Vin Baker reinventing self as summer camp director

On Friday morning, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, kids embrace their parents as they approach the buses headed to Camp Greylock in Becket, Massachusetts.

Some recognize counselors from previous years, but there is one man who stands out.

Curious dads walk by the 6-foot-11 man, hoping to get clues about why he looked familiar. To most, the name tag is enough.

Written in black sharpie is the word "Vin."

Vin Baker was never supposed to be here.

An Olympic gold medalist and a four-time NBA All-Star who made nearly $100 million over a 13-year career isn't supposed to wind up as a director of basketball for a boys summer camp in the Berkshires.

For Baker, though, not being here would signify being dead.

"I even knew how it ended," Baker said. "I was going to die in a car crash. It played through in my mind many times."

As Baker's career wound down, free spending and alcohol had drained his bank account to zero. His properties were foreclosed on. After three trips to rehab, he had one last chance to save himself.

Then everything came together. One by one, he strung days of being sober together. A week became a month. Then a year.

He found comfort in religion.

"The fog cleared and I realized that everything I valued over the 15 years wasn't that valuable," Baker said. "My children and my love for basketball rose to the top."

Understanding that he had to make money, he made some calls to people from his former life.

Starbucks chairman Howard Schultz, who owned the Seattle SuperSonics when Baker played there, took his call.

Next thing Baker knew, he was putting on a green apron as Starbucks' most famous barista.

But that fame didn't buy him much, other than a chance. He opened up the store at 3:45 a.m., ready to serve customers when they walked in at 4:30 a.m.

Working 15 minutes away from his hometown in Connecticut, Baker found himself greeting familiar people every day, all of whom were surprised to see him behind the counter.

"I never got down and asked why I was there, because in my mind, it was just a gift to be alive," Baker said.

His story is chronicled in an autobiography being released next month called "God and Starbucks."

Baker doesn't have many days when he can mark the success of his turnaround, but one came last month when his son accepted a scholarship to play basketball at Boston College.

Thirteen years after the Boston Celtics cut Baker free and saved $36 million on his salary after he violated the league's alcohol abuse policy, Baker's name -- his son is also named Vin -- wasn't a hindrance in the recruiting process.

"They had read about my road to recovery, what I was doing at Starbucks," Vin said. "My past was in the past so that my son could play there."

Meanwhile, day by day, Baker has rebuilt his life by experiencing the joy that basketball elicits in others. The game that brought him fame and fortune has not lost its fun. He coached middle school and high school kids.

"I very much love the process of seeing a kid who can first dribble at 5 or 6 years old and get to the point of scoring and developing a game," he said.

Two summers ago, Baker had a chance to speak to kids at Greylock and forged connections with management. When the job opened up this summer, he made the jump.

"He fit what we were looking for -- an NBA All-Star who was also an Olympic gold medalist," joked Greylock owner Michael Marcus. "In all seriousness, Vin is a guy who really cares about people, who can impart some tremendous life lessons."

Back at the buses, David Sherman's eyes light up when he sees Baker. He leans over to his sons, Zachary and Matthew, and tells them who he is.

They shake hands and take pictures.

But things aren't quite as they seem. This is not the one-way street that is often associated with an athlete indulging fans with pictures.

Moments like these, which will happen often this summer, are as important to Baker as they are to the kids.