MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – Bob Huggins thinks Warren Baker could have been an excellent power forward on some his best basketball teams at Cincinnati and West Virginia through the years. Baker, a teammate of Huggins’ at West Virginia, was recently inducted into West Virginia University’s Sports Hall of Fame.
“Bake could jump, now,” Huggins said. “He played above the rim.”
"Wonderful" Warren Baker played on Greenbrier East’s state championship team and was one of the most sought-after players in the country in 1972, earning mention on the Basketball News High School All-America basketball team with players such as John Drew, Robert Parish, Alvin Adams and Walter Davis.
Baker, a 6-7 center, averaged 29 points and 19.5 rebounds per game to earn state player of the year honors in ’72 during a time when the state was still producing many high-major basketball players.
During a 10-year period from 1967-77, the Mountaineers were able to land 12 players from the state; Marshall two, Virginia Tech two and several other D-I programs one each, including Charleston’s Mike Jones, who went to Cincinnati, and Sam Brooks, who ended up at Louisville.
“You could have taken the whole starting five from Charleston High at one time and made a nice college team,” said Baker.
Charleston High was also very good to WVU, giving the Mountaineers such players as Curt Price, Deacon Harris and Levi Phillips. But the two biggest names in the state during that time were Baker and Welch forward Maurice Robinson, who would also follow Baker’s path to West Virginia and become the Mountaineers’ starting center.
Baker thought there were other players who might have been good enough to play at WVU during that era but did not get the opportunity for one reason or another.
“From time to time there were guys who people felt were good enough in the state to play at the University but were just not recruited or given that opportunity,” he recalled. “The desire to play for your home state school may have been enough to override a lack of talent some of them might have had.”
Baker specifically mentioned the small town of Mullens, which produced WVU teammate Jerome Anderson, Marshall’s Mike D’Antoni and Greg White, and then later West Virginia guard Herbie Brooks when the ball fields in Mullens were still full of players.
“You go through Mullens now and the whole town looks like it is just boarded up,” he said.
Baker also came from a small West Virginia town, White Sulphur Springs, where he became one of the state’s most well-known players. During his senior year Baker narrowed his long list of suitors down to seven: Duke, Clemson, Michigan State, Marshall, Ohio, Virginia Tech and WVU.
“Believe it or not, I initially thought about going to a school that had colors of green,” he laughed. “That’s why Michigan State, Marshall and Ohio U. were in the picture. There was just something about me being in a green uniform, and I really think that a couple of those trips I took dealt with the color green.”
Baker also took a trip to Duke at the same time All-American guard John Lucas was visiting the campus, and the two had to cover their heads during a game to protect themselves from debris raining down on Duke coach Bucky Waters from the student section. Baker also recalled getting booed by Duke students for standing up during the national anthem.
“That was right after John Carlos and those guys made their demonstration at the Olympics, so blacks at that point in time were not recognizing the national anthem,” Baker said. “Of course me being a country boy, and John not being aware of it either, we stood up, and there was just a chorus of boos from the blacks.”
It was a close friendship Baker had developed with Jerome Anderson in high school that helped steer him to West Virginia University.
“When Jerome went up there that was a pretty big factor in me choosing West Virginia,” Baker explained.
Baker was expected to give West Virginia front line depth on a team that would have returned Harris and Phillips, but the ’72 car accident that claimed the life of Harris and the playing career of Sam Oglesby, along with the academic suspension of Phillips, left Sonny Moran’s Mountaineer program reeling.
Baker’s first season in 1973 was also the first year the NCAA permitted freshmen to play on the varsity team, and Baker and Dave McCardle became starters that year.
“If my memory serves me correct, I think it was the second-youngest team in the country that year,” Baker said. “We had three sophomores and two freshmen playing and I think either Arizona or Arizona State had four freshmen and a sophomore it the lineup.”
Baker scored 12 points in his WVU debut coming off the bench against Massachusetts, and he was in the starting lineup by the third game of the year against Air Force. He finished the season leading the team in scoring with an average of 16.6 points per game and rebounding with an average of 11.2 boards per game.
Baker scored 29 in a win against Lehigh, added 29 in a loss to Virginia and contributed 24 points and 11 rebounds in a 59-58 win over Pitt at the Coliseum to wrap up an outstanding freshman campaign – still ranking among the best freshman seasons in school history.
He had his best statistical year as a sophomore in 1974 when he averaged 17.7 points and 13.1 rebounds per game. Twelve times that season he topped 20 points in a game, including a high of 31 points scored in a double-overtime win against Manhattan.
Baker posted career highs of 39 points against Boston University as a junior in 1975 and 22 rebounds against Richmond as a sophomore in 1974. He played well for new coach Joedy Gardner in 1975, but slumped during his senior season in 1976 when his numbers declined to 9.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.
“He led the team in rebounding that year and look up how many minutes he played,” said Huggins. “It was amazing.”
Baker remains the only player in school history to lead the Mountaineers in rebounding all four seasons he played at WVU, and he is also one of only two (Jerry West being the other) to have scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed more than 1,000 rebounds during their careers.
“Bake was a big jumper – a quick jumper – who really used his quickness,” said Huggins. “He could really play.”
“My whole thing was just to try and go and get the ball,” Baker explained. “Looking back on it now, yeah, (being the only player to lead the team in rebounding four straight years) is something you can be very, very proud of. It didn’t take the ability to score or a whole lot of talent to do that – you just had to want to try and do it.”
Baker never really developed much of a perimeter game, preferring instead to spend most of his time playing with his back to the basket. Remember though that he played during an era when defenders were not permitted to put their hands on offensive players and that’s one reason why players could get away with using only one hand or relying on one particular move to be successful.
“I never really developed my ball handling skills other than putting it on the deck once or twice with my back to the basket,” said Baker. “And it was evident any time I tried to dribble.”
Had Baker’s teams been a little more successful his WVU legacy would have likely been even more prominent, Huggins believes. The four teams Baker played on at West Virginia finished seven games under .500, although each season the Mountaineers knocked off some very good teams only to lose other games to bad ones.
“I can’t put my finger on why those things happened because talent-wise we were there,” Baker recalled.
Still, Baker’s induction into the WVU Sports Hall of Fame solidifies his name among the all-time greats in school history. Baker, today an assistant professor at Fairmont State and a women’s basketball analyst for the Mountaineer Sports Network, is grateful his name finally came up on the ballot.
“It’s a great honor when you look at all of the people that have played here,” Baker said. “I just feel very lucky that someone thought that I was deserving.”Follow John Antonik on Twitter: @JohnAntonik