Smith looks for ‘fresh start’

By Jeremy Werner

Jamar Smith admitted he was headed down a slippery slope. His alcohol addiction had taken over his life. He lost everything he had worked for: a degree from the University, a star role on the Illini basketball team and the trust of those closest to him.

But the Peoria, Ill., native said he received a wake-up call when he attended the visitation of a friend he met in alcohol addiction treatment on Tuesday. A man suffering from the same addiction as Smith was now lying lifeless in a coffin.

“Now I understand how serious it is,” Smith said inside the Champaign County Courthouse on Wednesday. “It’s more of a life-and-death thing for me.”

Smith, 21, entered an agreement with the state to serve 18 months probation, participate in alcohol addiction treatment programs and wear an alcohol-monitoring device on his ankle 24-hours a day. Smith admitted to drinking, a violation of his probation, on July 25 after police noticed Smith at the scene of an altercation near FuBar at the 300 block of E. Green St. He was subsequently dismissed from the basketball team.

The July 25 incident was Smith’s second run-in with the law during his tenure at Illinois. He was convicted of aggravated driving under the influence after a Feb. 12, 2007, one-car accident left teammate Brian Carlwell with a severe concussion. Smith, then 19, was sentenced to 24 months of probation and was prohibited from drinking alcohol.

Despite pressure to dismiss Smith then, the University allowed him to stay enrolled at Illinois. Illini coach Bruce Weber forced Smith to redshirt a year so that he could focus on his personal life.

From the outside, a rebound seemed in the works. Smith received rave reviews about his play during workouts this summer and was hoped to be the cure to the Illini’s offensive struggles. But Smith’s habits did not fade.

“It was a learned behavior,” Smith said. “Not knowing how to handle my emotions when I went through stuff, not knowing how to handle it and not talking to family. Not talking to friends, not talking to Coach Weber. A lot of lying. A lot of deceit, dishonesty. I lost a lot of trust from family, friends, Coach Weber and the whole coaching staff.”

He admitted in court Wednesday to being an alcoholic. He said he realizes he needs to commit to treatment and knows “it’s going to be a struggle and a fight” the rest of his life.

“I was pretty bad at one point,” Smith said. “I ain’t turning back to that.”

He apologized to those in Champaign who lent him support. He apologized to the University, the Illini coaching staff and to athletic director Ron Guenther for failing to “execute” on the second chance they had given him.

Smith said the Illinois coaching staff and players remained supportive of him through his troubles, including Carlwell, who asked Smith to enroll with him at San Diego State. Smith said California was probably too far away from home given his situation. He visited the coaching staff at Ubben Complex on Wednesday morning after his court appearance.

“We’ve tried to support him the best way we can and just hope that maybe this will be a breaking point for him,” Weber said after practice Wednesday. “I don’t think he realized how bad it was. Now, I think we all do, and he has to make a decision for his life.

“Alcoholism is a very difficult thing to deal with … If you haven’t dealt with it, it’s beyond your comprehension.”

Weber took calls from college coaches “from all over” inquiring about Smith. Some backed off when they looked deeper into Smith’s troubles, but it seems one is willing to give him a third chance.

Smith said he will enroll at the University of Southern Indiana, a Division II program, and play basketball under coach Rick Herdes. Herdes was not available for an immediate comment. For Smith, the Evansville, Ind., campus is a chance to get away from “old friends” and “old habits.”

“It’s just a fresh start, new state, because I’m a new person with a new state of mind,” Smith said.

Smith will participate in alcohol addiction treatment programs at the Amethyst House in Evansville, Ind., and will work at a local grocery store because he must work as part of his probation. At all times, Smith must wear a SCRAM alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet, which measures alcohol content through the sweat glands. If Smith fails to live up to the probation conditions, he could serve six months in prison.

“His path is up to him,” State’s Attorney Julia Rietz said.

Smith, accompanied by his grandparents, seemed a man of mixed emotions on Wednesday inside the courthouse. He was full of remorse for the consequences of his actions but a sense of hope pervaded his speech.

Although Judge Richard Klaus warned that any misstep could result in prison time, Smith realizes that any mistakes could destine him to the same fate as his friend from treatment.

Smith is taking the notion that his latest run-in with the law may turn out to be his saving grace, that it saved him from the casket.

“I got a lot of gratitude towards the situation,” Smith said. “I’m not saying that I’m happy it happened, but I’m thankful it happened because I think it saved my life. At the rate I was going, probably nothing would have stopped me unless I went through this situation.”