EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: The Celtics gave Jamar Smith a chance to make their roster. Not long ago, he was just trying to hang on to his college career.
Headline: Rebuilding project
Date: Feb. 15, 2009
By TONY BLEILL
EVANSVILLE, Ind. — The megawatt smile still is there, the wide grin that arrives early and stays for dinner.
The lilting, easygoing pitch in Jamar Smith’s voice hasn’t changed a bit, either. But behind that visage, behind the familiar physical traits, the Jamar Smith that Illinois basketball fans know offers a few new characteristics.
Foremost among them: Mea culpas come easily. Excuses don’t. Perspectives are rooted in faith, determination seems ubiquitous and daily life isn’t as hard as it was not so long ago.
In fact, the way Smith figures it, his toughest hurdle these days is strictly a matter of practicality.
“My biggest problem is I can’t get 24-hour access to the gym,” he said recently, cradling a basketball after a Friday morning of classes at the University of Southern Indiana.
At Illinois’ Ubben Basketball Complex, Smith could get in and shoot his woes away whenever he pleased. This, he surely has noted, is one of the prices Jamar Smith has paid along his road to redemption.
And though he’s only a mile or so into his journey, Smith is giving indications to those around him that he’s finally found the right path.
In late December, the 21-year-old from Peoria appeared before Champaign County Judge Richard Klaus and was lauded for his good behavior since he was sentenced to an additional 18 months of probation for violating the terms of his previous probation, stemming from an aggravated driving under the influence of alcohol conviction in May 2007.
“We’re pleased with the progress we’ve seen,” State’s Attorney Julia Rietz told the judge.
These days, that’s the consensus opinion.
“He’s just refocused,” said Smith’s stepfather, Juandale Jordan. “He knows what he did wrong, and he knows the choices you have to make afterward. Up to this point, he’s made good choices and he’s seeing the payoff in it.”
That payoff includes a spot on the roster of Southern Indiana, ranked 16th in Division II. Smith became eligible in late December and has been a star on the court, averaging a team-high 17.3 points and shooting an outlandish 54 percent on three-point shots, his trademark.
Most important, he has held no grudges and shown no ego, not inconsequential for a player who was once considered a cornerstone of one of the Big Ten’s top programs.
“Jamar’s been a terrific guy to coach,” USI coach Rick Herdes said. “Our hardest worker. He is a good teammate. He’s done nothing but try to fit in. To a fault, sometimes.”
It has been a long process.
In July, UI coach Bruce Weber dismissed Smith from the team when he broke a “personal agreement” for his possible return. A few weeks later, Smith was found to have been drinking on campus, which violated the terms of his probation, which was extended another 18 months as a result.
He completed court-ordered rehab in Peoria and then found a home at Southern Indiana. In between, he has eliminated the influence of alcohol in his life and tried to repair whatever bonds were broken by his actions in C-U.
“I feel great about life off the court because I’m a lot more in tune with myself, a lot more in tune with God,” Smith said. “Everything that I went through made me a better person. Not many people get second chances. Hardly anybody gets third chances. I was blessed enough to get a third chance.”
To survive, Smith says, he has relied mostly on his family. His grandparents, parents, 19-month-old son and his girlfriend have been the most critical part of his off-the-court success.
They also happened to be the people who took the brunt of Smith’s poor decisions in the last two years.
“Not trying to say that I’m better than anybody, but I don’t think a lot of people could bounce back from the situation I had,” Smith said. “I never hung my head — not in public. In my house I would. But my family gave me a lot of strength because there were times I really didn’t even want to play basketball.”
Basketball has always been his place of shelter. Smith acknowledges that when something went wrong in his life, he’d pick up a ball and find a hoop, shooting his cares away for a few hours, until “I forgot what I was mad about.”
But after Weber told him he wouldn’t be a part of the Illini program, Smith was devastated. In Smith’s mind, he had compromised his future.
“At the time, I just felt I lost everything I worked for. Me and my dad being at the gym at 5:30 and shooting 500 shots before school. All of that was to get to the point I was at. And then to get all of that taken away from me because of dumb decisions I made, it was like, it wasn’t worth it.”
Ultimately, Smith said, Weber was vital in helping him pull out of his funk.
“He believed that I needed basketball,” Smith said, “something to be motivated for.
“Just praying, asking God for guidance and talking to my family really helped me.”
“I think he realized that basketball wasn’t the problem,” Jordan said. “Sometimes, you find yourself in situations and you find other things to blame.”
A stint in rehab straightened his thinking. The 30-day program gave Smith a chance to focus on himself and his alcoholism, and it made clear in his mind who needed to be made whole by this process. Part of his thinking involved his son, Makhi, who lives with his mother in Peoria.
“When I was in rehab, I was able to get visits, and I looked forward to seeing my son,” he said. “That was one of the goals I made in rehab, sitting with my counselors. I don’t care about being a better basketball player. I care about being a better family member to everybody in my family. I want to be a better boyfriend to my girlfriend. I want to be a better father. That’s why me setting up the visitation rights and going through the legal process with that, it just shows I’m not going to be the typical black father.”
Smith also knew he had others to impress, too. That included all of the people at the UI who stood up for him through his legal troubles in Champaign, starting with that night in 2007 when an intoxicated Smith smashed his car into a tree and severely injured his then-teammate Brian Carlwell.
