Former NBA All-Star Vin Baker rebounds from life of booze and excess with help from Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem
Now, Baker is a student at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, studying to get his Master’s degree in divinity with the hopes of becoming a pastor, just like his father, who also struggled with alcohol and stopped drinking after a religious awakening
Drinking problems ruined the career of former Knick Vin Baker, who is now a youth minister at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, mentoring youths.
Vin Baker is resting an elbow on a wooden pulpit, his 6-11 body wrapped in a snappy, plaid suit that seems to stretch on forever. He takes a deep breath and exhales, his long face looking down for a moment. The audience waits patiently, kids sitting up straight. Then, Baker, a four-time NBA All-Star, tells his story, difficult as it might be. Delivering a sermon is harder than shooting free throws, he says.
“At one point I thought having a full armor of God was having a sneaker in my name and having millions of dollars,” he says with a smile, looking out to a small crowd seated in folding chairs. “In my career, I amassed $105 million. Sounds like a pretty big armor, right?”
Most of the adults in the crowd quickly reply with an “Uh huh.”
Baker smiles and goes on.
“When you’re protected by the armor of God, it doesn’t matter how much money you had or how many gold medals you won in the Olympics. No, the armor means praying and having the armor protect you from the enemy.”
He speaks without notes, his voice getting stronger.
“When you get some $100 million, it’s easy to forget about God,” said Baker, who spent some time with the Knicks. “I’m guilty. I forgot about church on Sunday. But he brought me back under his protection.”
As an NBA player for 13 seasons, Baker was an anomaly: a 6-11 forward who could shoot from the outside and dribble like a guard.
As a preacher, Baker is similarly gifted, speaking in a soothing, deep tone, cracking jokes, taking his time. Baker was a man in control as he delivered a sermon to the Abyssinian Baptist Junior Church on a Sunday in early January. So, it was a surprise that Baker, 41, chose to talk about his own failings, of blowing millions of dollars in his career, and struggling to come to terms with his relationship with God. And though he didn’t mention it, his failures all stemmed from an addiction to alcohol and with issues of depression — a one-two combination that destroyed his career and nearly killed him, he admits.
Still, he was standing there before the church group that day, clean and sober, looking trim, full of promise.
In the nearly two years since Baker has sworn off alcohol, he has worked hard to get his life together, abstaining from the hard liquor he favored after games.
Baker doesn’t attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or follow a 12-step program. But he does subscribe to a higher power. Since May, out of the public eye, in a basement of the Abyssinian Church in Harlem, Baker has served as a youth minister, running Sunday morning prayer services and counseling young adults in the evenings. He does this for no money, with little glamour or fanfare. He is no longer Vin Baker the Olympian, who once won 61 games alongside Gary Payton with the Seattle SuperSonics. He is far removed from that life.
Now, he is a student at Union Theological Seminary in Manhattan, studying to get his Master’s degree in divinity with the hopes of becoming a pastor, just like his father, who also struggled with alcohol and stopped drinking after a religious awakening at age 20. Baker lives in a sparse but pleasant two-bedroom dorm at Union, a change from the 9,613-square foot mansion in Connecticut he once called home.