Former team manager earns starting spot with the Mocs
CHATTANOOGA (WRCB) -- Drew Baker wants to make one thing clear: He never did laundry for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga men's basketball team.
That's not to say he didn't fulfill a wide array of other off-the-court duties to get where he is now.
It's quite a story, or "testimony," as his teammate Ricky Taylor put it.
A standout prep player at Karns High School in Knoxville, Baker wanted badly to play basketball in the Blue and Gold.
"He drove us crazy wanting to come here and play, and we said no. He was willing to walk on, and we told him 'No, you can't,'" Mocs' head coach John Shulman recalled.
Team manager was the only spot Shulman was willing to offer. Reluctantly, Baker accepted.
"They had me doing dummy things in practice. I would hold the big pads or just box out and rebound. All the things the players didn't have to do, that's what I did," Baker said.
But his foot was already in the door through those preseason workouts, setting in motion a chain of events that culminated with the 6-foot-7 forward making his first collegiate start at UTC this past Monday against Warren Wilson.
"I threw a guy out of practice and we needed a guy to fill-in the spot, so I told Drew to hop in," Shulman explained, noting he was later punished for violating a rule against using non-roster players in practice. "We put him in there as a manager, and he started blocking shots and doing all these neat stuff.
"I said 'That guys pretty good!'"
Good enough to get Shulman thinking. Before the season tipped off, the Mocs took two separate team pictures: One with Baker in uniform, the other with him joining the other managers in a suit.
It didn't take long for the second one to get scrapped.
"He's got a dream like everyone else, but he knows it's a privilege to play college basketball," Shulman said.
Baker was granted that privilege when Shulman granted him a walk-on spot on the roster for the 2009-10 season. Of course, aside from a few minutes of exhibition action, all that really brought was a different seat on the Mocs' bench.
"He just kept saying 'Ricky, I really want to play," Taylor said. "I just kept telling him it would come. He just had to wait his turn."
"I'm not going to lie and say it was easy to keep going every day," Baker said of his first two seasons as a walk-on, the second of which he redshirted. "I just had to keep pushing, because you never know when you're time's going to come."
Well, his time came this past weekend after the Mocs lost an ugly game at home to Kennesaw State.
"He kicks tail every day at practice, but I won't play him," Shulman said. "So at 1 a.m. when you're not thinking right, you get beat by Kennesaw and you're not thinking right, I said 'Why not? Let's go with Drew.'"
Shulman made the change Saturday morning in practice, announcing Baker would make his first career start in place of senior forward Chris Early.
"Ya, it was a lot of pressure to step into that role, but I wasn't going to turn it down," Baker said with a smile. "I obviously was a little bit nervous.
"I mean, I haven't started a game since high school. I haven't really even been in a game since high school."
You couldn't tell.
Baker hustled. He contributed. He excelled.
Yes, it was against sub-par competition in non-Division I Warren Wilson, but Baker's 14 points and five rebounds in 18 minutes earned him another starting spot in Friday's home contest against Savannah State.
"Good things happen to the kid because he works harder than everyone else," Shulman said.
Added Baker: "I won't just say 'Oh, I played in a game, so now my job is over. I have to keep working in practice and keep working in general.
"It's not about Baker on the back of my jersey. It's about the Chattanooga (on the front of it). That's all I can do."
That is, unless he's having to do the team's laundry, too.