By Dean Bartoli Smith
Paul Baker's basketball memory remains as strong as his love for former players.
A contingent of University of Baltimore players from the late 1960s, including Steve Varanko, Isaiah "Bunny" Wilson and Jim Vogtman, visited Baker, their former men's basketball coach, at an assisted-living facility in Easton on Sept. 29. Neither Parkinson's disease nor early-onset Alzheimer's could keep Baker from remembering the details of games, bus trips and bad calls.
"Anytime we'd bring up a game where we thought the refs screwed us, he not only remembered the game, but he also remembered the ref's name and some specific bad calls," said Varanko, who organized the visit.
Whenever the Bees traveled to Navy, the refs seemed to play a role in the outcome. During one game, Vogtman was assessed a technical foul for complaining about the calls. Baker told him to stop or he would be ejected. Later during the game, Baker told the ref, "Vogtman was right about how bad you are," and the coach was tossed.
Baker remembered when Ken Cubicciotti and Earl Trusdale took him downtown to spruce up his wardrobe. Being musicians with a sense of flair, they didn't want to play for a coach who dressed like Baker. He bought two suits and a pair of wingtip shoes.
During the first game of the year at the Bee's Nest -- a white stucco barn off Rodgers Avenue -- Baker kicked the bleachers and ruined the shoes. He was more worried about what his wife, Connie, was going to say about the shoes than the outcome of the game.
Under an outdoor pavilion, the conversation lasted four hours.
"The visit really lifted his spirits," said Connie Baker, his wife of 48 years. "He lights up with those guys. He kept saying how it was like family. One of the guys said, 'This is the man who gave us a chance.' "
Known for a fiery and aggressive style, Baker coached at the University of Baltimore, Wheeling College and George Washington University. He started out coaching the St. Joseph's Monastery eighth-grade team in 1952.
"[That job] changed my life," Baker wrote in his 2002 memoir, La Famiglia Americana. "I had the keys to the building. I was no longer the little Italian kid from Hilton Street. I was a coach."
The players who visited Baker said he had changed their lives. A motley mix of kids from south Philadelphia and east Baltimore, the Bees went 17-7 in 1970 and upset Division I schools George Washington and Canisius.
"Thank God Paul found us," said Varanko, who now owns a CPA firm in Hunt Valley. "We weren't exactly Harvard material. We were guys who were under the radar. We didn't end up going to Vietnam. He opened doors for us."
Baker discovered Wilson languishing in south Philly after high school.
"I had two pairs of underwear and some sneakers," said Wilson, speaking of when he arrived at Penn Station in 1967. "PB was a father to me. It was pot luck, man. U of B was the last house on the block. My mom was going to make me get a job or join the army."
Wilson led the team in scoring with an average of 29 points per game and played two years in the NBA.
"He looked a little frail," Wilson said of the visit to Easton. "But he was still PB."
Varanko said anybody who played for Baker respected the coach and felt their lives were changed for the better.
"He dreams all the time and talks in his sleep," Connie Baker said. "He's always coaching in his dreams."
More Cheap Seats:
• Blast Rearing Pair Of New Keepers
• Former Bees Visit Life-changing Coach
• Mustangs' Freshmen Breaking New Ice
• Eight New Members Enter Lacrosse HOF
• Byron Knows His Way In JFK 50-Mile Race
• Shoes For Grades Targets Better Marks
Issue 179: November 2012