The name is Jemarl, but it's pronounced Ja- MAL , neither of which rhymes with pearl . . . but is that any reason to discard such an appropriate nickname?
There he was smack-dab in the middle of one of the nation's hotbeds of basketball, yet he somehow managed to be overlooked by Division I recruiters who sift through high school players in the inner city each season as if they were oysters on the Nantucket shore.
How they missed Jemarl Baker, a jewel of a guard, is anyone's guess--although him missing most of his senior season because of strained ligaments in his right ankle probably had something to do with it.
That being the case, Baker's pain led to Cal State Northridge's gain and now the strain is on the rest of the guards in the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. who are bound to be bugged by the freshman's gnat-like tenacity on defense.
Baker's intensity could inspire the most even-tempered basketball player to throw a hook shot at him--the kind thrown with a closed fist. To call him annoying would be generous. Ants at a picnic are annoying. Baker is more like a crab in a bathtub.
He was taught to be that way at Manual Arts High, where there is only one sure way to make Coach Reggie Morris' lineup: play defense as if your basketball life depends on it--which, by the way, it does.
"When you play for Coach Morris you have no choice but to play defense," Baker said. "If you don't, you don't play."
Baker, who is averaging 15 minutes a game as Northridge's first guard off the bench, is a whirling dervish of hands and feet who usually positions himself about three inches from his opponent's face. He simply suffocates his target with harassment.
He can relate to the feeling. He used to do the same thing to himself.
During Baker's sophomore and junior seasons at Manual Arts he would get so excited during a game that he'd hyperventilate.
"He was so hyper he would mentally fatigue himself in the first half," Morris said of Baker. "I had to teach him how to breathe in the game. He was just so excited about getting after people that he would burn himself out in the first quarter."
Baker needed breathing lessons before he finally calmed down enough to stay effective for more than a couple of minutes at a time. And when that happened a star was born. Baker averaged a team-high 19 points a game as a junior and was considered a Division I prospect.
He was waylaid by two factors beyond his control. First, he was unable to participate in the summer superstar camps and leagues because he had to work to help support his family. Then, five games into his senior season, he was injured and missed all of Manual Arts' holiday tournament games and half of the league season.
Baker's ankle did not completely recover until the playoffs, but in those two games he was brilliant. He had 21 points and 7 steals in a win over Westchester and 18 points and 8 assists in a loss to eventual City Section champion Fairfax.
His performance against Fairfax was even more impressive because the 6-1 guard was matched up defensively against forward Sean Higgins, a 6-8 All-American who is now at Michigan.
Higgins, a perimeter player, tried to take Baker inside to capitalize on his height advantage but was quickly frustrated when Baker refused to back down.
"Jemarl gave him fits getting all over him," Morris recalled. "He got Higgins so mad that he picked up two offensive fouls trying to push Jemarl off him."
Finally, Higgins was forced to retreat to the outside where he was less of a threat to rebound. Fairfax still won, but Higgins finished with 18 points, well below his average.
It was Baker's performance against Westchester, however, that interested Northridge, although none of CSUN's coaches witnessed the game.
Morris, who felt Baker's talents were suited to Northridge's style of play, sent Coach Pete Cassidy a videotape of the game.
It was soon returned with a scholarship offer.
"I really liked what I saw," Cassidy said. "He got after people pretty good, he was well-coached by Reggie and he showed he could shoot the ball."
Baker chose Northridge over Cal State Dominguez Hills. There were no offers from Division I schools, which disappointed Baker, but only for a short time.
"Right now my friends tell me I'm D-One and they ask me why I go to Northridge," Baker said. "I say, well, because they came and got me and they wanted me. It was a letdown. I wanted to play Division I, but now I'm fine. I'm in school, I'm working to get my degree and I'm playing for a good team."
Of the four freshmen Northridge signed last year, Baker is the only one who has cracked the lineup. He has played in every game and is averaging four points.
"He has played more extensively than was originally planned," Cassidy said. "It's nice to have a fresh guy like him come in off the bench. He's basketball-wise for a freshman and he's not afraid to compete. He takes and makes the open shot, plays hard defense and goes hard all the time he's on the floor."
Baker appears frenzied as he struggles to fend off whatever his opponent has in mind. While others strain on offense, Baker seems to work hardest when the other team has the ball.
This, however, is his idea of fun. "I like playing defense," Baker said. "When you can stop your guy and then score at the other end, it makes it that much better."
Cassidy likes that kind of attitude. "I don't think any freshman is really polished," Cassidy said of his pearl, "but he has a good attitude, a good work ethic and a lot of basketball skills. He'll get there."