Pair of Lady Griz Hoopsters Sign European Contracts


Should it really come as a surprise that Alyssa Smith is continuing to inspire her teammates, even four months after her career at Montana ended?

Emboldened by the news last month that her former teammate had signed a professional contract to play basketball in Romania, Katie Baker decided to put her scripted future on hold and look at similar options for herself.

Just weeks after hiring an agent, Baker signed a contract Tuesday with Amicale Steinsel, a team in the top league of Luxembourg.

“When I found out Alyssa had signed to play in Romania, I was so excited for her,” Baker says. “And then it kind of hit me right in the gut. I wanted that same opportunity, because that was something I’ve been dreaming of since I was little.”

Katie Baker and Alyssa Smith.  Photo by Austin Smith.

Katie Baker and Alyssa Smith. Photo by Austin Smith.

It was a big decision for Baker, both because the next year of her life was comfortably laid out in front of her and because having her future laid out comfortably before her has been the norm for the past 22 years.

She was going to take the classes at Montana during the fall and spring semesters that she still needed to be able to apply for a physician assistant program, and she was going to assist the Lady Griz coaching staff, which is down one for the 2013-14 season with the recent retirement of Annette Rocheleau.

“I have so many passions in my life, and I was ready to see how God could use me in a different way. (Lady Griz coach Robin Selvig) offered me the coaching job, and it just seemed like a good way to go,” she says.

Baker, the 2013 Big Sky Conference MVP and three-time first-team All-Big Sky Conference selection who finished her career ranked No. 5 on Montana’s career scoring list, spent time earlier this summer in Alaska coaching basketball for NBC camps at Eskimo villages.

The setting, combined with Smith’s news, gave Baker plenty to think about and the time to do it deeply.

Alyssa Smith. Photo by Austin Smith.

Alyssa Smith. Photo by Austin Smith.

“I spent a lot of time stepping back and examining my life and asking if I was really happy,” she says. “I had a lot of self-doubt about whether I could really do something like this, because it’s a commitment. You can’t be 50-50 on your decision. You have to be all in.

“So I decided to send out some emails to see if anyone would even want me. What’s the worst that could happen, that they say no?”

The directors of NBC camps had overseas connections. Montana men’s basketball assistant coach Jono Metzger-Jones hooked Baker up with an agent he knew in California. And Jen Kerns, who played at Coeur d’Alene’s Lake City High, just like Baker, is a coach in Germany.

Baker decided to use Jeanne McNulty-King, who happens to be a former Lady Griz standout (1985-90) and the 1990 Big Sky Conference MVP. She is also the president and CEO of 2X Inc., a sports agency based out of Port Townsend, Wash., that specializes in the representation of female athletes.

“Rob told me about Jeanne, and she was ready for the commitment. She was excited for me,” Baker says. “She is the one who got me the deal in Luxembourg and worked out all the details.

“It all happened so fast. I probably sent my initial email out in early June. A couple of weeks later I got a response from someone in Malta. A week later I heard from Germany, then a couple of days after that the deal from Luxembourg came in.”

She had more options available to her than she ever would have thought possible. There was the allure of saying yes to Malta and moving to the small island in the heart of the Mediterranean. There was the chance to reconnect with Kerns in Germany.

But above all else, Baker wanted a situation that felt safe, not a surprise for a player coming out of Selvig’s close-knit program.

Katie Baker. Photo by Austin Smith.

Katie Baker. Photo by Austin Smith.

“I talked to (Amicale Steinsel coach Rene Keiser) on the phone, and you can really tell he cares about his players,” Baker says. “He was honest with me about everything Luxembourg has to offer. It’s a safe country, one of the wealthiest in the world.

“And I have a really good first-year contract. Ultimately I trust Jeanne. I trust she isn’t going to throw me on any old team.”

Baker’s contract calls for the team to pay for her flight to Europe in mid-August, and they will set her up with a furnished apartment and a car. The team is based in the town of Steinsel, but Baker will live in neighboring Mullendorf. Both have populations of just a couple thousand.

The team’s preseason will begin in early September, and it will include games against teams from Germany, France and Belgium, the three countries that sandwich tiny Luxembourg, a country with a population of a little more than 500,000.

Katie Baker is named League MVP. Photo by Austin Smith.Once its league season begins, Amicale Steinsel will play games only against other teams in Luxembourg. The league, which has a schedule that extends from October to April with a lengthy Christmas break, has a total of 10 teams.

And the travel? Her longest road trip this coming season will be shorter than her shortest road trip during her playing days at Montana. Some perspective: When Baker drives home to Coeur d’Alene, she drives what is the length of Luxembourg before she hits Lookout Pass.

More: Luxembourg, at less than 1,000 square miles, could be shoehorned into Montana nearly 150 times before it would fill the state’s 147,000 square miles.

“The country is only 90 miles by 85 miles. It’s as large as Delaware, so it’s not like Montana,” Baker says. “I’ll be able to hop on a train and be in Paris in 90 minutes.”

As is common to many European sports organizations, the league in Luxembourg allows for each team to have a single foreign player.

“I’ll be the only American,” Baker says. “A lot of the other players have jobs, then they are a part of the team on the side. I’ll be doing some work with the club’s youth teams, but other than that, this will be my only job.”

Baker has already started in on her study of the Luxembourgish language. With English being used extensively in the country, learning the mother tongue isn’t a requirement, but if she can pull it off it would bring with it some unexpected benefits.

“The coach speaks English, and some of the girls have already contacted me on Facebook in English,” she says. “English is common, so I’ll be able to find my way around. But the coach said that if I can learn some Luxembourgish, I’ll win over the town.”

Katie Baker on Senior Night.  Photo by Austin Smith.

Katie Baker on Senior Night. Photo by Austin Smith.

And so the habitual planner, who likes to have her ducks aligned in a perfect row before her, has embraced spontaneity and accepted that life is only lived once. That’s Katie, as in carpe diem.

“I never get to be 22 again,” Baker philosophizes. “I’m never going to have a basketball body again that would allow me to pursue something like this. I can always go back to school, and I can always come back to what I know.

“Sure, I’m stepping out of my comfort zone, so for the first time in my life I’m going to have to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. Up to this point every single step in my life has been planned out.

“Now? I’ve thrown out all my plans, and I’m going to live day to day. And I’m at peace with that.”

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