Ronnie Baker is one of the most impressive sportsmen that you’ve probably never heard of.
During a staggering 30-year basketball career, Baker represented his country 156 times, captained England to a Commonwealth bronze medal in 2006 and played 540 top-flight games, winning eight major trophies for Crystal Palace, Manchester Giants and London Towers, amongst others.
Even more impressively, Baker achieved his success in the sport of giants despite being a modest 5ft 7″. Making up for his lack of size was a brilliant character, leadership from the point guard position as well as bags of talent.
But today, three years after he stepped onto the hardwood for the final time as a player, Baker is head coach at the DENG Camp, an annual residential camp which was the brainchild of Great Britain’s only current NBA player, Luol Deng.
It annually invites 50 of Britain’s most promising young players to London, where they are given NBA-level training and analysis, as well as the chance to compete against one another.
The good old days
“Obviously every year I see the best in the UK with the DENG Camp, and some of the talent there is really outstanding,” Baker told me. “The problem is with trying to keep them here, a lot of them will get to a certain standard and then they’ll be off to the States or to Europe.
“It’s about trying to find a structure where, some can go abroad, but the game is also good enough for them to want to stay here, too.”
‘I try to make them realise that they must want to come in every single day and give 110% if they want to really improve’
Baker’s concern is valid. The BBL has been trending downwards for over 20 years now, stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy of a regression in quality, poor attendances and a lack of funds.
A 1995 game Ronnie featured in, between the-then London Leopards and Manchester Giants, drew in a crowd of over 14,000 fans, a stark contrast from the few hundred that the league averages today. “That was the peak of the BBL,” Ronnie says, “and it’s what we need to aim to get back to.
“One of the major problems now is, you get these Americans that couldn’t make it over there, that are playing for cheaper than what it would take to get a good British player. And that’s why I think a lot of kids get discouraged, they think ‘why should I stay, I’ll never get the chance so I’ll have to go somewhere else’,
“I think there would be more fan interest nowadays if there was a better crop of British players, but most of the better ones end up going overseas really young.”
In his role at the DENG Camp, Baker works with the best of the best of British basketball at the youth level, and although generally impressed with their talent, there is one particular aspect that the 47-year-old tries to re-enforce to the youngsters that hope to emulate him.
“I try to make them realise that they must want to come in every single day and give 110% if they want to really improve.
“The guys that make it give more than they need to, and a lot of this generation seem to think that they don’t need to put in that work, they’ve got these gadgets and distractions that we didn’t have when we were growing up. We just stuck to basketball and that’s what helped us.
“A lot of these kids nowadays are on Twitter, Facebook and that stuff talking about what they’re doing, but they’re not actually doing it.”
Of course though, there are plenty of young men Baker does believe have big futures in the game, including one that Elephant Sport spoke to late last year.
“Most of the kids at the last camp should at least be aiming to play in a top league in Europe or Australia. Eisley Swaine is one that I think will be an outstanding player, he’s got a great head on his shoulders for his age. I think he will do really well.”
“RJ Eytle-Rock is another, he’s got a good head on him and he was number one at the camp in 2016, so his talent speaks for itself, he’s gonna do good. There’s about 15-20 of those kids that I think are gonna do well, to be fair.”
But although Baker’s main duty is to do the best he can by the talented youngsters he works with every year (he admits he would always encourage a young Brit to play overseas “if the opportunity is right for them”), he longs to see the BBL return to its glory days of the 1990s, and believes that goal is achievable.
“I thought we were gonna do really well after 2012 Olympics, I thought this is gonna be a big movement and get a lot of interest coming, and basketball is gonna go back up again, so I was really disappointed when nothing really changed.
‘If you’ve got a young kid and you really do see something in him, you’ve got to play him regardless of age or experience’
“I do think the standard will improve and in time more people will be watching the game, because there used to be a lot more interest when I was playing and I’m sure that comes down to the standard being better.”
And how to get that standard up?
“It’s about bringing the kids through right, stopping importing these college washout Americans to the BBL and focus on getting better imports over; people who are really gonna bring the game up and make their team-mates better as well, and keeping the improvements being made to the coaching.”
“I do think sometimes, they need to take more of a chance on these kids. If you’ve got a young kid and you really do see something in him, you’ve got to play him regardless of age or experience. You’ve got to be willing to say ‘Okay, I might get fired for this, but I really believe in this kid’.”
But despite the recent further setbacks to the funding of the sport at an international level, Baker believes that there are good foundations in place when it comes to coaching, and an encouraging level of talent.
“There are a lot of good people in the right places right now, and the governing bodies just need to keep fighting. It’s gonna be hard to get back to how it was, but I think we can do it.”
DENG Camp is on Twitter @DengCamp