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Paul Baldwin was Escondido’s hoop maven


There are coaches and then there are COACHES.
Well, consider Paul Baldwin Jr. to be of the uppercase variety. In other words, he’s special, he’s accomplished and at the very least, he borders on the iconic.
In fact, if Escondido High was to erect its own version of a coaching Mount Rushmore, Baldwin would be a mortal lock to be on it right alongside football titan Chick Embrey. Those two consequential figures are absolute no-brainers. As for the other places of prominence, we’ll let local sports historians decide who would be worthy of filling out the rest of that fabulous four.
For those longtime Escondido basketball fans that attended the Cougars season-opening game on November 19 versus Escondido Charter, no one would have blamed them if they experienced real culture shock since they were witnessing a seismic change. Because for the first time since the 1998-99 season, Baldwin wasn’t on the bench or working a sideline. His looming and tangible presence was gone and to many in attendance, his absence was keenly felt. When legends depart, they leave behind a genuine sense of loss and wistfulness because they can’t be replaced nor can their “It” factor be duplicated. No matter what, things can never be the same.
How good was Baldwin at his craft? Well, in his 23 years as the architect of the Cougar program, he amassed 379 wins, got to five CIF championship games (winning thrice), copped 11 league titles, was a four-time coach of year award winner and failed to make the playoffs on just two occasions. Resumes don’t get much weightier that that.
And from all appearances it looked like Baldwin was destined to keep right on adding to those glossy numbers and notable achievements. His intention was to, at the minimum, extend his Esco run long enough so that he could reach a silver anniversary at the historic school located on North Broadway Avenue.
But late last May, Baldwin experienced an epiphany of sorts and with it the course of Cougar hoops was forever changed. With his team down by a 23-5 count to Ramona and not offering the kind of effort that had long characterized his clubs, the then 51-year-old coach felt he’d finally had enough. Suddenly, it became crystal clear that no longer did he have the energy nor the inclination to power through the grind of a massive weekly basketball commitment that entailed such things as extensive film study, devising practice plans, communicating with players and parents, fundraising, the demands of game day and so much more. As Baldwin readily points out, “Running a program is a ton of work.”
Though his Cougars did fight back before falling to the Bulldogs 63-57, a line had been crossed in Baldwin’s mind. “I’m an all or nothing kind of guy,” says Baldwin, “and knowing that I could no longer be that, I needed to get away from basketball and take a step back.” That very night on the bus ride home from Ramona, Baldwin called good friend and Escondido athletic director Steve Bridges and asked if they could meet the next day. It was then that Baldwin shared his intentions and revealed that he was done. And just like that, a golden era had ended.
For much of Baldwin’s life, the game of basketball has been a centerpiece. As a Cougar standout, the 6-1 shooting guard was a four-year starter, earned All-League (first team) and All-CIF (third team) honors and led San Diego County in 3-pointers made during his senior season.
From Esco, Baldwin matriculated to Palomar College where he saw duty as a starting off-guard. His next stop then came at Sonoma State University. Toiling for the Cossacks, Paul was a contributor off the bench seeing duty in the backcourt as both a one and a two.
And it was there at SSU that Baldwin’s began his coaching journey, spending two seasons involved with guard development and film exchange. Paul then moved onto a gig at Santa Rosa High, where he led the junior varsity and learned some lasting and invaluable lessons while assisting highly respected varsity coach Pat Kennedy
After returning to Escondido, Baldwin took a one-year turn as a Cougar lieutenant before he was eventually offered the head coaching position. At that time, the basketball program was in the midst of a startling freefall. With the Cougars having lost 48 of their previous 52 games, friends and colleagues warned Baldwin not to accept the position because it was thought to be a dead-end destination where the talent was clearly down and winning seemed all but impossible.
But the lure of being the main man at his alma mater proved too strong. Besides, Baldwin was a fierce competitor who wasn’t about to back down from a challenge, monumental or not.
Almost immediately, Baldwin dramatically changed the hoop culture at Esco. Not only did he bring a perceptible intensity to the task at hand but he installed lots of structure and demonstrated to the players that he was totally invested in every way imaginable.
He demanded that his charges play hard and with purpose and insisted that giving up was never an option. Nor was losing ever to be accepted.
The climb out of the abyss began right away as the Cougars showed stunning improvement with a 14-15 overall record and a playoff victory over defending CIF champ Oceanside in Baldwin’s first season at the helm. Though the Cougs only posted an 8-16 slate the following year, it nonetheless proved one the most rewarding experiences of Baldwin’s career. Exceedingly young with a starting lineup that included two sophomores and a freshman, those Cougars competed like the dickens, with 10 of their losses coming in games that could have gone either way. “That year we got absolutely everything out of what we had,” Baldwin remembers. “Those kids listened and man, did they play together. That was one of the most enjoyable seasons I’ve ever had.”
With a firm foundation now taking hold, the Cougars soon took off with memorable seasons, championship titles and league crowns the welcomed byproduct. Baldwin’s teams quickly become known for their toughness, how they pressed and trapped, their up-tempo style and the manner in which they just flat out got after it.
The first of Baldwin’s CIF titles came in 2003. Having lost in the Division II finals to Helix the previous season, the Cougs would exact some stunning revenge against the very same Highlanders just a year later.
