Last Saturday, Columbia City sophomore Mason Baker dropped a career-high 21 points in the Eagles’ victory over Bellmont.
To outsiders, it simply looked like a solid performance out of an up-and-coming player in the Northeast 8.
But in reality, it meant so much more.
On Oct. 19, 2017, Baker was riding ATVs with a friend. As he looked to the side at his riding partner, he drifted and eventually tumbled into a 15-foot ravine.
“For a bit, I thought I had just knocked the wind out of myself,” said Baker. “But when I tried to stand up, I knew it was a lot worse.”
Baker’s friend climbed down into the ditch, where she saw that things were much more serious. Baker’s mother Adelle was called. When she arrived, she couldn’t navigate into the ditch and instead had to wait until emergency personnel appeared on the scene.
“I couldn’t even get to him,” remembered Adelle. “The paramedics had to go down on their butts just to get to him.”
A hoisting device was eventually used to haul Baker out of the ditch. He was rushed to the hospital, where doctors began to ascertain the damage.
“(Columbia City boys basketball coach Brett Eberly) was the first person in the ER that night and Mason told him ‘I just want to play basketball,'” Adelle said. “At that time we had no idea what all was wrong with him due to the strong meds they had him on.”
His parents wanted him transferred to Riley Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, but a doctor told them that it would be much too risky.
You see, Baker had suffered serious, potentially life-altering injuries. The accident had resulted in the breaking of 10 thoracic vertebrae, which line the spinal column vertically. He also suffered a broken right scapula, a broken left arm and a punctured lung.
By far the most debilitating was the back injury. The reason why Baker could not transfer hospitals is that the accident had come within one millimeter of severing his spinal cord.
Baker was close to being permanently paralyzed.
A 7.5 surgery came quickly after the diagnosis at Lutheran Hospital in order to stabilize Baker’s back injury. He was cut open the length of his back, the only way to get to the broken vertebrae, one of which was dangerously close to making contact with the spinal cord.
The surgery was a success, but it came at a cost. Football? Yeah, that was no longer an option. But basketball?
“We were told he would be out of basketball for at least a year,” said Adelle. “They told him he would never play football again and basketball would be tough in itself.”
But Baker was determined to return to the basketball court. Eberly brought his Columbia City jersey to the hospital to remind him of his goals. When he went home, he hung it above his bed, a cue to Baker every time he saw it that his goal was within reach. It was No. 3, the number that Baker dreamed of wearing at the high school level.
Just a few days after the surgery, Baker was able to leave his bed. As his body recovered and days turned into weeks, he coveted the opportunity to play hoops again.
“Many nights he slept with his basketball when he couldn’t play,” Adelle said. “When he was told by the doctors it would 12 months or more before he was cleared, he said, ‘Give me six months.'”
In April of 2018, six months after the injury, Baker was cleared by his surgeon for supervised instruction. The family headed to Optimum Performance Sports, where the family was presented with a clear plan to slowly build Baker back.
Between appointments with Dr. Jason Russell and Dr. Nick Goins and working his body from a massive trauma with performance training, Baker began to feel more confident with each passing day. He was cleared for light jogging and no jumping, but OPS helped him eventually introduce some jumping and landing techniques that strengthened his back.
“They definitely gave me some more hope,” said Baker about the OPS team. “Dr. Russell is great to work with and Dr. Nick is still a big part of my recovery.”
Baker exceeded expectations, to the point that he was able to suit up for Columbia City junior varsity hoops last season as a freshman. While he started JV and got to dress for varsity, he wasn’t the same. He would lose his balance and fall on occasion and wasn’t able to make the plays he was used to making.
But recovery takes time, and Baker persevered.
Baker returned to OPS at every opportunity, pushing to strengthen his body and refine his skills. His Columbia City basketball family fought the fight with him, including Eberly, who has always been there for whatever was needed.
And then there is Casey Adams of Team Focus, Baker’s AAU team. Adams was a constant as well, always there in support of Baker’s mission to return to 100 percent.
Last summer, Baker played AAU ball and traveled extensively. He felt his body doing more and more what it did prior to the injury. His balance continued to refine itself, as well as the strength in his back to handle the rigors of basketball.
This season, Baker finds himself a varsity starter for the Eagles. It is impressive for a sophomore, but a sophomore that just more than two years ago nearly died? That’s a big deal.
“It’s really unreal and you can still bring us to tears!” said Adelle about her and her husband’s emotions about Baker’s recovery. “If you ever see me crying at a game, I promise I am not a crazy nut job!”
For Baker, he has fulfilled the goal he told Eberly that night in the ER. He has returned to the basketball court. Fittingly, he hits the floor every game wearing the No. 3, the very jersey number that Eberly brought to the hospital.
The goal is college basketball. Just a sophomore, the next level is a few years off.
But we have already seen what Baker can achieve in just two years.
“I’m extremely grateful for everyone that has helped and encouraged me along the way,” Baker said. “I am forever grateful for everyone that has supported my family and I during the difficult journey.”