July 25, 2014 by Adam HermannMichelle Baker never thought she would be a basketball coach.
She grew up in Wilmington, Del., and as the daughter of two former varsity athletes, picked up basketball so early in life that she can hardly remember when it all started.
“It was just kind of what we did,” Baker says of her family’s passion for athletics. “There was never any pressure from them saying, ‘Hey Michelle, you’re definitely going to play sports.’ But both of my parents were track runners and they played basketball, so it wasn’t a surprise when I ended up doing the same.”
She thinks the first organized basketball she played was at the YMCA, when she was 10 or 11 years old.
But she never thought she would be a basketball coach.
Baker began playing on an Amateur Athletic Union basketball team — the Comets, who she helped to two nationals appearances — and played all four years at Brandywine High School, finishing ranked fourth among Delaware high school all-time leading scorers with 1,972 career points.
Yet she never thought she would be a basketball coach.
She attended Saint Joseph’s University, playing all four years for the Hawks. Baker finished her career as the program’s all-time leader for games played with 127, and is 14th on the program’s all-time scoring list. Baker was named the Hawks’ Team MVP as a junior and senior, earning A-10 All-Defensive honors during her junior campaign.
“Her freshman year she was more of a secondary kid, and then sophomore and junior year she took on more of a primary role,” Hawks head coach Cindy Griffin says. “Then senior year she was definitely our go-to as far as perimeter scoring and our best perimeter defender.”
Despite all of this, Michelle Baker never thought she would be a basketball coach.
“If you asked me when I was little if I wanted to become a basketball coach, I would’ve said no way,” she explains with a laugh.
But on July 22, she ordered a coffee and answered a phone call from Philadelphia International Airport as Coach Baker, the newest assistant coach of the Drexel women’s basketball team after being promoted July 16.
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Baker wanted to be a physical therapist.
Baker entered St. Joe’s interested in interdisciplinary health sciences, so she majored in it and, for some time, loved it.
“When I was working out with all of these physical therapists, that’s what I thought my dream was,” Baker says. She would be around sports in some fashion, something that always seemed inevitable growing up as a Baker. But she wasn’t going to play basketball. She didn’t think she’d be involved in the on-court product at all.
Then came her junior year of college, when she started doing volunteer hours. She needed a certain amount of hours to get into a physical therapy graduate degree program; it was on-the-job training before she actually held a job.
That year she realized that physical therapy wasn’t her calling after all.
“I had a great time, I loved helping people, but it just wasn’t for me,” she says, now three years later. “But it was my junior year, so I’m like, ‘I’m not going to change my major now.’ So I finished up.”
It appeared to be a lesson learned too late. She graduated with a degree in interdisciplinary health sciences in June 2012, but she didn’t have the first clue as to what she wanted to do when she left school.
So she asked for advice.
“I remember my last basketball practice I went to talk to Coach Griffin and I said, ‘Listen, Coach, I don’t really know what I want to do,’” Baker says. “[Griffin] said, ‘Well, why don’t you try being a grad assistant?’ And I said okay, thinking that sounded pretty cool.”
Griffin, who has been the head coach at St. Joe’s for 13 years now and has a gigantic web of relationships in the Philadelphia area, helped Baker get her name out in the open for potential graduate assistant positions at universities in the region.
She received a call from Drexel women’s basketball head coach Denise Dillon, a call Baker describes, now two years later, as a blessing. Dillon was interested in bringing Baker on board, and after going through the interview process, Baker was offered a position.
But by the time she arrived in University City, she had no better grasp on what she wanted to pursue than when she left Hawk Hill.
“I told Denise I wanted to be a physical therapist, but I wasn’t sure anymore,” Baker says.
Dillon recommended Baker give sports management a try, and who was she to turn anything down? At this point, Baker just wanted direction. So she got set up in sports management. She says she knew from early on that it was the right fit.
“Once I started working with the Dragons and working the program, I knew that coaching was for me and it’s now what I want to do with my life,” Baker says.
“It’s just one of those things that kind of happen. It’s just life in general.”
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When Griffin first met Baker on the recruiting trail, as a Brandywine Bulldog, she was taken not by her jump shot or her defensive tenacity, but by her communication skills.
“Very mature beyond her years,” Griffin says of her former MVP. “You could tell she’d been around adults her whole life. She was a people person, very mature, very polite and very forthcoming with her personality. You could tell she was very comfortable around people.”
During her time at St. Joe’s, Baker did nothing but validate Griffin’s first impression — she had an extremely mature young woman on her hands and on her hardwood. Baker was eager to better herself as a basketball player, making the sacrifices that showed Griffin she was not just mature and well-spoken, but that those traits came from a genuine place.
“She was a sponge,” Griffin says. “She wanted to learn, she wanted to be the best player that she could be.
“She always stayed after to get shots up, to work on her game. She was in the gym in the summer working on her game. She was one of those kids who put in the extra time.”
Griffin believes that the determination and skill Baker displayed in her time as a Hawk will again rise to the top this season as Baker takes on the new challenge of becoming a coach.
“The coaching profession is not a 9-to-5 job,” Griffin says. “We need people in the profession who are going to not look at the clock and figure out when they’re going to get out of here. They need to put in the extra time, and she’s used to that.
“I think she has the demeanor for it. She doesn’t see things as black and white all the time; she sees the gray area in decision making. And as a leader, she experienced that here at St. Joe’s, and she’s certainly wise and smart, and she’s organized.
“There’s an administrative part of this job that I think some people don’t understand, that you have to be able to manage people, and she can do that. She communicates very well. I think she will be a very good coach.”
An endorsement from Griffin, a storied and tenured Philadelphia basketball coach, speaks volumes. The belief of the Drexel women’s basketball program echoes those sentiments. Now it’s up to Baker to make good on the promise she carries, and she says she’s ready for the task. She knows what she’s going to bring to the Dragons.
“I want to bring my energy,” Baker says. “I really want to develop players. I think we do a really good job of developing these ladies, from what they come from in high school to even more and more. I just want to continue that in our program.
“I just want to be a person that continues to help our program build.”
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With the new job comes new responsibility. Baker is going to be responsible for player development as well as recruiting, with a focus on the New York-New Jersey region.
She took this entire interview on the phone an hour before her flight left for Atlanta; she will be recruiting in Augusta, Ga., for a couple of days. After that she’ll be back in Pennsylvania, recruiting for two more days.
Sports never stop. For Baker, this isn’t a problem. It keeps her from looking too far ahead.
“I’m just telling you right now I don’t know what I’m doing tomorrow,” Baker says when asked whether she has long-term coaching plans. “Actually I do know what I’m doing tomorrow, I’m recruiting Dragons.
“Ten years from now, the one thing I can say is that I hope to be having a positive impact on the world. If it’s a head coach, it’s that. If it’s something totally different, it’s that. Do I have a goal to be a head coach? No, that’s not a goal right now. But who knows? Maybe in 10 years it is.
“I didn’t think I was going to be a basketball coach three years ago, and look where I am now.”
Right now, she says, her only goal is promoting Drexel women’s basketball. As an operations assistant over the last two years, Baker has had a big hand in community outreach for the team, especially through social media. She says she isn’t a power user, but she loves the chance social media gives teams to push their program. She realizes the power social media holds, and she plans to use it accordingly.
“I want more and more people to know about Dragon basketball,” she says. “I’m always telling people to come to the games, I’m always trying to be an ambassador for Dragon basketball.”
For someone who never thought she would be a basketball coach, Baker sure seems excited to be one.