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All-star guard carries pain of tragedy

It's been nearly five years since the plane crashed in a snowstorm. Nearly five years since 10 people, including two Oklahoma State basketball players, died on their way home from a basketball game. Nearly five years since Maurice Baker lost his good friend Daniel Lawson.

"I think about it every day," said Baker, in Boise for tonight's CBA All-Star Classic.

The Beechcraft King Air 200 Catpass, carrying eight members of the Oklahoma State traveling party and two pilots, crashed after taking off from Jefferson County Airport in Colorado on Jan. 27, 2001. "Gruesome" is how local law enforcement officials described the crash.

Baker was on one of the team's other two chartered planes, already safely home in Stillwater, Okla., when he learned of the crash.

The Cowboys were making plans for the evening.

"We were waiting on that other plane to come in. We were calling Daniel on the phone and were like, 'Why isn't he answering his phone yet?' " Baker said.

Minutes later, he found out. Via a cell phone call from friends and family checking to see if he was OK. News of the plane crash was all over the television.

"All of our phones were ringing at the same time. We all found out basically from other people," he said.

Baker and Lawson shared a birthday — July 28, 1979 — and bonded during long rides home from Stillwater. Lawson, who lived near Detroit, would drop Baker off at his home near St. Louis during school breaks. And Lawson would pick him up en route back to Stillwater.

"We'd talk a lot. We got real close," Baker said.

Even today, 10 days shy of the fifth anniversary of the crash, Baker can't escape the accident completely. As a member of the Dakota Wizards, he often flies in and out of the Denver airport, about 40 miles from where the plane crashed.

And then there's his birthday. Another reminder of the friend he lost.

"It's like losing anybody close to you, especially someone you see everyday, someone you're working hard with, playing around with, getting in fights with. Just anything, that's a memory and you miss those days," said CBA All-Star Cheyne Gadson, who joined the Oklahoma State team months after the crash and played with Baker during the 2001-02 season.

Baker, one of three ex-Oklahoma State players originally selected to play for the Western Conference in tonight's game, is trying to make new memories.

Stephen Graham, the third Cowboy, won't be in Boise tonight. He just signed with the Chicago Bulls, fulfilling the dream of every CBA player — making it to the NBA.

It's something else Baker thinks about every day.

He's made it — twice, in fact. Baker, a first-team All-CBA selection last year, played briefly for Portland and the Los Angeles Clippers last season. He appeared in five games and scored no points. He played 19 total minutes.

But he left with far more stories.

"I come back and tell a lot of stories and they're like, 'Dang. What's it's like on the plane and plane rides?'" he said. "I'm like, 'It's a lot of fun.' The guys like you. They call you Rook a lot. That was my name. I forgot my name was Mo they just called me Rook so much.

"I'd love to be back up there."

The 6-foot-2, 200-pound Baker is close. He leads the CBA in assists (8.4 per game) and steals (2.7 per game). He's also among the top 10 in scoring, rebounding and free-throw percentage. He's tried to diversify his game this season, playing a more traditional point guard role. Anything to impress the NBA scouts.

"I've just got to keep grinding it out until it's my time. There's a lot of guys in the NBA that grinded it out, did the CBA thing, did the overseas thing. So I'm just going to keep doing it until it's my time," said Baker, who has also played in Syria.

That's a long way from Stillwater, a long way from the crash and the constant reminders that still dot the Oklahoma State campus.

But Baker still carries pain.

And he carries the lessons learned in the aftermath. Like making sure to tell loved ones that we love them "because it could be taken away from us at any moment."

And chasing your dreams — even if they take you to Bismarck, N.D. or Ittihad, Syria — because some people never get that chance.

"It could have been me. I think about that a lot. It was all in God's hands. God planned it like that," Baker said.

"I'm happy I'm still here. I wish those guys were still here, too."