It has been a long journey, and Baker was ready to speak candidly and publicly for the first time about events that led the Celtics to suspend him Feb. 27.
"I am an alcoholic," Baker said, detailing a struggle with "binge drinking" that reached such a self-destructive level last season that he went through nearly four months of treatment to change his life. Now, with Celtics training camp three weeks away, he believes he has an opportunity to save his career. In a wide-ranging interview, Baker discussed his treatment, his early denial, the team practices where he admittedly smelled of alcohol, the concerns coach Jim O'Brien voiced in December, the pressures that came with a contract worth approximately $86 million and All-Star honors, the start of his drinking problem following the lockout in 1998-99, the plans for a successful return to NBA life, and the challenge of winning back teammates and fans.
Last Wednesday, Baker marked six months of sobriety. He stopped drinking the day he was suspended. He has spent the summer eagerly preparing for a return to the NBA. With a private trainer and two workouts a day, Baker has trimmed down to a sculpted 241 pounds, his playing weight his first two seasons in the league and at least 15 pounds lighter than he appeared last season. He suffers no lingering health problems. While Baker feels his lift, coordination, speed, and skill have returned, he is keeping his expectations vague. No numbers, just meaningful contributions to the Celtics. Poor performances coupled with unfulfilled expectations, in large part, precipitated the drinking problem, he said.
"The Celtics, the organization, cared for me as a person," said Baker. "The suspension gave me a chance at a new life, gave me a new lease on life, gave me a new chance at my career. I know a lot of people view the suspension as an ax job and he's out of here. But I didn't view it as that. I viewed it as a chance that they gave me to change my life. Obviously, now six months later with not touching a drink, I can see clearly how that gave me a new lease on life.
"I don't know how much I was hiding it or how much I was covering it up. It wasn't a situation where I would get plastered or get wasted. I just didn't want to think about the success that I wasn't having that I had in the beginning of my career. It would just be a situation where I would try to numb myself to all the expectations. So, it could be three days in a row, four days in a row, or it could be no [drinking at all for] a day. It was in and out. It was like binge drinking."
After binge drinking for approximately four years and slipping from All-Star to sparingly used backup center, Baker, at the insistence of the Celtics, sought treatment. He checked into Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Conn., March 4 for a 28-day rehabilitation program. He was then supervised for 10 weeks as an outpatient with daily visits and testing at Silver Hill. Contrary to published reports, Baker said he has never suffered from and is not receiving any treatment for depression.
Support system set
Since finishing treatment, Baker has gradually made a fresh start, ridding himself of bad habits and bad influences while rededicating himself to basketball. After stops in Miami and Las Vegas, his training routine continues in Connecticut, where he works out at home in the morning and plays pickup games with the UConn men's team in the afternoon. During the last eight weeks, Baker has worked to integrate travel, training, and a sober lifestyle. He attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings two or three times a week and talks with his sponsor every day.
Before training camp starts, Baker, the Celtics, and the league will finalize plans for a support network that will stretch to all NBA cities. He plans to attend AA meetings upon arriving at different NBA stops. He will have counselors available in every city and someone he can talk to on the team, if any issues arise. He will carry a cellphone specially dedicated for calls to and from league and team officials. He will be tested during the season.
"I feel like in the last six months, I've come full circle and come back to the person I was before all this started, before [my career in] the NBA started," Baker said. "So, the people that I hang around with, the places that I go [have changed]. Those components make me say that I don't want to drink anymore. But I have to say that every day. As much as this has been such a successful last six months for me, I have to say to you that today I'm sober. I know the education and how powerful alcoholism can be.
"I have to work every day to say, `I'm not going to go here. I certainly shouldn't be there. I certainly shouldn't be around that person.' Then, you have to fill in those times with things that are good for you, working out, being in the gym, being with my kids, being with my family. All those things make up 24 hours for me. They don't make up the next five years. They just make up 24 hours, saying, `You know what? I'm not going to have a drink today.' As much as I want to say, I'm not going to ever have a drink, I have to take it 24 hours at a time. That way has worked for six months."
Baker would like to keep his attention focused toward next season, but he knows he must account for what happened in his first season with the Celtics. In a well-documented downturn, Baker averaged 5.2 points per game and 3.8 rebounds before his suspension. There was an obvious erosion of skill and athleticism. He appeared uncoordinated, particularly when trying to finish around the basket. He seemed disoriented, out of synch, distracted during many of the 18.1 minutes per game he played.
