Kearny’s Baez leads Kardinals to first league title in 52 years

When Kearny High School boys’ head basketball coach Bob McDonnell first laid eyes on Joseph Baez, he didn’t think Baez could cut it as a top player.

“When I first met him, I didn’t think he’d last in my program,” McDonnell said.

“I wanted to play basketball,” Baez said. “And if I wanted to play, I knew I had to change my ways.”
Baez changed those ways last year as a junior, eventually averaging 16 points per game, a huge jump from his sophomore year, when Baez averaged only seven per contest.

“I had to apologize to Coach McDonnell,” Baez said. “I had to listen to him. He’s a dominant, head-strong guy. I knew we used to clash heads, but I couldn’t anymore. If I wanted to help the team, I had to do what he said. He’s a very good guy.”

McDonnell wanted Baez to become more of a well-rounded player, to become a floor leader and distributor, not just a scorer.

“There are times this year when I have to tell him to shoot the ball, because he’s consistently looking to pass,” McDonnell said. “He’s become a team-oriented player. It’s been a complete 360-degree turnaround. There was a point where all he cared about was himself. Now, all he cares about is the team.”

Baez doesn’t mind having that responsibility.

“I absolutely love that role,” Baez said. “I love to play with my team all the time. I constantly look to dish to the others and get us going. I know now that I’m a team player. I found out that it was the only way we could win. We had to make it a team game.”

With his high school basketball career winding down, Baez has definitely evolved into more of a team player _ and it has shown, considering the Kardinals have won five in a row and nine of their last 10 games, with Baez leading the way.

Baez is inching closer to the prestigious 1,000-point milestone that most high school players simply dream of. He needs only 36 more to reach the plateau.

Last week, Baez had some impressive performances to help his team capture the Hudson County Interscholastic Athletic League-White Division championship, the first league title for any Kearny boys’ basketball team since 1964, when the Kardinals captured the old Big 10 Conference.

Baez scored 25 points and had four assists in win over Memorial of West New York, then added 28 points and six assists in the Kards’ big 86-61 win over neighboring rival Harrison last Friday night.

For his efforts, Baez has been selected as The Observer Athlete of the Week for the past week. Baez also earned Observer Athlete of the Week once last basketball season as well.

McDonnell is impressed with Baez’s growth as a person and a player.

“It’s all about his maturity,” McDonnell said. “He’s a much more mature person. He’s matured tremendously. I believe he was just looking for a direction in life, that he needed a purpose.”

How much has Baez grown up?

“It’s so much that we call him ‘Coach Baez’ now,” McDonnell said. “He knows the offense. He knows the defense. There are times where I think he knows what I’m thinking about. He goes over to the younger players and instructs them. He’s always thinking on the court as well. Sometimes it’s scary when he’s thinking like me.”

“I’ve been with him now for such a long time,” Baez said of McDonnell. “I think this is something we both wanted for a long time. I’m very excited about this season and how it’s all turned out and we still have a way to go. I think I’m communicating better with Coach McDonnell and my teammates. Maybe I didn’t understand them in the past, but I do now.”

McDonnell credits the Kearny guidance department, in particular Jennifer Correnti, for her work with Baez.

“She took a liking to him and realized that he had potential,” McDonnell said of Correnti. “Some other teachers took an interest in him as well. I wish I could take all the credit, but I can’t. He woke up as a person and it’s amazing the transformation.”

Baez thanks teammates George Smyth and Gralen Vereen for helping him with the turnaround.

“They’ve helped me through my tough times,” Baez said.

McDonnell said that Baez is thinking about college as well. Baez is also a fine baseball player, so he may wait until baseball season is over before he makes up his mind.

“I think I have to go the JUCO (junior college) route to get to college,” Baez said. “It bothers me a little that I didn’t take school more seriously. But if it’s what I have to do, then it’s fine. I’ll do well in whatever I do.”

“He has plans now for college, which says a lot,” McDonnell said. “He’s trying hard. He definitely has his act together.”

The Kardinals drew the No. 7 seed in the Hudson County Tournament that begins this Wednesday. The Kards are scheduled to face Lincoln in their first round game.

“We just want to change the image of what Kearny basketball has been for such a long time,” Baez said. “We want to do something special.”

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Jim Hague | Observer Sports Writer

Sports Writer Jim Hague was with The Observer for 20+ years — and his name is one of the most recognizable in all of sports journalism. The St. Peter’s Prep and Marquette alum kicked off his journalism career post Marquette at the Daily Record, where he remained until 1985. Following shorts stints at two other newspapers, in September 1986, he joined the now-closed Hudson Dispatch, where he remained until 1991, when its doors were finally shut.

It was during his tenure at The Dispatch that Hague’s name and reputation as one of country’s hardest-working sports reporters grew. He won several New Jersey Press Association and North Jersey Press Club Awards in that timeframe.

In 1991, he became a columnist for The Hudson Reporter chain of newspapers — and he remains with them to this day.

In addition to his work at The Observer and The Hudson Reporter, Hague is also an Associated Press stringer, where he covers Seton Hall University men’s basketball, New York Red Bulls soccer and occasionally, New Jersey Devils hockey.

He’s also doing work at The Morristown Daily Record, the very newspaper where his journalism career began.

During his career, he also worked for Dorf Feature Services, which provided material for the Star-Ledger. While there, he covered the New York Knicks and the New Jersey Nets.

Hague is also known for his announcing work — and he’s done PA work for Rutgers Newark and NJIT.

Hague is the author of the book “Braddock: The Rise of the Cinderella Man.”