Frazier, Illini try to rejuvenate program

Erica Magda

Erica Magda

By Jeremy Werner

After three seasons of a few ups and too many downs, Chester Frazier decided he needed a change. The senior point guard started by simply altering his look, shaving off his trademark cornrows for a professional-looking, close-cropped hairstyle.

For Frazier, the haircut was a symbolic alteration he hopes will generate a change in fortune for himself and the Illinois men’s basketball program.

“It’s a new start, putting the past in the past and going forward,” Frazier said. “It’s time for a new look, change. I think the team needs to change. I think if my teammates see me change, then they’ll change. It’s a growth period for Illini basketball.”

The Illinois farmland was supposed to be a refuge from inner city Baltimore for Frazier. But after a series of trying ordeals in Champaign, the rough conditions of his hometown seemed like a cakewalk for the point guard.

Frazier graduated from Notre Dame Prep (Mass.) – a school with “tough living quarters and environment” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said – and joined Illinois basketball at the program’s apex, following a trip to the National Championship in 2005. With several off-the-court incidents and the Illini struggling to maintain similar success on the court, the luster of the 2005 NCAA runner-up team started to fade.

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Frazier’s roommate and close friend, Jamar Smith, was suspended from the team following a Feb. 12, 2007, car accident and served 15 days in jail after pleading guilty to aggravated driving under the influence. Rich McBride, a senior at the time, had been arrested for driving under the influence the previous September.

Less than two months after Smith’s arrest, Frazier’s father, Chester Frazier Sr., died on April 3, 2007. Frazier Sr. was diagnosed with lung cancer just two months before his death.

As Illinois slid in the Big Ten standings, the highly emotional trials off the court had almost forced Frazier to the breaking point. He shared thoughts with Weber of leaving Illinois and returning to Baltimore.

“It was just to the point where I was just really frustrated, and I was down about a lot of things here, and I thought maybe getting away from it would be the best thing for me,” Frazier said. “All the things happening at once just compounded everything. I kind of fed off my emotions instead of sitting down and thinking about the bigger picture.”

But Frazier refused to give up.

The gritty point guard didn’t quit when recruiting analysts said he lacked the talent to play in the Big Ten. Frazier continued to push through the wintry conditions at Illinois, but the Illini would hit a few more icy patches.

Last season, Illinois reached its lowest point this decade, finishing with a record of 16-19 and failing to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time in eight seasons. Frazier fought through several nagging injuries but missed only one game during his junior season. He led the Illini in minutes played, but Frazier said his confidence regressed to the point where he feared going out in public after each disappointing loss.

“I think losing started to become a habit,” Frazier said. “We were in every game; you can’t count us out of that. But we found a way to lose every game. I just think there was a negative vibe around the team.”

Differences of opinion and selfishness caused riffs and created cliques on the squad, Frazier said. Then senior center Shaun Pruitt clashed with the Illinois coaching staff, culminating in a locker room altercation following Illinois’ Jan. 19 loss at Purdue. Pruitt was benched for one game following the incident.

“I think last year – I’m not going to name any names – but for different reasons people wanted to be successful for different reasons,” Frazier said. “I don’t think it was all for the good for Illinois basketball. I’m not going to name names, but people had future plans that affected the way they played.”

Smith’s dismissal from the team in July after violating his probation seemed like another cruel test of Frazier’s mettle.

“It was hard. That was my roommate, one of my best friends on the team,” Frazier said. “We talked a lot. I mean he’s still my friend of course. He’s still my brother. Just coming in with Jamar seeing his ups and downs and the part I played in his life as a friend and a brother, it was devastating to me.”

But the senior known for his hustle and reckless abandon on the court refused to show the dents in his armor. Although he said he still has thoughts of what should have been, he is trying to focus instead on what could be for the Illini. His first step is becoming the senior leader Weber yearned for last season.

“I think that’s pretty much the leadership I need to take on to make this team successful,” Frazier said. “We got a bunch of young talented guys that have that talent. I think it’s my job to bring that talent out of these guys and almost bring them along like a big brother because they look up to me so much.”

The Illinois roster features seven sophomores, a junior college transfer and one freshman. Because of their youth and inexperience, Weber has looked to the senior class – Frazier in particular – to provide guidance and direction to the developing players. Frazier has done his part, conducting individual workouts with the players during the summer and earning the nickname “Coach Frazier” from his teammates.

“He’s definitely being a lot more vocal than he has in previous years,” fifth-year senior Calvin Brock said. “He’s being more of a leader on the court also. He’s slowed down making the mistakes he used to make when he was younger. Everybody on the team, we all listen to him like he is a coach.”

Frazier refers to himself as an “extension” of the Illinois head coach. Weber said this season is “like a test run” for Frazier, who wants to pursue a coaching career.

Frazier realizes his playing time will likely decrease with the emergence of sophomore Demetri McCamey and scoring ability of Kentucky transfer Alex Legion. He said he’s accepted his role as the team’s defensive stopper and vocal leader. Though he’d like to shoot the ball more to prove the critics wrong, he’s only focused on restoring the reputation of Illini basketball.

“I just want to win some games,” Frazier said. “I don’t care if I score zero points. If we make the tournament, I would be happy.”

Frazier has taken lessons from his hardships at Illinois, lessons he’ll apply when he becomes a coach.

“I think I came out of it,” Frazier said. “It took me a while. It still lingers thoughts in mind of what should have been and what could have been. I still miss my dad, but life goes on.

“It’s the start of a new beginning for me and for the team. Get a new look, change of pace.”