Baker boys: Former players carry on late Pantego coach’s legacy

Published 7:04 pm Friday, March 2, 2018

PANTEGO — The lessons athletes learn growing up oftentimes transcend how they play. The best coaches aren’t necessarily those that turn talent into championships. Rather, it’s the coaches that teach young athletes about life that leave a lasting impact on their communities.

And then there’s Albert Baker. The former 23-year coach of the old Pantego High School passed away on Feb. 24. His legacy is one decorated with championships — the first basketball titles to come to Pantego.

“Michigan was the first Fabulous Five? We were the Fabulous Five,” said Rodney Johnson. He was on Baker’s first championship team.

But the lasting memories shared by the players he coached aren’t just about basketball. They’re about life, and the way Baker molded them into the men they are today.

“He taught us life after basketball. He was a great mentor,” said Bruce Peartree. He played for Baker from 1977-81 and was a part of consecutive undefeated, state-championship seasons. Peartree went on to win letters at East Carolina from 1982-84.

“He was a father to a lot of us. His wife was a mother to a lot of us. His daughter didn’t have any sisters or brothers, but she had a lot of brothers and sisters in us — we had a girls team, too.”

Baker was fair. His players came from different backgrounds. Some had both their parents. Some didn’t. Some came into his program as quality players. Some needed some extra guidance.

They were all treated the same way, and they all left his team as better people.

“During the summer before my freshman year, I worked out with the older guys. We had two all-Americans,” recalled Avron Oden, who played under Baker from 1969-73. “I know I was nice. The third day of practice, I made a bad pass. Coach had already warned me twice. The same guy he taught to play basketball one year was the same guy he threw out of that gym. He threw me off the team.”

Oden wasn’t allowed back on the team. He came back out the following year, and Baker didn’t hold anything against him.

“I had a different attitude, and I’ve had a different attitude about life since then,” Oden said. Baker became the man he would turn to when — with his father and father-in-law having passed away — Oden needed family advice.

“When you’re a Baker boy, you’re a Baker boy for life,” Oden said.

Baker took care of his boys, and they took care of one another. He would give rides to practices. Players would lend each other socks or sneakers to teammates that needed them.

Baker was a rare breed of coach. He was more concerned with his players growing rather than wins and losses. At the same time, though, the wins and championships piled up.

It’s funny how that happens. Those are the kinds of coaches to which success seems to gravitate. Baker will be missed, but his teachings and accomplishments live on in those he coached.