“We told Jamar, don’t mess this up,” said LeRoy Smith Jr., Jamar’s grandfather. “Bruce Weber stuck his job, his character, on the line for you. And all we can do is tell Weber we’re sorry. We wish we could have done more than that. But this man really stuck his name out. (Ron) Guenther and (Wayne) McClain and the whole staff (did). So you owe it to Champaign to work hard and do something positive.”
Smith said he has stayed in contact with Weber and his former UI teammates. Some felt betrayed by Smith’s actions, and they let him know it. But they have continued to support him.
Smith said he exchanges frequent text messages with Trent Meacham, the two long-range specialists swapping their stat lines after each game in a session of can-you-top-this?
Whether it is through text messages, Facebook or phone calls, Smith said he keeps “regular contact with everybody on the team.”
Yes, he watches all of the UI games, reserving space on his DVR for those he can’t see live.
“I’m an Illinois boy,” he said. “I’m always going to bleed orange and blue.”
Yes, he feels twinges of regret at times, wishing he could be a part of it.
“I’m extremely happy with the success they’re having,” he said. “I’m definitely proud of them because as a team, when I was there, we went through a lot of controversy and stuff that I brought to the team. It’s good to see them ignoring all of that, putting it behind them the same way I did.”
One of the people who put it behind him was Chester Frazier, a one-time Smith confidant. Smith said the pair are “like brothers,” but their relationship was strained while Smith was more interested in drinking than being the type of teammate Frazier was seeking.
“Chester doesn’t go out. He doesn’t drink,” Smith said. “He doesn’t party. And that’s all I was doing. So me and him grew apart. But when I needed him to lean on, I could count on him.
“He’s one of the few people I can talk to on the phone, as a man talking to another man ... and you don’t usually say, ‘I love you.’ But (our) relationship is that close.”
There were other connections to repair. Former Illini Luther Head, who overcame his own off-the-court trouble at the UI to become a valuable member of a Final Four team, had mentored Smith. Head gave Smith his All-Big Ten plaque with the stipulation that Smith return the favor the day he earned one for himself.
“Luther was real upset with me, and he had reason to be,” Smith said.
“Before every game, when I leave, I touch it. I look up to the way Luther played, and the way he handled his own controversy. He bounced back and had a great year. That’s what I try to do.”
A Hoosier home
At Southern Indiana, Smith stays on the right path, in part, by keeping careful company, almost all of it being in basketball circles. He lives alone.
He says he rarely socializes outside of his teammates. Much of his free time is spent in the USI gym, communicating with former teammates or his family.
Still, the reminder of Smith’s vulnerabilities are carried with him. Attached to his left ankle, covered by his sock, is an alcohol-monitoring bracelet that can’t be removed until March. During games, it appears a cell phone is tucked in his sock, and Smith said the device isn’t bothersome.
Opposing fans, however, know what it is, and they know Smith’s story.
“As soon as I come out with my ankle bracelet, they all get on me,” he said. “It doesn’t really bother me because these people don’t understand what it’s like playing at Michigan State or Wisconsin.
“I laugh with the crowd. If they said something funny, I would laugh, like ‘That was a good one.’”
One of the remarkable things about Smith’s journey is that his game hasn’t been affected. In fact, it seems to be flourishing.
In the one season he was forced to sit out at Illinois following the car crash, Smith was told by Weber to work hard on his ball handling. Smith did.
“I talked to Coach Weber recently and I was telling him, ‘Man, I hate that I can’t use my ballhandling for you because you were always telling me to work on my ballhandling.’ He was like, ‘Use it for yourself. Don’t worry about me.’”
Weber confirmed the story last week. And he relayed another message to Smith the night before USI played Drury University.
“It was kind of funny,” Weber said, “right before we hung up, I said, ‘Why don’t you go and get 30 tomorrow.’ He texted me Saturday night and said, ‘I did what you said, Coach. I got 30.”
Actually, because of a scoring error, it was only 29. But, oh, what a 29 it was.
Starting at the off-guard for the Screaming Eagles, Smith scored 12 points in the game’s first six minutes. He had a baseline drive that he punctuated with a rousing one-hand dunk. And he continued to make a mockery of the NCAA’s new three-point line, moved back this season to 20 feet, 9 inches.
He drilled seven of his first 10 threes and finished 7 of 13 beyond the arc, 12 of 19 overall. He had three assists, three steals and two turnovers in 36 minutes as USI rolled to an easy victory.
“I wouldn’t say he was actually looking for his shot,” USI point guard Marvin Gray said. “He was just wide open.”
Granted, he wasn’t being defended by Talor Battle or Trevon Hughes. But you could line up a dozen Big Ten guards who couldn’t make 54 percent of their three-point shots if they were standing in the building all alone.
“The best shooter I’ve ever coached,” Herdes said. “He has NBA talent, no doubt whatsoever.”
Herdes said he fielded two calls last week from NBA scouts and expects those numbers to grow.
For his part, Smith said he believes he can play in the league, but after everything he has experienced in the last two years, his perspective on that subject has evolved as well.
Some things, he figures, are just more important than the sport he plays.
“Judge Klaus made it clear — and he didn’t even have to make it clear — I pretty much knew the next time I get in trouble for alcohol I’m going to jail. I got a son to raise. This is bigger than basketball. If I was never to play basketball again, it would hurt. But it wouldn’t hurt me as bad as not being able to see my son get brought up the right way.