Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

A free and responsible press serving the UMass community since 1890

Massachusetts Daily Collegian

Springfield native Chris Baldwin finds his way back home playing for UMass men’s basketball

Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Collegian
Judith Gibson-Okunieff/Collegian

Back in 1891, a physical education professor and YMCA instructor in Springfield by the name of Dr. James Naismith was looking for a way to keep his students active during the winter months. He nailed up a couple peach baskets and derived a game we call basketball.

Fast forward more than 100 years in the same city and you find a 5-year-old, wide-eyed and excited kid, falling in love with the game Naismith created all those years ago.

Massachusetts men’s basketball freshman forward Chris Baldwin has come a long way in his basketball career, but he still remembers being that young boy in the stands.

“I remember going to my older brother’s high school games in Springfield, where games were sold out,” Baldwin said. “I just loved the atmosphere; how the gym could get. Seeing him score the ball and do a bunch of things on the court, I wanted to be like my older brother.”

Coming from a city riddled with crime and an unfavorable reputation when he was growing up, Baldwin had to do his best to stay away from the bad influences off the court.

“It was a tough city to grow in,” he said. “There was a lot of trouble out there. There were a lot of influences and it was easy to go the wrong route.”

To escape the struggles of the city around him, Baldwin, like most of the city, turned to what he knew best to keep himself on the right track.

“Going to the basketball games was the best thing to do,” Baldwin said. “Just going out and seeing a bunch of guys play basketball was better than hanging out all night. It definitely brought the community together. The Central High games, they would have 3,000 people in there. There were all kinds of people. Young guys, old guys, so it was like a community gathering.”

Making his mark

Baldwin grew up on Springfield Central High School basketball. It was a way of life and provided him an escape from everything else around him.

Like his brother before him, Baldwin knew he wanted to make his mark at the school and provide young people watching him the same experience he had when he was a kid.

Baldwin wasted no time making an impact for the Golden Eagles. He was dominant his sophomore year, scoring 15.2 points per game, good for second on the team, while leading the team in rebounds per game (14.8) and blocks per game  (5.1). Central finished that year 18-5. The Golden Eagles didn’t have as much success in the win column his junior year, but the 6-foot-8 forward still had a solid season averaging 11.8 points per game.

“Being at Central molded me into the player I am today,” Baldwin said. “On the court, it was a stepping stone for my maturation and off the court just being around the influential people like Principal (Thaddeus) Tokarz and some of the other assistant principals who are big supporters of the basketball program. It was a great process going there.”

During the offseason, Baldwin would play AAU basketball for Mass Rivals on the Adidas Gauntlet to keep his game at a high level and impress scouts.

Baldwin received some Division I offers while at Central, but he wanted to take his game to the next level and become a better man. He decided leaving home would be the only way to do that.

The teenager would make the decision to reclassify to the class of 2016 and transfer to play at Notre Dame Preparatory School in Fitchburg, a small school that has produced NBA players like Steven Adams, Michael Beasley and Ryan Gomes.

For Baldwin, the decision to leave home to go play at Notre Dame Prep was not an easy one.

“I wanted to stay at Central because ultimately I wanted to win a state championship, but I knew in order for me to become a better basketball player, I would have to leave,” he said.

Baldwin starred for the Crusaders during his junior and senior seasons, but in the end the results on the court weren’t his main focus. He knew he had the talent to make it to the next level, but he needed to grow as a man and the change of scenery helped him do that.

“What initially drew me to Chris was his desire to grow as a person,” Notre Dame Prep coach Ryan Hurd said. “He felt that if he had change of scenery, he would accept that challenge. For a long time, there was a sentiment that Chris was lazy and that he didn’t want it as bad as much as other people around him wanted it for him. That upset him and he wanted to prove that that wasn’t who he was a person.”

In Baldwin’s two years at the school, Hurd saw major strides in how the big man carried himself and grew.

“Accountability with four exclamation points after it,” Hurd said, about Baldwin’s growth. “He became personally accountable. It wasn’t okay with him to just be good enough. It wasn’t okay with him to get a C. Things like that stopped being okay with him. He wanted to be the very best person that he could be and I thought that was really awesome.”

