The San Diego State Aztecs men’s Basketball has a number of distinguishing characteristics that form its unique culture.
Each person in the program emphasizes hard work when no one is watching, a defense-first mentality, selflessness, and trust in your teammates and coaches, all while having fun and joy playing the game. They compete with sizeable chips on their shoulders and prioritize winning above all else.
Meet Chad Baker, the perfect Aztec. On Memorial Day, Baker from his home in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, spoke with the East Village Times in an exclusive interview. Throughout the conversation, it was uncanny how often Baker’s values aligned perfectly with the culture at State.
With more than a thousand players in the transfer portal, identifying one, who can come in and help a team is an arduous task. Head coach Brian Dutcher speaks frequently of the importance of taking the time and doing the work to find people of high character, who fit best at SDSU. The coaching staff accomplished that by bringing in the former Duquesne star.
August 20, 2017, Baker’s dad made a surprising announcement. Baker had a week to get to ready. He was leaving his family, his friends, and his island. A week later, on August 27, he moved in with his grandfather in New Jersey.
“I’ll be honest, it was really different,” Baker explained. “Language, culture, living with my grandfather, going to a different school, knowing absolutely nothing and no one. At first, it was a little scary because you come into a brand new territory.”
Baker and his family made this decision to give him a chance to chase the dream of playing professional sports. The dream has had many stops – New Jersey, Ohio, Mississippi, Pennsylvania – Baker believes SDSU is the place where he can take his game to a whole new level.
Wherever he has gone, basketball has been the focus. The court has been a sanctuary of sorts. It has the same dimensions no matter what state or country he is in. He has worked tirelessly, sacrificing, all with one goal in mind.
“I love saying this,” Baker said. “‘I didn’t leave my country to sit on the bench.’… I’m going to do anything that it takes to get (to the NBA). If we don’t get there, there’s overseas and stuff like that, but my main focus is the league.”
Probably the most difficult skill to learn for players with Baker’s skill set is defense. In high school, he was always one of the taller players, and guarded players his size usually close. Last year at Duquesne for the first time, he was forced to learn how to stay in front of smaller, quicker players.
As is the case at SDSU, players, who play defense well, earn time on the court at Duquesne. Baker was not that player when he arrived. In his first game on November 30 against the University of Little Rock, he played only seven minutes. Baker got the message. Due to Covid, Duquesne’s season was postponed for a month. Coming back on January 3, Baker played 11 minutes. Six days later, he played 33. He had earned his coach’s trust and averaged nearly 27 minutes per game the rest of the year.
“It was pretty hard not playing, because my whole, entire life, I always played,” Baker said. “And now not playing, it was pretty rough for me. I learned how to become patient, take my time, and it made me open up about things I had to work on. … That really helped me a lot. Realizing you come here and you think you know everything, and you really don’t. That really helped me a lot to become the player I am today. That particular month. ”
Selflessness and Trust
In high school, Baker played point forward, often bringing the ball up court against full-court pressure. As the focal point of the team and league MVP, opposing defenses focused on stopping him, which gave him a great opportunity to find open teammates. He relished the role. He is a 6’7” almost 6’8” point forward.
“I would rather give an assist than score the ball,” Baker said. “Any day! I would rather give my teammates a great assist, a good pass and he hits a shot. That brings joy to me because now his confidence is up, now he can trust me. That’s all I need.”
Building trust is important for Baker, and it was trust – first in his family and then with the SDSU coaches – that will bring him to San Diego for the first time in early July. Baker’s family has multiple connections with the Aztecs’ coaching staff. Those relationships allowed Baker to believe what he was being told about the program Dutcher has built on the Mesa.
The closest Baker has been to San Diego is about 120 miles. He has family in Manhattan Beach, CA. He visited them a few years ago. Committing to a city he has never been to might seem like a gamble, but for Baker, his life experience has prepared him to make decisions like this. He left his home halfway through high school to live in New Jersey. He arrived in the Garden State a stranger and figured out how to adjust, make friends, and excel. SDSU will be Baker’s third university, he trusts it will be his last.
Many of the players who have come through the Mesa were on the cusp of national recognition when they were in high school. They were three or four-star recruits who more than held their own against higher-ranked players, but, for various reasons, that success did not always translate into leaps on recruiting websites. When they arrived at SDSU, they worked like underdogs to prove they belonged.
Baker has a similar edge to him, not because he feels slighted by his two-star ranking coming out of high school. Instead, he carries with him the responsibility to make the most of his unique opportunity. Many families in the Dominican look to sports as a path to a better life. Baker works hard because he is allowed to live out what is only a dream for most.