Because Esco had graduated four starters from its prior squad, few people expected the Cougars to be a legitimate championship threat. But Baldwin felt otherwise because he knew that there was bona fide talent moving up from the JV ranks. Sparked by a pair of All-CIF guards in Lorenzo Keeler and Chris Williams as well as the long Djordje Jovanic – who was a rebounding and shot blocking artist – Esco earned the sweetest of paybacks when it took down Helix in an instant classic.
Coming out of a timeout and with just .5 seconds remaining, the clutch Keeler faked left, secured an inbound pass and then unleashed a long baseline jumper. Knocked to the floor, Keeler never saw his signature basket go through the net but the roar of the crowd let him know that his last-ditch shot had found the mark, putting the capper on a scintillating 60-59 win.
And in the very next season, Baldwin and crew struck gold again. Paced by Keeler, Williams, versatile power forward Kevin Small as well as high volume scorer/rebounder Matt Adams, the Cougars rolled to another crown with a 76-54 beatdown of Hoover. This team was later destined to go all the way to the So Cal Division II State semifinals, the furthest a Baldwin-led team ever advanced.
Baldwin’s last title came in the 2015 Division I finals when a supremely talented team that featured four players 6-foot-7 or over blitzed Morse 63-49 in the title matchup. High-end performers on that club included gifted guard Marcus Hentley, savvy Khy Kabellis, athletic big Keegan Cummins, tough JD Fox and the tenacious Fernando Diaz.
When asked about the keys to his success, Baldwin first and foremost credits the young men who were able implement and execute his vision on the court. “I was blessed to have had so many good players,” he shares.
To begin with there was Williams, a versatile and rugged 6-foot athlete who could man multiple positions, push the ball up the floor and register triple doubles with great frequency. In Nate Daniels, the Cougars had a 6’8” presence who could mix it up in low as well as drill shots from the perimeter. Justin Bell was a terrific point guard and competitor who cared deeply, owned a sweet handle and was capable of changing a game with his defense.
As for the aforementioned Keeler, he was so dynamic that he earned CIF Player of the Year honors and was as clutch as they come whenever the game was on the line. Kabellis was a versatile point who could do just about anything and possessed a great feel for things. In the 6-10 Cummins, the Cougs had someone who excelled at alley-oops and dunks and created matchup nightmares. Like Keeler, Joe Hudson was a mighty force when he possessed the rock such as on that memorable night when he dropped an astounding 40 points on No. 1 ranked Torrey Pines.
And finally there was the productive Adams and the high-scoring Peter Smith, the son of NBA standout Phil Smith.
But not only was Baldwin blessed with enviable talent that he so skillfully shaped and molded but he was also the beneficiary of having trusted and dedicated assistants by his side. Among his cherished longtime aides were John Williamson, Craig Horton, Jim Kabellis, Jeff Alexander and Jason Jacobs.
Though he is no longer coaching hoops at Esco, Baldwin nonetheless maintains a considerable presence on campus as the head of the physical education department. His daily teaching schedule involves a variety of six classes including two of which focus on adaptive P.E. for disabled students.
Somewhat surprisingly, when asked if he’s missed coaching at all, Baldwin answers in the negative. “Absolutely not,” he quickly responds. “It’s nice not to be stressing on basketball related stuff. It’s enabled me to free up my mind.”
As a result of having more time on his hands, Baldwin has been able to put more of an emphasis on his own personal fitness which has translated into doing a lot more hiking and getting on a Nordic Track bike with greater regularity.
Moreover, he’s now able to enjoy regularly scheduled dinners at home as opposed to often eating on the go and chowing down fast food.
But above all else, distancing himself from coaching has allowed him to spend more quality time on that which truly feeds his soul, namely interacting with his own family.
Not only does Baldwin have an exceedingly likeable and personable partner in wife Gina but he also has three daughters of which to be proud. The eldest of whom is Hailey, a graduate of San Luis Obispo who’s currently working on her Master’s and earning a teaching credential.
In the middle comes Chelsea, a standout Cougar basketball and volleyball player who unfortunately suffered a torn ACL during her senior year. Baldwin has been quite involved in her rehab from that injury and it is hoped that she will be able to resume her athletic career sometime in the near future.
And then there’s Riley, a topnotch junior swimmer who possesses tremendous potential and seems destined for special things at both the high school and collegiate levels. Right now, Baldwin is taking an active part in her weight training regime.
When looking back on his unsurpassed tenure with the Cougars, Baldwin figures to have plenty of fond memories to sort through. “I’ll remember the big wins, the adrenaline rush and the satisfaction of watching the skill development of my players,” he says.
He’ll also recall the countless hours he spent in the company of his hoopsters. “I was with them so much that in some ways, I came to look upon them as my own kids,” Baldwin admits with much feeling.
And as for a legacy that he leaves behind, Baldwin has one in mind. “I’d like to think that more often than not, I got the most out of my teams and that we came together as a group and persevered.”
As of this moment, Baldwin, who still exudes an energetic and charismatic vibe, doesn’t feel the itch to get back into coaching. But he won’t completely rule out that possibility somewhere down the road. After all, his shelf life as an exceptional roundball mentor and teacher has come nowhere near reaching its expiration date.
But alas, his run as the hoop savant at Esco has reached its conclusion and that is a cause for genuine reflection. For Paul Baldwin Jr. was truly an uncommon breed and because of his sustained excellence and staying power, his like in these parts will probably never be seen again.

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