Former NBA star Vin Baker shares perils of addiction and joy of recovery

Courtesy of Amistad/HarperCollins

Religion, recovering substance abusers often say, is for people afraid of going to hell. Spirituality is for those who’ve already been there. Accordingly, Vin Baker, disgraced Milwaukee Bucks basketball star, courageously redeemed man, qualifies to be as spiritual as they come.

God and Starbucks: An NBA Superstar’s Journey Through Addiction and Recovery (Amistad/HarperCollins Publishers, $10.99), co-authored with New York Times writer Joe Layden, chronicles Baker’s hellish account. Starting with the prologue: “I was a former millionaire driving my mother’s Mercedes…to a pawnshop with four old tires stuffed into the back seat and trunk.

“I sold the tires for eighty bucks, bought a few bottles of liquor and drank myself into oblivion until the pain was gone — the ache in my lower back that signaled a failing liver and the ceaseless cloud of loneliness that hung over every day.” It testifies to his character that he didn’t sell the car.

The narrative lacks compelling immediacy and lapses into tedium, but it’s still serviceable. Fans will enjoy the insight into his career, while at the same time marvel at Baker’s determined self-destruction. Importantly, it’s exceptional in that few celebrity addicts live long enough to turn things around, much less thrive in the aftermath.

Baker has virtually risen like the fabled phoenix, including rescuing his family life as a loving husband and devoted dad. Frighteningly, this descent could’ve happened to a doctor, lawyer or bricklayer — they simply wouldn’t have gone through $100 million-plus in the process.

Baker could afford to drink top shelf and did. He began a greased, steady downhill slide toward an inevitable crash. The disease of alcoholism being what it is — the American Medical Association recognizes it as incurable but treatable — he pigheadedly stuck it out. Even when it slowed him on the court, Baker kept bending an elbow and firing up joints. Pretty soon he no longer had a problem, the problem had him; his performance eroding, gradually degrading.

A sad irony, in bad shape, Baker was one of the game’s best which enabled him to keep destroying himself without losing his livelihood. But things got so bad he wound up trashing that, as well, and ended up on the Timberwolves’ bench. At one point, he changed to pill popping, which amounted to switching seats on the Titanic.

When he finally threw in the towel and admitted powerlessness over addiction, Starbucks owner Harold Schultz and Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church double-teamed him with support. They helped him help himself and get back on his feet.

Baker grabbed his second chance with a vengeance, becoming a youth minister at the church and working his way up from the floor of a coffee shop to managing one. It’s not in the book, but he also became a Bucks anchor for Fox Sports in Wisconsin.

Learn more about Vin Baker’s story in God and Starbucks.