“This is not the best country to live in,” Baker said. “I’m not saying my family is struggling, but my family can be in a better place, and I see myself as being able to do that. I have been given the opportunity to do that. If I don’t take advantage of it, I feel like I have cheated myself, so then, why do that? A lot of kids from this country want to be out there, but they are not blessed, like I am, to get this opportunity so I have to take advantage of it.”
While the rest of the nation argues about how Fernando Tatis Jr. plays baseball, San Diegans have fallen in love with the pure exuberance he brings to each game. What makes Tatis unique is not his style. It is his strength to not conform to industry expectations and norms.
Tatis plays baseball like a Dominican. His antics with the Padres are mild in comparison to what takes place in the Dominican Winter League on the field and in the stands.
Chad Baker plays basketball like a Dominican. Fans of Fernando Tatis Jr are going to love him. Whether he is finishing a highlight-reel dunk or celebrating the success of his teammates, Baker brings joy to everything he does. If it looks familiar to San Diegans, it should.
“You can see in Duquesne, every time I score a basket, you can see my emotions,” Baker said. “I’m full of joy. I’m screaming. I’m everywhere. I’m yelling even if it’s not just me, even if it’s my teammates. I make sure I can pump them up as much as I can if I’m on the court or on the bench.”
“(Dominicans) put so much passion into it. You come to a game out here. You can see the fans. They’re like the players in the game. They are even more excited than the players in the game. Like (Tatis) said, it’s just how Dominicans are: they love and are passionate about the game.”
In a recent interview with EVT, SDSU assistant coach Dave Velasquez spoke about the challenges of maintaining the program’s culture because of the changes in college basketball’s transfer rule. Culture cannot be taught; it is caught by being immersed in the daily ethos of a community. With more transfers and fewer high school players becoming Aztecs, there is a danger SDSU’s culture will be lost.
Baker’s passion for the game will ensure the Aztec Way will continue to a new generation of players. “Having fun while getting better at basketball” is how Velasquez described it. Baker is not just looking to the coaches to create this atmosphere but knows it is everyone’s responsibility to make it happen.
“As a coach, if you don’t make practice fun or working out fun, then your guys, they are going to like being there, but at the same time, it’s going to feel more like a job than just having fun playing basketball,” Baker added. “Honestly, the guys we have to make it fun too. We can all just be a fun group, but at the same time, take care of business.”
“Dutch’s main priority was winning,” Toronto Raptors guard Malachi Flynn told EVT a month ago. “Finding a way to get it done. He didn’t care if it was ugly or looked nice. At the end of the day, if you win it takes care of a lot of things for everybody. It makes the whole team look better, so that was the biggest thing: find a way to win.”
Baker shares this emphasis on winning. He won a state title in high school and has his sights set on winning another in college. He believes with all the pieces already in place and the additions to the program, SDSU should be able to go past the first round, and maybe to a final four and championship game. To get there, Baker is willing to do whatever is needed on a given night to secure the win.
“I’m a team guy,” Baker said. “I’ll do anything that it takes to win. I’m unselfish. If I have to get 20 rebounds and zero points to win, I’ll do it. If I have to score 30 points, I’ll do that. If I have to get 20 assists, I’ll do that. That’s the kind of guy I am. My main focus is winning. That’s me.”
The Aztecs lost Jordan Schakel, Matt Mitchell, and Terrell Gomez from last year’s Mountain West Championship Team. They were the team’s leading three-point shooters and their departures left a glaring hole. The coaching staff turned to the transfer market to address that need and build another championship-caliber squad. The Aztecs’ first transfer, Matt Bradley, is a career 40.2% three-point shooter. Baker shot 41.7% from behind the arc in his freshman season.
The three departing seniors brought a willingness to play out of position to make the team more dynamic. Mitchell played an undersized power forward throughout much of the year. Schakel and Gomez played all of the guard or wing positions. They would switch every screen on defense. Gomez frequently battled with centers and power forwards on the block. He willingly gave all of his 5’8” 165-pound frame to scrap for the position.
With Baker’s size, he more than fills that role. Baker has been working on defense every day this offseason with his dad, a former professional basketball player and current coach. With that training and the expertise, SDSU’s coaching staff will impart when he arrives, the Aztecs’ defense might be even stronger on the wing next season.
With Colorado State and Nevada returning their star players from a year ago while adding impact transfers of their own, SDSU needed to bring in their own players ready to compete at a high level. They needed players who embodied their values and their culture. They needed Chad Baker, the perfect Aztec.