Brandon Baker, teacher-athlete

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The in-class assignment was to read a short story called "Exile Eyes." As the seventh-graders took out their books, they did what most middle-schoolers do when faced with some work.

They groaned and fidgeted.

"You can handle this," Brandon Baker told them. "It's not too long."

That's the same pep talk Baker has been giving himself at the end of every seemingly endless day this semester -- you can handle this.

The Belmont senior is currently straddling the hyphen, student-ing and athlete-ing in a tricky sprint between his current "job" as a basketball player and his future occupation as a teacher.

The English and education double major has spent this fall student teaching, splitting his time between a Nashville-area high school and middle school. That means on most days, Baker arrives at J.F. Kennedy Middle School around 8:30 a.m., works there until 4, heads back to campus to either join his team -- if practice is still going on -- or works out by himself.

Two days a week he has a night class and some days, of course, there is a game.

That schedule is only slightly better than the one in the preseason, where on some days Baker woke up at 5 in the morning for a 6 a.m. practice and then went to work.

"One day, I had been up since 5 because we had an early-morning practice, so when I got home I sat down in the recliner," he said. "I was going to do a little work. The next thing I know, it was like 7 in the morning. I took an 11-hour nap."

While his schedule is especially taxing, Baker is not an anomaly. College basketball chatter is littered with conversation about athletes who don't go to class or who fudge their way through a semester or two -- using the benefits of online classes despite living on campus -- to meet NCAA eligibility requirements.

The truth is, the vast majority of athletes are like Baker, guys whose playing days will extend only to rec leagues and pickup games after graduation, but who are using basketball as a conduit for that free education.

Baker chose Belmont for basketball, yes, but also because it's a great school and Nashville is familiar territory. He was born in Tennessee and both of his parents attended school at Tennessee Tech.

So now blessed with a strong academic program and an understanding coach in Rick Byrd, who trusts Baker to make up on his own what he might miss in practice, Baker is doing this seemingly crazy thing for a college basketball player -- he's pursuing a career.

"Coach Byrd always says he wants his players to be true student-athletes," Baker said. "My situation is proof that he means it."

Baker is the first to admit he has been blessed by the influence of good people -- Byrd now and before that, Allison Willson, his high school English teacher. Willson has spent 18 years teaching, six in Kentucky and the past 12 at Milford (Ohio) High School.

Spooning literature to teenagers often is about as much fun as force-feeding mushed peas to infants. But every once in a while, a light goes off in a student's eyes to make it all worthwhile.

Baker was one of those students. Not much of a reader in elementary school, he discovered the joys of getting lost in a novel while in middle school, back when his mother stuck the first Harry Potter book in his hands.

"All of a sudden, I was like, wow you can read for pleasure and not just for homework?" Baker said. "I couldn't put it down."

A big man on the Milford campus -- at 6-6 he's hard to miss and as the school's third all-time leading scorer, hard to ignore -- Baker was one of 26 kids in Willson's class.

Only problem. Of those 26 kids, only four were girls.

"Brandon was a great presence in the room," Willson said. "If he was a different kind of kid, it could have gone the other way, but he participated in class and he made people want to be better."

The same was true on the basketball court. Along with scoring all those points, Baker led a resurgence for Milford. In his senior season, the team finished 15-6, which may not sound like much, but it was the most wins for the school since 1981.

He went to college to pursue basketball first and to figure out a major second. By then an avid reader -- he counts "To Kill a Mockingbird" as his favorite novel but is equally happy reading basketball history books -- he also was hoping for a career in coaching.

And then he thought of Mrs. Willson, and realized he could combine both of his passions.

"She was such a great teacher," he said. "She made me want to come to class, so I thought maybe I could have that same sort of impact on someone."

At Christmas break, Baker went home to Ohio to visit Willson and said, "Guess what I'm going to major in?"

"I thought it was going to be something weird," Willson said. "And then he said he wanted to be a high school English teacher. It means so much to me. A lot of times we don't hear the positives. I love to hear the thank yous, but to hear someone say I want to do what you do and the reason is because of you, those moments make my career. I've only had maybe two or three."

Baker seems like a natural at this teaching thing. Co-teaching with his mentor, he leads part of the class conversation and develops his own lesson plans. He's comfortable in the classroom, stern without being nasty, and conversational without being a pushover.

That he's young helps and that he's a basketball player doesn't hurt, either.

Baker sheepishly admits, though, that the teaching hasn't helped his basketball. His time in team practice is limited, especially now that the season has started, and often he's going over game plans with his roommate, Corey Schmidt, the team manager.

A role player for the 6-2 Bruins, who are transitioning into the Ohio Valley Conference, he's averaging just 14 minutes and 3 points per game right now.

It's not ideal, but the student teaching comes to an end at the conclusion of this semester and Baker hopes with the return of some normalcy, his game will get on track, too.

Regardless, he believes in the end the sacrifice is worth it.

He can handle it.