Staying home

Throughout his high school career, Baldwin had garnered interest from a laundry list of Division I schools, including Connecticut, Boston College, Rhode Island and La Salle, among others. When the time came for him to make a decision early in his senior year at Notre Dame, he narrowed his list down to five schools: Creighton, West Virginia, Temple, DePaul and Massachusetts.

All of these schools had their positives, but for Baldwin one program stood out. That program is located just over a half hour from where he grew up. Baldwin knew attending the University of Massachusetts was the right choice for him.

“The way that the coaches recruited me was unbelievable. It was much different than the way other schools recruited me,” Baldwin said. “(Adam) Ginsberg and (Derek Kellogg) made me feel that if something happened on the court and I wasn’t able to play basketball anymore that I would still be a part of the family, and they made it seem as if basketball wasn’t the only priority to them. Being a man was more important than being a basketball player.”

For UMass coach Derek Kellogg, recruiting Baldwin to join the program was a no-brainer.

“I had known of Chris in Springfield for a long time,” Kellogg said. “His talent has never been in question, but I think he matured a lot especially when he went up to Notre Dame Prep and had to get away from the city and just be a man. That’s when a lot of big time programs had taken notice.”

His former coach thought Baldwin made a very mature decision coming to Amherst.

“He was seduced by some high major schools and the idea of all that, but at the end of the day he wanted to be able to share this whole experience with his family and have them close by,” Hurd said. “When you see the commitment that Ryan Bamford and Derek Kellogg have made to men’s basketball, you’re getting that high major experience right here in Massachusetts.”

Baldwin signing with the Minutemen was a bit of a rarity for a top-tier player from Massachusetts. Most elite players from the state typically decide to leave Massachusetts for higher profile basketball programs. For a player who was ranked as the No. 2 recruit in Massachusetts by ESPN to choose to stay home and join UMass, was a big win for the Western Massachusetts program.

Kellogg is hoping the addition of a so-called Massachusetts guy will open the flood gates for future local recruits to stay in the area.

“I think we’re in a position now where we are a good team with some first-class facilities and a great campus. I think people are starting to recognize that UMass is one of the top institutions in the country in a place where you don’t have to fly halfway across the country to go to college,” Kellogg said. “We’ve been involved with some really good kids and we’re not going to get all of them, but I think it’ll be good if we can kind of hold it down a little at home base and have a good group of kids from New England.”

“This is the first time we’ve been able to get a Ty Flowers (Waterbury, Connecticut) or a Chris Baldwin really since I’ve been here and I think that’s important to show how far the program has come and where it’s heading.”

Baldwin’s decision was not based solely on the proximity to his hometown, but it certainly played into his attendance to UMass.

“Distance wasn’t really a thing for me because I’ve been in different public schools and boarding schools, so being away from home wasn’t a big factor,” Baldwin said. “I wanted my parents to see me play basketball and definitely my grandparents.”

On the court, Baldwin has impressed early on in his time in Amherst and figures to have a pivotal role in the Minutemen’s front court alongside Rashaan Holloway, Zach Coleman and Malik Hines.

Coleman and the other big men have helped the freshman adjust to the college game.

“We’ve been teaching the younger guys about how to be patient and to know where to be on the court and get open in the offense,” Coleman said. “It’s important that we bring them along the right way because we’re going to be counting on those guys a lot this year. They have to be ready to play and contribute.”

The redshirt junior has been impressed with Baldwin’s play in early practices.

“Chris is very, very vocal and he has a lot talent,” Coleman said. “He’s pretty raw, but he has a lot of good skills around the post and around the rim. Right now he’s in the stage where he needs to start slowing the game down.”

Kellogg knows Baldwin still has a ways to go to reach his full potential, but he thinks the young big is on the right track.

“What I like about him is that brings a lot of energy to practice. He’s verbal. He’s loud. He’s engaging and he’s ferocious on the boards,” Kellogg said. “He’s still a little tentative when we start running plays and sets that he’s not accustom to. I think when he starts being able to play without thinking so much, it’s going to really benefit him down the line.”

Adam Aucoin can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @aaucoin34.

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