Belmont senior juggles personal issues, career path

Thursday, March 21, 2013 at 12:04am

Brandon Baker’s biggest fan will tune in to Thursday’s game one way or the other.

Baker simply would prefer his mom won’t watch from a hospital bed.

The fifth-year senior forward hopes to extend his collegiate career when No. 11 seed Belmont plays No. 6 seed Arizona in Salt Lake City in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament (6:20 p.m., TNT).

He also is optimistic that by that time his mother, Terri, will be out of the hospital for the first time in two months.

“We’re praying that she is going to be able to watch us win from our home living room,” Baker said on Monday. “That would be great.”

Terri Baker hasn’t been back at her Milford, Ohio, home since Jan. 15. That’s when the 51-year-old went into the hospital for a bone marrow transplant.

In the last two months, she has undergone chemotherapy, switched hospitals and received a breathing tube to aid her after sores built up in her throat.

“She is getting better,” Brandon said. “It is a difficult, difficult disease and a lot of people don’t come back from it. But she has passed a lot of big milestones already. Ten days [after] the transplant she moved from the intensive care unit to a physical therapy hospital, which is a huge transition. So all of the milestones she could have passed by now she has passed with flying colors. So that is good news.”

Brandon, the oldest of four children, has learned about his mom’s progress from afar. He last saw her the weekend before she went in for the transplant. His father, Barry, updates family with a weekly newsletter and Brandon talks to his mom at least once a week. Terri has kept up with Brandon’s games by watching most online.

“Right after the procedure I would call her and it would kind of freak me out because she sounded weak on the phone,” Brandon, 23, said. “Now I call her and she sounds just like her normal self. I know she is not moving like she wants to and she is still trying to get her strength back. But she sounds like she always does and she is upbeat and enthusiastic. I know that is a good sign.”

This school year has tested Brandon in numerous ways.

An aspiring English teacher, he did his student-teaching last semester at a local middle school. Juggling teaching and basketball wasn’t easy when October preseason practices rolled around. He often missed workouts, spending a lot of extra time in the gym on his own.

“It has been a roller-coaster ride,” he said. “I have had a lot of stress through student-teaching. That in itself is stressful. Then you throw in the fact that I am supposed to be practicing and playing six times a week makes it even more stressful. But I mean I love basketball. I love teaching. So I knew going through all of that this is what I want to do and this is what I love.”

On the basketball court, he has adjusted to a new role. The last two years, when Belmont had big post presences Scott Saunders and Mick Hedgepeth, Brandon was called upon to step outside and shoot occasionally and defend the perimeter.

This year, with an undersized frontcourt, the 6-foot-6, 220-pounder has spelled starters Trevor Noack and Blake Jenkins. Factoring into Belmont’s eight- and nine-player rotation, Brandon averages 14.2 minutes and is expected to guard opposing big man, while also setting screens and grabbing rebounds.

“Brandon Baker is one of those glue guys, one of those intangible guys,” coach Rick Byrd said. “He has a lot of energy, an inspiring player. … I think he means more to us than people outside know because what his mom is dealing with.”

Despite her ongoing battle, her demeanor hasn’t changed. Brandon said she remains positive and still wants those around her to stick to their daily routines.

For Brandon, that means helping guide Belmont to its first NCAA Tournament win in program history.

“She is the strongest woman I know,” Baker said. “She has been so upbeat and so wonderful about cheering on the team because she knows how much this team means to me. She knew that if she asked me to I’d be up there in a second, regardless of what time of the season was. She wants this team to succeed as much as anybody.

“She is like, ‘You better not come home. You better stay down there and win some games. I want to watch you on the TV.’ ”

On Thursday, he wants to give her plenty of reason to cheer — hopefully in the comfort of her own home.