If there was one word to describe Hanford’s Tori Baker on the basketball court, that would be it.
“She was sweet and smiley, but you put her on the court, her eyes would narrow and it was game on,” said Kellee (Magnuson) Balcom, who played on an AAU team with Baker when they were in middle school, and against Baker when she was at Kamiakin High School. “She was a fabulous rival. A good person and a great athlete.”
Baker, who died May 3 in Oakridge, Ore., at 48, was a girls basketball icon in the Tri-Cities and is fondly remembered by rivals and coaches.
“It makes my heart sad,” Balcom said of hearing of Baker’s passing. “After she graduated, I knew she went to Oregon and I was happy for her to go there. That was the place to go back then. I always wondered about her and wished her well.”
A 1987 Hanford graduate, Baker was the heart and soul of the girls basketball team. She led the Falcons to an undefeated season (27-0) and a AA state championship in 1986, and she held the school record for points scored in a career (1,367) for nearly 30 years.
A four-year starter at Hanford for coach Jim Murphy, Baker was the MVP of the 1986 state basketball tournament and was a first-team all-state selection. Her senior year, she was named to the Washington State Sportswriters Association Class AA WA State Girls Basketball Team, and was selected as a High School All-American.
“She was a unique individual,” said former Hanford track Clay Lewis, who was Murphy’s assistant coach at the time. “She wanted to learn to be the best at what she did. She was Coach Murphy’s superstar. She went through a tough life, but basketball made her feel good. Whatever she did, she was good at. She would accept nothing less.
She could shoot — she was an amazing scorer. I didn’t want to play against her, I wanted her on my team. She was a fierce competitor.
Tanya Lamb, former Pasco standout, on Tori Baker
Baker was the Herald’s female Athlete of the Year in 1986, an honor she won over fellow Falcons Michele Fox and Millicent Shaw, and Kamiakin’s Brenda Harding.
“I’m really surprised I got it because there are so many other good athletes in the area,” Baker said in a June 1986 interview.
The honor was not a surprise to former Pasco standout Tayna Lamb, who played on a summer all-star team with Baker.
“We both graduated the same year, but we never played against each other,” Lamb said. “It was a matchup everyone wanted to see. I had a teacher who offered us $100 to play to 10. She would have beaten me. She could shoot — she was an amazing scorer. I didn’t want to play against her, I wanted her on my team. She was a fierce competitor.”
During the 1986 season, the 5-foot-8 Baker averaged 22 points, five rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, garnering her attention from more than two dozen colleges, including Notre Dame, Hawaii, Oregon, Oregon State, Minnesota and Oklahoma.
An honor student, Baker earned a full scholarship to Oregon to play basketball. She was Named Most Valuable newcomer at Oregon in 1989, as well as earning honorable mention academic All-Pac-10 honors.
She played three years at Oregon before transferring to San Diego State, but chronic pain from a bicycle accident and a central nervous system disease kept her from finishing her basketball career.
She was inducted into the Hanford Hall of Fame as an individual athlete, and again as a member of the 1986 state championship team.
Basketball was her family
“She didn’t have a whole lot of parental influence to help her make decisions,” Lewis said. “She had four or five foster families while she was in high school, including Jim and Nancy Murphy. I praise all of the families that took her in and gave her a positive family environment.”
She is the example we would want young girls to follow for excellence.
Former coach Clay Lewis
And it was Murphy who had the greatest impact on the budding basketball star.
“Murph did a great job with her,” Lewis said. “She was so determined to win and tried to take control of how things would go. There would be times he would sit her on the bench for a few moments. They were life lessons, more than basketball lessons, during those years.”
Baker appreciated the tough love she got from Murphy, who died in 2006.
“He saved my life,” Baker said in 2007 interview. “I wasn’t happy as a kid. If I hadn’t wound up with him, I probably would have run away. He showed you could make mistakes and not suffer for it.”
It was her passion for the game that led her to college basketball.
“If you have that kind of fire, it’s amazing what you can get,” Lewis said. “ It opens doors. She is the example we would want young girls to follow for excellence”
The summer after Baker and Lamb graduated, they were teammates for the Spokane Stars, and went to the Blue Star basketball camp at Pepperdine University.
“We (Spokane Stars) took second in the nation,” said Lamb, who went on to play at North Carolina. “I think we were the only Tri-City girls on the team. She had a way about her. She guarded me in practice and she pushed me to be a better player. She pushed me harder than anyone else would have. We had conversations. I know things weren’t easy for her, but she wanted me to do well. I can still see her smile and hear her laugh.”