take it for granted. … I’m going to try my best to soak it all in and obviously have fun.”