Although O'Brien was steadfast in his public support for Baker and repeatedly talked about the veteran center making adjustments to a new system, the head coach privately sought to address the alcoholism, according to Baker. It was not poor play in games, but practices that may have provided the strongest evidence of a serious problem. According to Baker, O'Brien met with him in December and January in an attempt to help (when reached by phone yesterday, O'Brien declined to comment) and later visited Baker at Silver Hill.
"Coach sat me down a couple times and said, `If you think there's an issue, then we need to deal with it,' " said Baker. "That was from smelling [the alcohol] in practice. He wanted to deal with it. Obviously, the alcoholism and the alcoholic speaking say, `No, there's no problem coach. I'm going to be fine.' "
But Baker was trapped in an endless cycle, where poor performances led to drinking and drinking led to more poor performances. He did much of his drinking privately, in his suburban Boston home or in hotel rooms after the many disappointing games.
"I always had in the back of my mind, I always said, `If I don't do well tonight or if I don't go out and play up to my standards, then I'm just going to go out and drink to get rid of the pain or get rid of the fact that I wasn't successful,' " Baker said. "I was never going to give myself a chance to do well as long as I was drinking the night before or as long as I drank the previous four nights. So, I was working against the odds.
"You're drinking too much [is] the biggest problem, and then you're not playing well. So, it compounds and compounds. The days keep going. Like I learned up at Silver Hill, it's always `Poor me, poor me, pour me another drink.' That's how it was."
There is only so much that mouthwash and cologne can cover. Baker suspects those close to him knew what was happening. By February, the new Celtics owners not only recognized what was going on, they also saw a need to take action. It was one of the first crises with which the new ownership dealt. There were lengthy conversations among owners Wyc and Irv Grousbeck, Bob Epstein and Steve Pagliuca and Celtics lawyer Neil Jacobs, where Baker's future was discussed. There was also a meeting after the All-Star break among Baker, Baker's family and representatives, the ownership and team officials. The same parties met again after the Celtics returned from their mid-February tour of the Western Conference. Medical experts were also consulted.
"It was a group effort," owner Wyc Grousbeck said. "We had serious discussions and negotiations about how it all ought to be. But the goal was to give this player the structure and support and incentive that he needed, so, it made it very clear that his best choice was to make a change."
The meetings ultimately led to treatment. While initially reluctant to see himself as an alcoholic, Baker gradually took advantage of the education, counseling, and group therapy Silver Hill offered. He left calling it the "best experience" of his life. From the outside, that would seem an odd description for a rehabilitation center where classes started at 8:30 a.m. and ran throughout the day. In the evening, Baker and other patients could watch movies with alcohol or drug-related themes. There was "28 Days" starring Sandra Bullock and "Less Than Zero" featuring Robert Downey Jr.
Initially, Baker spent a lot of time in his room, reading motivational books, the Bible and information about alcoholism. The education provided by Silver Hill was directed toward identifying the symptoms of alcoholism. Baker said it was like a checklist of the life he had led. In group therapy, patients discussed a particular topic, such as how they hid their addiction from their families.
Although Silver Hill is a facility accustomed to dealing with celebrity patients, that didn't make Baker any more comfortable "on campus" his first few weeks. Baker admitted he "was on this whole professional athlete thing" at first. He was also in denial. He said to himself, "Oh, I'm not an alcoholic. I want out of here. I'm not like the people in here." But Baker learned he did have a problem and that his alcoholism was much bigger than his status as a professional athlete.
"It was tough at first to walk up there because I was like, `Gosh, everyone's going to know I'm here,' " Baker said. "For the first two or three weeks, I had that feeling. But what I figured out after three weeks was that it wasn't about me the athlete up there. I was up there to get help. I was up there to change my life. Part of changing my life was being honest with myself, being honest with the people around me, being able to trust the people around me.
"The more people that know that I'm an alcoholic, or the more people that know I have this problem, the more people I'm going to have to be accountable to. And I want to be accountable. I kind of got rid of that notion that, `Oh, I don't want them to know' because it's a part of me. I want people to say he's doing a wonderful job. The success that I had initially in basketball I started applying to my sobriety. I wanted to be successful in that. I was driven to be sober."
Back to basketball
According to Baker, the toughest part of inpatient treatment came when he had to say he was an alcoholic for the first time. It was tough the second time and the third time, too. But Baker met the challenges of inpatient treatment, and after nearly a month, he was allowed to commute. Baker made the 80-minute trip every day, arriving in time for the 8:30 class. In his 2 1/2 months as an outpatient, he slept at home, got tested every day and attended AA meetings at night, in addition to the daily routine he had established during his inpatient stay.
