In Their Words is a weekly feature appearing Sunday's in The Blade's sports section. Blade sports writer Donald Emmons sat down and spoke with former Bowling Green State University basketball player Tom Baker, who played in the early 1960s alongside NBA hall of famer Nate Thurmond and sharpshooter Butch Komives. Baker, who went into education after graduating from BGSU, is a former superintendent of the Lucas County Educational Service Center. After a few years of retirement, he returned to the educational field and is president of the Knight Academy charter school for sixth through eighth graders that opened in September and is affiliated with St. Francis de Sales High School.
Tom Baker recalls those early practices at Bowling Green State University going up against Nate Thurmond.
At 6-foot-5, Baker had to defend against a seven-footer when he played defense. But that didn't cause him as much trouble as trying to actually play offense against one of the game's all-time best defenders. Thurmond eventually made his living off of blocking shots, altering shots, and even forcing shooters to pass up shots. You might say Baker assisted Thurmond in honing his craft as an imposing defender.
Yet, Baker benefited from the daily dosage of Thurmond in practices. He learned how to elevate his game by facing Thurmond. Through trial and error he figured out ways to fire his shot over Thurmond's outstretched arms, or underneath the human fly-swatter.
Baker, who arrived at BGSU a year after Thurmond, found life on the court after Thurmond's drills much easier when it came to shooting over other defenders. In fact, Baker set a single-season school and Mid-American Conference record for field goal shooting percentage during his senior campaign by making 59 percent of his shots. He finished his three-year Falcon career (freshmen were not eligible to play on the varsity team) by sinking 52 percent (208 of 398) of his shots, which still ranks 10th all-time in Falcons team history.
He played on back-to-back MAC championship teams and earned All-MAC second-team honors during his senior year when Howard "Butch" Komives was an all-MAC first team choice, leading the nation in scoring during the 1963-64 season. During his junior season the Falcons defeated Loyola University, which eventually went on to win the national championship at season's end.
Baker left BGSU after graduation and went on to a longtime career in education. He spent time in the classroom, as well as coaching before ending up working as an administrator, which included time as a principal at Springfield High.
He eventually went on to work for the Lucas County Educational Service Center during a 30-year career working in Ohio's public school system.
The Marietta, Ohio native also found time to become a published author. He wrote Beyond These Walls a book about leadership.
He lives with his wife, Ann, who is a retired associate professor for the school of nursing at the University of Toledo-Medical College of Ohio. They have three daughters, Beth, 39, who is a school psychologist in Cincinnati; Emily, 32, who is an attorney in Atlanta; and Ellen, 31, who teaches at Anthony Wayne High.
"I PLAYED ON great teams with Butch Komives, Nate Thurmond and Elijah Chatman. I don't get to see Nate much but I do keep in contact with Butch. We had some great teams."
"I was 6-5 and playing against 6-10, 6-11 giants in my senior year. I think Nate helped me to improve my shot because I had to have a quick release to get it over his head. It's kind of a joke among our teammates that Nate used to walk back into the locker room after practice talking to himself saying, 'I can't believe Baker could score on me.'•"
"IF YOU TAKE a look at the athletes today, without a doubt, their physiques are much bigger than ours. I think they dedicate themselves more to just playing basketball. We didn't have year-round practices like they do now. We had a commitment to play year-round, but nobody said that if you don't do that you're not going to be on the team. If we had the 3-point line back then, how many points would Butch have scored? Most of his shots would have been behind the 3-point line today. He could have averaged 40-something points or even higher."
"SOMETHING THAT I think that also attributed to my success and Howard's and everybody else's my senior year was that Bob Nichols was our assistant coach. He only spent one year there and if you tell most people they don't remember that. I had a great respect for that man and his basketball knowledge. I think he really made us tough when it came to defense. He really drilled hard on defense. He made us all better.
"ANOTHER TRIBUTE TO Komives is I think he was as good playing defense as he was playing offense. People don't realize that."
"WITH NATE I had to learn about the release of the ball, and so when I had to play against other guys that were not as good as Nate but just as tall, by the time I was a senior it was easy shooting over them. It was like, 'I could do this.'•"
"When I went to Bowling Green I knew they were loaded. I wanted to play with the best and we were the best. People say you probably could have gone somewhere else and played a lot more. Bowling Green was just a better fit for me."
"I WANT TO make sure we prepare these young men and women [at the Knight Academy] and make sure they are prepared to go on to the high schools of their choosing and be successful. If some of them want to participate in athletics that's a plus. If they want to be in the choir or want to be in the band that's also a plus."
"I CAN'T SIT still. I'm an active person and I'll probably work until the day I die."