The end of the 2014/15 season saw the retirement of legendary point guard Ronnie Baker. It was fitting that he’d go out on top as Leopards finished as Division One champions. As a big part of both the old and the new Leopards, it seems appropriate that England’s most capped player should get his own page in our history. And we kept our promise; There’s never been another #7 at Leopards since.
Leopards’ defeat against Kent Crusaders in the play-off semi-finals was the last appearance in senior basketball (probably) for England’s most capped player – Ronnie Baker. Aged a mere 45, Ronnie will finally hang up his boots this summer to work for the Luol Deng Foundation, and it would be remiss to let him go without paying tribute to a stunning career. Following the game, as everyone at the club celebrated a season that saw us crowned Division One champions for the second time in four years and collect medals for the fifth straight season, Ronnie was presented with his (still sweaty) Leopards’ vest by club sponsor Jo Cooke and a book about his career put together by Leopards’ fans Franci and Emma. Ronnie was also inducted into the Leopards Hall of Fame by former Big Cats Chairman Fred Dicker. Below, Leopards GM Dave Ryan, former England coach Peter Scantlebury together with Ronnie’s former England team-mates Andrew Bridge and Steve Bucknell with whom Ronnie won bronze at the 1996 Commonwealth Games say a few words about the great man.
I first came across Ronnie when I saw him play for the young and exciting Brixton team in the late 80’s in the division 1 finals. What struck me was how small and how quick he was. I soon got to know him a little better by playing with and against him in the scrimmages and summer leagues in London. I got to know him really well when he was selected for the England National Team. I was captain at the time when Ronnie came into the squad. He was a very quiet person, which was unusual for a point guard My role was to be like a big brother to him on and off the floor. He was so shy back then; wherever we went I had to ask the hotel staff for hot chocolate for him. However, he did his talking on the floor and quickly showed his worth on the court. His pace was so frightening to other teams. I loved playing with Ronnie as all you had to do was run the floor with him, easier said than done, and he had a great skill of passing the ball to you exactly when you wanted it and all you had to do was finish. We called ourselves “The 1-2 punch.” I was England assistant coach to Lazlo Nemeth when Ronnie broke my record for the most caps. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to have done it When I became the Head Coach of the Commonwealth Games team Ronnie was the first name on the list and he was our captain. He had come a long way from that shy point guard that started his England career. Although he was coming to the end of his international career and was not the starting guard he proved what a great professional he was. There was no ego with him and he was always encouraging and giving tips to the younger guards. This was one of the keys in us winning the bronze medal in Melbourne. It has been an honour to play with and coach Ronnie. He has been one of the great professionals that I have been fortunate enough to be associated with but most of all he is a tremendous person. Congratulations on a great career and I would like to wish Ronnie and his fantastic family the very best of luck for the future.
Ronnie was a great teammate in my England international days and we could always count on him! His ball handling skills are legendary and he’s one of the great ambassadors of the game
I remember the first time I saw Ronnie play, England v Croatia (I think) at the NEC with Scants, [Steve] Bucknall and [Roger] Huggins et al. So having played my whole career and retired I can’t rely put into words how much respect I have for Ronnie still going out there and playing. Ronnie was my captain when I played for England, I don’t think there could have been a better person for the job, Ronnie was a leader by example player rather than a shouter but when Ronnie spoke people listened. I think it’s always been underestimated how he held together those 11 egos on the Commonwealth Games team in 2006, and for all the work and time he put in throughout his career with England he deserved that medal more than anyone. Playing against Ronnie was always hard and fair but the thing I remember is he usually had a smile on his face. I always remember Chris [Finch] or Fab [Flournoy] going through the scouting report before the games talking about this player or that player but I always came out thinking f#*~€+ Ronnie Baker dominated the game again and it wasn’t always scoring, he ran a team. Having said all that about playing with and against him the biggest compliment I can pay Ronnie is, I just don’t think you’d find many better people than him in any walk of life.
My first glimpse of the legend that is Ronnie Baker came when I went to London Arena to see the original Leopards host Chester Jets. Obviously my arrival ended an 18-game winning streak, but in my wildest dreams I could never imagine that 18 years later Ronnie would still be with Leopards and that during those 18 years we’d spend numerous hours on mini-buses together and that on two occasions I’d be Ronnie’s assistant as he coached the Leopards- it would be remiss of me to fail to mention we’re undefeated, and remain the most successful coaching team in the 20-year history of this club J
Obviously when you go to basketball, you expect to see big guys running around, so the first thing that people notice about Ronnie is that he’s not the biggest bloke in the world But he’s proved time and time again that size really doesn’t matter. If I had a quid for every time I’ve told someone that the little bloke out there is England’s most capped player, both Ronnie and I would be rich men. The respect that other players have for him is clear to see, and when we managed to bring him to the new Leopards as player-assistant coach in January 2009 you could sense what it meant to everyone at the club. It also saved me being assistant coach, which could only be a bonus for everyone. Likewise, when he was unable to play a year later due to illness it genuinely affected how the whole team performed. Things changed at the end of the 2009-10 season and with a squad that trained during the day, Ronnie was unable to continue with us. Obviously that team went on to do the treble two years later, but I think there was little doubt that we could still have used his experience. I genuinely believe that we could’ve won the league in 2011 with Ronnie playing a part, so when Robert [Youngblood] said he was bringing him back last season I was delighted. I was asked for some of my best memories of Ronnie playing for the Leopards. There’s so many. But the lasting one will be at Bradford last season. We were two down with eight seconds on the clock – and you need to remember that Ronnie looks to set someone else up before worrying about his own shot – when he pulled up and hit a massive three. It was pure Ronnie, and he (gently) bullied his team-mates into some great defence and forced a turnover. When we inbounded the ball it was to Ronnie, they fouled him and he sunk the first free-throw before deliberately missing the second with 1.2 seconds remaining to see out time. Perfect. It has to come to an end at some point, of course, and I wish Ronnie all the best with his coaching career with Brixton Topcats – his other home – and Luol Deng’s academy. I’ll believe he’s really retired this time next year if he hasn’t stepped foot on a court. Thanks Ronnie, it’s been a privilege. And not just because we’re still unbeaten as a coaching team
Dave Ryan, Leopards GM & occasional AC.