While at home, Baker willed himself to watch the Celtics on television a few times. He became a fan. With the exception of a brief trip to the basketball court at Silver Hill, Baker went without playing or practicing for three months.
In late May, he went to the University of Hartford to participate in pickup games with college players from his alma mater. It was a start. Baker also began to work on conditioning with personal trainer James Lloyd that month. His sessions consisted of running on a treadmill, biking and lifting weights. In mid-June, Baker started with two-a-days entirely devoted to conditioning. He lifted weights and sprinted on the treadmill in the morning. He cycled and went through a series of sprints on the court in the evening. He has done basketball work for only a month.
"For me, I've worked so hard this summer physically," Baker said. "I've worked harder mentally and emotionally. What I've worked for is to come back and help the team, whatever way I can help the team. What capacity that's in right now, I don't know. I just know I've worked my butt off to get back on the court and be in good shape. A realistic goal? Just coming out and competing and having fun and helping this team win. I really feel like I can help this team win basketball games. Honestly, I can't give you a number on rebounds and points. But my goal is not just to stay sober every night and have people say, `Oh, he's doing great.' "
These days, Baker has structured his workouts similar to what he expects to face at Celtics training camp. He runs the treadmill and lifts weights in the morning, then heads to Storrs for scrimmages every afternoon. In games, he goes up against UConn standout Emeka Okafor. He plays for approximately two hours.
"My legs are back, my lift is back," Baker said. "But again, I've got to test it. Jumping in the gym by yourself is completely different than jumping with nine other people on the floor competing for rebounds. It's different. I can drill all day. We'll have another conversation Oct. 2 or 3, and I'll tell you a little bit more how I feel. I don't want to set any unrealistic goals, but I just feel great.
"Conditioning-wise, this probably is the best I've been in any of my seasons coming back. Now, it's about just getting on the floor and playing. I've obviously answered the questions for me from the physical standpoint. Now, it's the emotional part, getting back out and enjoying it and playing the game like I played it eight years ago, five years ago. I'm working on that every day. That's my trips up to Storrs. It's the psyche that I've got to work on now, and I think it's coming."
Although not intended as tests, Baker spent time working out in Miami and Las Vegas, cities known for vibrant party scenes. In both cities, Baker said he was not even tempted to drink, though he was accompanied by a league representative in both places. Baker added he never thought about going to South Beach or the casino at the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino where he was staying in Las Vegas. For Baker, the experience in both cities was similar to traveling with an NBA team, and in that respect, the trips were good preparation.
While Baker has worked hard physically and mentally to prepare himself for next season with the Celtics, there are still aspects of life as a professional athlete that he cannot control. He knows he will still be judged by many in terms of the three years and roughly $43 million remaining on his contract. And Baker said he must apologize to his teammates. Several times Baker tried to watch tapes of his play last season but could not do it. He didn't want to remind himself of the player and person he was. When training camp starts, he will have to face teammates who dealt daily with the player and person he was last year.
"I want to get a chance to talk to my teammates and apologize to them for last year and talk to them about the things that I've gone through," Baker said. "I really sincerely think that I owe my teammates an apology. But the biggest way to win my teammates back is to come and give an effort every day in practice and training camp and work as hard as I possibly can. I didn't do that last year for them, not in training camp, not during the season. What I want to say to them I've been doing in the gym. I think at the end of the day they're going to respect that and appreciate that more than any words I could ever say to them."
And what about the fans?
"The only thing that I can hope for is that people understand that I went through a situation that was very tough for me," Baker said. "It's something that was bigger than basketball, bigger than scoring 20 points a game. I hope they can understand that. If they don't understand that, that will be something that I have to live with. As honest as I'm being, there's going to be some people who aren't going to buy it. Those are the people I'm going to have to say, `Buy [my hustling] up and down the court, buy blocking shots, buy rebounding.' That's going to be the answer."
Baker is eager to show fans, teammates, and coaches what he can do as a sober NBA player. Until then, he enjoys a better relationship with his parents and three children.
"It never crossed my mind to stop playing basketball," Baker said. "All the time that I was out and I wasn't playing last season and obviously the time during the summer, all I thought about was that this is going to make me better. I'm going to be better physically. I'm going to be better emotionally."
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.