‘Heart of this team’

By Courtney Linehan

Chester Frazier is not Dee Brown.

He doesn’t pop his jersey. He rarely pumps his fist. He never wears the terrycloth headband or white cotton knee socks that became Brown’s signature style.

It may have felt unnatural to fans watching Frazier – with no grinning orange mouth guard or love of the limelight – transition into his predecessor’s role. But this season he has stepped up to the unsavory task of following Brown, the former face of Illinois basketball, as the team’s starting point guard and one of its emotional leaders.

In a season defined by adversity on and off the court, the sophomore guard has been asked to give Illinois a jolt of energy in practice and on game day, and to become a stabilizing force in the glare of scrutiny.

“Chester Frazier is the toughest player on this team and one of the toughest players in the country in my estimation,” forward Brian Randle says. “What he shows, his determination, is what this team is about.”

Frazier has flourished this season, in spite of a series of injuries and personal trials. He had a sprained ankle, pulled groin and turf toe, all before the Big Ten season got underway. Yet he’s only missed two games and has started all but five. He averages 7.4 points per game, shooting 59.4 percent from the floor.

Brown shot 35.9 percent as a senior.

“I just play like it’s my last day, I play hard,” Frazier said last season while benched five games with a strained quad muscle. “If you ask me to jump to the C-section, I’ll do it. Anything the team needs, I’ll do it.”

Which is why he suits up for games other players would sit out and steps up his scoring when Illinois needs him most. In the opening round of last weekend’s Big Ten Tournament, Frazier scored a career-high 21 points to lead Illinois over Penn State.

It was the third time this season he has led the team in scoring. Despite being one of the shortest members of the team — he’s 6-foot-2 — and playing point, he’s been the top rebounder seven times.

“If I try to model my game, that would mean I was trying to be like somebody,” Frazier said last year. “I can only be me. You take the good from a lot of people’s games, but you can never be exactly like one player.”

Frazier says he’d rather play through pain than sit on the sidelines when he knows his team needs him. He once played with a broken wrist because he didn’t realize the severity of his injury. He says even when coaches and athletic trainers tell him its best to sit, he’d rather be in the game.

“I told him I think he’s the toughest player in the league,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after Illinois topped the Spartans on Jan. 30. Frazier, playing through pain, scored a career-high 17 points that night.

Frazier says that toughness comes from his upbringing in one of inner city Baltimore’s most crime-ridden housing projects.

Until he was in junior high his family lived in Hollander Ridge, a development that was demolished in the late 1990s.

Frazier says it was his two older brothers who kept him in line growing up. While his friends were getting into trouble, his brothers pushed him toward basketball.

“They pushed me real hard, played physical with me when I was young,” Frazier said last season. “They always made sure that I stayed straight, even when they weren’t doing the best things. They kept me out of trouble.”

His close-knit family took a hard hit last month, when Chester Frazier, Sr., was diagnosed with cancer.

Less than two weeks later, Frazier suffered a second blow when his roommate and fellow sophomore guard Jamar Smith wrapped his 1997 Lexus around a tree, giving himself a concussion and sending teammate Brian Carlwell to the intensive care unit and an extended stay at Carle Foundation Hosptial in Urbana.

Smith’s accident and consequent DUI charge weighed heavily on Frazier, who some media sources report was the first player to find Carlwell still pinned inside the car.

Frazier seemed to be choking in Illinois’ first games after the accident, going scoreless against Northwestern on Feb. 18 and failing to make a field goal against Michigan on Feb. 21.

The Illini traveled to Penn State on Feb. 24, where Frazier was 2-of-4 from the field, but when the rest of the team returned to Champaign after the game, Frazier went home to Maryland.

At the Big Ten Tournament the guard got back in his groove, starting with that career performance against Penn State.

“Really, he’s the heart of this team,” Randle said after the game. “Sometimes he puts himself in positions he shouldn’t be in – he falls down, gets up, screams like it doesn’t hurt.”

Frazier played 42 minutes and sunk two important three pointers in Illinois’ overtime win against Indiana the next day, then couldn’t make a single shot as Illinois fell to Wisconsin.

But it didn’t matter. Frazier’s success against Penn State and leadership against Indiana – he had six rebounds that game – put Illinois in position for a coveted Tournament bid.

“It’s a big sigh of relief,” Frazier said Sunday after the bracket was announced. “Coming off an emotional tournament, overtime game with Indiana, loss against Wisconsin, we were just waiting to see what happened.”

Now Illinois will face Virginia Tech in a game that both teams say could go down to the wire. The Illini will likely look to Frazier, the team’s youngest starter, to play a major role in getting them to the second round. But after a season layered with adversity, the challenge is nothing new.

“After going through a rough, emotional time,” Frazier said, “the way we’re finishing up is amazing.”

Senior writer Erin Foley contributed to this report.