CHAMPAIGN — When Sam McLaurin's parents went to prison when he was 5, his life could have tumbled any number of directions.
His grandparents allowed him only one option.
"School came first," McLaurin says. "Always."
And Sam was 5, maybe 6, when Bobby and Vienia McLaurin set the ground rules for living under their roof. The first: Sam and his three siblings would look after one another. Only four years separated the oldest from the youngest, and the kids walked together to elementary school and bused together through junior high and high school.
The second: "My grandfather, he wouldn't let me play if I didn't take care of my grades," McLaurin says. "Honestly, that probably started in kindergarten."
And the Florida household allowed no shortcuts. McLaurin says his grandfather served in Vietnam. "He was a strict Army guy," he says. His grandmother cared for the kids while her husband was at work.
With little contact with his parents for over a decade, Sam was bound to live a different path, even if he wasn't old enough to know it. A dozen years later, he graduated from East Gadsen High in Havana, Fla., with a 3.8 GPA. In May he completed his undergrad studies at Coastal Carolina with a 3.4, he says.
As McLaurin prepares for his first and only season with the Illinois basketball team, he offers a certain maturity that, at least in part, stems from his grandparents' rules. The 6-foot-8 forward transferred from Coastal Carolina and is eligible for the 2012-13 season.
"I think because I've seen a lot, whether it's in basketball or just in life, I can help out the younger guys that might have a hard time," says McLaurin, a three-year starter in the Big South. "I want to be a leader. I want to be that vocal guy on the court at all times. I do have the experience that a lot of these guys lack. I think I can help in that area.
"I want to keep guys motivated at all times. Sometimes with young guys, if things don't go their way, they might shut it down. But I try to keep guys motivated at all times."
Motivation never was an issue for McLaurin. That's part of the reason the Illinois staff recruited McLaurin as a fifth-year senior with one year of eligibility remaining. During a recent workout, in which John Groce became livid with their defensive effort, the first-year coach requested a show of hands: "Who has a problem with how we defended today?"
The first hand into the air was McLaurin's right one.
"He's a real good guy," says guard Rayvonte Rice, who rooms with McLaurin on campus. "Real easy to get along with."
McLaurin's basketball career had its dips and turns, as well. He underwent knee surgery as a sophomore in high school. Prior to his freshman season at Coastal Carolina, he suffered another knee injury, played six games and later was granted a medical redshirt.
Roughly 14 months ago, McLaurin underwent another knee surgery. That seems to have taken, and McLaurin started all 31 games last season for the Chanticleers.
"When I got injured the first time, the doctors were telling me, 'This is something you're going to have to deal with for the rest of your career,' " he says. "That made me think about life after basketball. It made me want to get as many degrees as I can, get the best grades I can, in case basketball doesn't work."
McLaurin says not to worry about his health. Perhaps to emphasize the point, he says he wore a knee brace for four seasons at Coastal Carolina but hasn't needed one in practice sessions at Ubben Basketball Complex.
"These days my knee's great. I haven't put on a knee brace in forever," he says. "The coaches, the strength coaches, they work with me a lot with my lower-body strength."
Coaches are hopeful McLaurin assumes a role as a rebounder, shot-blocker and versatile defender. Scoring isn't a strength but most of the UI's points figure to come from a veteran backcourt. Those expecting an instant star or gaudy numbers, search elsewhere.
McLaurin was brought in simply to add depth and guidance for an otherwise green frontcourt. He's started 91 games — 64 more than the rest of the Illini big men — and closed his four years at Coastal Carolina with a career-high 20 points in a loss at Old Dominion.
"He's a very mature kid. He knew what he was looking for (in a program)," says assistant Dustin Ford, who works with the big men. "You had to sell him on it, but he was doing his own research. He fits the way we play. That's what got us really excited about him."
McLaurin's personal goal? That one's easy.
"I want to play in the NCAA tournament. Two years at Coastal, we were one game out of the NCAA tournament (in the conference championship)," he says. "We won 28 games two years in a row. And we went to the NIT two years in a row. It was tough for me to knock on the door but never get in. Here, I feel like we have an opportunity to get in."
Groce also is hopeful McLaurin can help the Illini rouse some sort of scratch-and-claw competitive streak that has been lacking in the program. It must take a competitor to go 16 years of schooling without a 'D,' for one thing.
"I want to play professionally (after this year). I've beaten my body up for the past four years," he says with a laugh. "I want to get paid for it."
McLaurin says his parents served their prison time and now live in Florida. His father calls "like eight times a day" as he attempts to build a relationship with Sam.
"By the time they got out, they had to try to learn to provide for themselves before they could provide for us. We were almost adults at that point," McLaurin says. "(When his father calls) he'll tell me, 'I couldn't talk to you all those years except for one call here and there. I can call you all day now.' So he calls me all day.
"He says, 'Pick up when you can. I know you're busy.' We talk, though."
But it was family, he says, that motivated him. That extends from his grandparents, whom he credits for his formal upbringing, to a cousin that often whipped him in foot races.
"Jasmine. And you know what it's like getting beat by a girl when you're little," McLaurin says. "I couldn't let her beat me. If she got an 'A' I couldn't let her be the only one that got an 'A.' I'd have to get one, too."