Baltimore Basketball Guru Paul Baker Dies At 78

One of Baltimore’s most colorful basketball personalities, Paul Baker, passed away Oct. 12 after a long illness in Easton. He was 78.

Baker was born in west Baltimore and grew up in the Irvington-Catonsville area playing baseball, football and basketball. Hoops quickly became his favorite sport.

“My whole life revolved around basketball,” he wrote in his 2002 memoir, “La Famiglia Americana: The American Family,” about growing up as an Italian-American. “It was my motivation to get an education and it taught me people skills.”

He attended Mount Saint Joseph High School and Washington College, graduating with a degree in history.

Baker started out coaching the St. Joseph’s Monastery eighth-grade CYO team in 1952 at the age of 18.

“[That job] changed my life,” Baker wrote. “I had the keys to the building. I was no longer the little Italian kid from Hilton Street. I was a coach.”

Known for a fiery and aggressive style, Baker coached at Towson Catholic High School from 1960-66 before moving onto the University of Baltimore, where he was also athletic director, from 1966-70 and Wheeling College (now Wheeling Jesuit University) from 1970-79. After Baker’s college coaching career, he scouted for the NBA’s Washington Wizards for six years.

“His teams were always aggressive defensively,” said Jim “Snuffy” Smith, a former assistant coach of Baker’s at the University of Baltimore and Wheeling College. “We’d platoon players and substitute in defensive specialists after made foul shouts to press full court. No one else was doing that at the time, and it would change the tempo of the game.”

Throughout Baker’s life, he stayed in touch with former players, coaches and referees such as Bunny Wilson, Bob Borski, Ken Cubicciotti, Fred Hikel, Tim Hodge, Dicky Kelly, Jack Degele, Chuck Olkowski, Earl Trusdale, Steve Varanko, Jim Vogtman, Hubie Brown and current University of Michigan men’s basketball coach John Beilein.

“Over the years he became a great friend who always showed an interest in how my family and I were doing and was always there when I needed a shoulder to lean on or needed some advice,” said Steve Varanko, who played at the University of Baltimore. “He was a historian, author, entrepreneur, radio analyst, inventor (basketball), comedian and a caring father all rolled into one. I will always be thankful that he came into my life.”

Decades after first meeting Howard Garfinkel at Bob Cousy’s summer camp during the 1960s, Baker brought Garfinkel’s Five-Star basketball camp franchise to Baltimore in 1997, and it remains a staple for area youth.

Baker also held an annual basketball dinner on the Wednesday before March Madness at the Little Italy Lodge.

“The meal is plain and simple Italian,” he wrote, “and meatballs are laced with basketball talk and fellowship.”

The dinners attracted such guests as former University of Maryland men’s basketball coach Gary Williams and Temple University men’s basketball coach Fran Dunphy. The event also honored area high school coaches such as Mark Amatucci, Ray Mullis, Gene Nieberlein, Dan Popera and Gerry Savage. Sometimes sportscasters Vince Bagli and Keith Mills handled the microphone as emcees.

Former NBA player Bunny Wilson said he would never forget the coach who gave him a chance.

“I loved the man like a father,” he said. “He took a chance on me when my mom wanted me to join the army. All I wanted to do was play basketball. I was lucky.”

Wilson said Baker had been a great role model.

“He was one of the most together men I had ever met,” he said, “and he wasn’t much older than us. He had a wife, a family and a house. I learned a lot from him. The guy was on top of his game.”

Baker is survived by his wife of 49 years, Connie; his children, Stephen, Gregory and Nicholas; five grandchildren; and his sister, Jeannette Rembach. Baker’s viewing will be held at Lemmon Funeral Home of Dulaney Valley from 2-4 p.m. and 7-9 p.m. Oct. 16. The funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Oct. 17 at St. Joseph’s Parish of Cockeysville, 100 Church Lane.