Half a lifetime ago, halfway across the state from where he now lives, Corey Baker decided to end it all.
Like everything else up to that point, he failed.
Mortal release denied, the ghost remained trapped in the shell of its tortured host, seeking separation at the end of a crackpipe.
On Oct. 26, 1994, Baker found himself on the floor of a Charlotte Embassy Suites hotel room. He was on the back end of a two-week binge. He had smoked and injected all but the last few ounces of what had once been a prodigious basketball talent.
At 5:30 that morning, Baker put the stem to his mouth, but a voice reached through the darkness and told him to drop it.
He put his hands over his head and cried as dawn’s light signaled the first day of the rest of his life.
Baker, 46, has told that story countless times throughout the country at basketball camps, banquets and other speaking engagements. For the first time, he told it to his own high school boys’ basketball team this season as Northwood Temple’s first-year coach.
“It’s been amazing and I am forever grateful,” Baker said this week as Northwood Temple (23-14) prepared for Saturday’s NCISAA Class 1-A quarterfinals. “I don’t take it lightly and I treat it with the utmost respect because it took so long, but it happened when God meant for it to happen and I cherish that.”
Baker was ticketed for great things from the moment he picked up a basketball. By high school, he was on his way to perennial powerhouse Oak Hill Academy. He was the quickest point guard anyone had seen. By 1990, he was a McDonalds All-American who set an Oak Hill assists record that wouldn’t be surpassed until Ty Lawson in 2005.
That was the kind of talent he had.
He also had criminal record and a drug problem.
HE FIRST SMOKED marijuana at 10. At 12, he was arrested for the first time. He flunked third grade, got kicked out of sixth grade and flunked eighth grade. Still, the system passed him on. From ages 13 to 19, Baker bounced in and out of detention for marijuana possession, stealing cars, cocaine possession and assault with a deadly weapon.
When he wasn’t locked up or committing his next crime, he was on the basketball court, where he was a consensus top-five point guard nationally. At Oak Hill, Baker took visits to Louisville, Arkansas, N.C. State and Syracuse before committing to Kentucky, along with Jamal Mashburn.
There is a YouTube video titled, “The Corey Baker Story” in which he speaks to a basketball camp in Mooresville. In it, he explains what happened next.
“You ain’t never seen me on that team,” Baker says, moving side to side, making eye contact with every player. “They went to the Final Four … that team, they did some big things. But I couldn’t go because I didn’t do the things I needed to do in the classroom at an early age to set that foundation.”
He prepared for his SAT exam with an all-night cocaine binge. He got a 490. Kentucky offered Baker a Prop 48 entry, but he was unwilling to pay his own way. Chowan Junior College was a bust. A second chance at Chaminade in Hawaii began with promise as he scored 23 points in a nationally televised game against Boston College in the Maui Classic. It ended with him dealing drugs and homeless.
He came home. He continued to deal and use drugs. The spiral deepened, the darkness closed in. He checked into the Embassy Suites and for two weeks got high, barely ate and wasted away until the early morning hours of Oct. 26, 1994 when the voice spoke.
WHAT FOLLOWED WAS a hard-earned happily ever after. He received in-patient treatment at a drug rehabilitation center. He paid his way to Pfeiffer University, used tutors to improve what had been a third-grade reading level and eventually graduated as a Division II Academic All-American.
He began coaching summer league and travel basketball. A few years ago, he came to Fayetteville and coached the E.E. Smith junior varsity squad for a season. He then served as a volunteer assistant coach at Fayetteville State while pursuing an advanced degree.
This past summer, he got a call from athletics director Mike Oxendine at Northwood Temple. Oxendine and Baker had grown up in the same Charlotte neighborhood and attended some of the same schools. He knew Baker’s story and considered it a positive, not a negative.
“He had been through a lot of the situations that kids are going through or may encounter,” Oxendine said. “He has the experience of making those wrong choices, but he came back from it. He made a great life for himself. For the kids to hear that and see that while they may have a tough time now, it can work out in the end if you work hard for it, it’s a big deal.”