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Jimmy Baron: A Coach’s Son Develops

March 7, 2009 Columns No Comments

There are ways in which Jimmy Baron is much like his peers playing Division I basketball, and there are ways in which he isn’t like them at all.  In a sense, it’s an interesting balance, not unlike a story that underlies his career at Rhode Island and, indeed, his life.

Like many of his peers, Baron has been playing basketball just about his whole life.  He can’t remember not playing the game, because it’s always been there.  He’s dabbled in other sports over the years, with a brief attempt at baseball and some time playing golf more recently, but basketball has always been the sport.

That’s where the similarities turn to differences, and where the story starts to get interesting.

Basketball has always been there as a result of being the son of a coach.  Not every player is the son of a coach, and although it happens often it’s not all the time that a coach’s son plays for his father at the college level.  There’s always an impact that being the son of a coach has on a player, and some of it is obvious.  Besides always enjoying the game, he’s well-schooled in how the game is played, and it’s not hard to see it on the court.  But he’s also moved around a bit in his life, as the life of a college coach among other things generally means moving a time or two.  One of those moves made a big difference.

Baron grew up in Olean, New York while his father, Jim, was the head coach at his alma mater, St. Bonaventure.  When his father took the head coaching job at Rhode Island, it was a major move.  Olean is your prototypical small town, the antithesis of cities like the one at an opposite end of the state (New York City).  And while South Kingston is far from a big city, it wasn’t so much a difference in size that mattered; it was comfort, and of course, basketball had a part as well.

“When we moved from Olean to Rhode Island, it was very difficult,” Jimmy Baron reflects.  “Living in a small town, if you leave that small town after you’ve stayed there for nine years you don’t know what to expect.”

In Olean, Baron found plenty of kids who were interested in basketball, so playing was never an issue.  But when he moved to Rhode Island, something became apparent: the competition is a little different.  While Rhode Island isn’t a state loaded with big-time Division I talent, there’s more of it here and in nearby areas with travel teams in the area.

It probably changed the course of his career, one that saw him have a good high school career at Rhode Island power Bishop Hendricken (where his younger brother is now a senior) and then a terrific prep year at Worcester Academy.  He played a lot of travel basketball while shining with his school, and he had his share of Division I interest.  Ultimately, there was one sure destination, although it wasn’t always a given: he was going to play for his father at Rhode Island.

Of the impact of the change in competition, he said, “If I didn’t leave Olean, I probably wouldn’t be here as a Division I player today.”

Playing for his father has been enjoyable, especially as he has developed into one of the Atlantic 10’s best players and one of the best shooters in the country.  But it’s also brought challenges as well.  His father is one of the best men roaming a Division I sideline, one who might seem miscast in the cutthroat world of college coaching.  Down to earth and as caring as they come, Jim Baron isn’t trying to win games at the cost of his student-athletes’ well-being.  And it’s not surprising that there was surely a concern when his son came to play for him: no playing favorites.

A couple of years ago, before Jimmy became a starter, one of the few father-son moments media who have covered the team have been privy to showed some of this.  After a big game against Brown, Jimmy commented in a light-hearted fashion on how he heard something positive in the locker room for the first time.  He stayed around while his father addressed the media, and he was asked if Jimmy might get another start.  His answer: “He’s going to have to be consistent.”

Jimmy Baron has been the hardest worker on the Rams since he got there.  He knew he would have to work harder than anyone, partly because he’s had to his whole life and he was keenly aware of what playing for his father meant.  It came easily to him because that’s what he always did.  The results of it are clear; he’s long been labeled a shooter, but if you’ve watched him play over the past four years, you can see how he’s improved every aspect of his game over time.  You can see how he’s better going off the dribble, occasionally creating his own shot or one for someone else.  You can see how his decisions have been better all the time.

His work ethic helped make it a little easier on his father, and over time you can see a change in that.  As the seasons have worn on, Jim Baron seems a lot more at ease talking about what his son has done.  He doesn’t seem to worry much about a possible perception of playing favorites.  And let’s be honest, it’s not easy because there’s not always a clear division of father/son and coach/player.  It’s something that goes both ways.

“It takes away from family life,” Jimmy Baron said.  “You have to always be professional in what you do, especially when you’re at school and you’re around the team.  It’s been difficult, and if anything I feel guilty for playing for him because it’s put more stress on him, more stress on myself and more stress on my mother.”

That’s not to say he would have it any other way than what’s happened.  It’s just that he’s keenly aware of everything that’s going on.  The family is extremely close, and it’s constantly visible as the father is also a constant presence for Jimmy’s younger brother, Billy, as he navigates the world of high school basketball including the grassroots scene.

As his senior season winds down, it’s clear he’s managed it all well through the challenges.  Not only is likely a first team All-Atlantic 10 player, but he was recently named to ESPN the Magazine’s Academic All-American team with a 3.42 grade point average in his first seven semesters, majoring in communications.  He’s engaging, always a great interview and has done everything he can to have some semblance of normalcy to his student experience, a challenge not to be taken lightly not only because he’s an athlete, but because he’s been around the campus for eight years while his father has been the head coach.  In a case like that, after a while everything is almost too familiar.

At one time, he had a desire to be a coach one day.  Being the son of a coach also means, as he noted, usually adopting a similar mentality.  But it also means having a first-hand look at the life of a college coach, and he’s come to understand that describing the job of Division I head coach as “all-encompassing” doesn’t really tell the whole story.  That’s why, when his basketball playing days are over, his main desire is to become a broadcaster on television, a desire that grew as he got further into his coursework at Rhode Island.

The basketball life for Jimmy Baron will continue after college.  That’s one more thing he has in common with a number of his peers, to go with along with what he doesn’t have in common.  It’s the latter that made the most recent stage of the journey a little more interesting.

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