“Step by step” for Jamar Smith at Southern Indiana

Erica Magda

By Jeremy Werner

Illinois players and coaches raved about one player’s performances during practice sessions last summer. Alex Legion said his teammate could be one of the top-five players in the NCAA. Former Illini and current Parkland coach Sergio McClain said the Illinois player had the chance to be a future NBA lottery pick based on what he had seen in practices.

On Saturday, that player scored 30-plus points for the first time in his career. Only, it wasn’t for Illinois.

Former Illini Jamar Smith led Southern Indiana to an 84-71 victory over Drury University on Saturday, scoring 31 points on 12-of-19 shooting.

Smith is back on the basketball court for the first time in almost two years doing what many thought he would for the Illini. Regrets are aplenty for Smith, but he’s trying to pick up the pieces.

“It was tough when I had to leave (Illinois), but it was a situation I had gotten myself into,” Smith said in a phone interview. “But I made a commitment to myself and to my family saying that I wasn’t going to stop. I wasn’t going to quit. I just kept working, working on stuff off the court, working on making myself a better person and a better basketball player.”

Smith was given a second chance at Illinois following an aggravated driving under the influence charge stemming from a Feb. 12, 2007, car crash that injured then-Illini teammate Brian Carlwell.

But Illinois wasn’t willing to give the Peoria, Ill., native a third chance after he admitted to drinking, a violation of his probation, in July 2008.

But someone was willing to give Smith another shot. Several Division II coaches called Illinois head coach Bruce Weber, inquiring about the guard’s situation. Southern Indiana coach Rick Herdes was one of the curious callers.

“I needed to know about what was going on in his life, needed to know what type of person he was,” Herdes said. “I did my homework.”

Herdes talked to Weber, his high school coach and even the deacon of Smith’s church. He talked to Jamar frequently for weeks but never discussed basketball. The Screaming Eagles coach heard enough to give Smith his third chance.

“Jamar is a terrific person,” Herdes said. “He made some mistakes. If that’s the case, look at everyone’s closets. I’m sure we’ll find some skeletons.”

But Smith was a “lonely soul” during his first few months in Evansville, Ind., Herdes said. He was unable to enroll at Southern Indiana until after the fall semester and worked at a local grocery store, in compliance with his probation.

“It was real rough because growing up in Peoria, I think most players that play ball in Peoria want to play ball for Illinois,” Smith said. “I had the chance to do that.”

Smith would escape by busing to Southern Indiana’s basketball facility – he was stripped of his driver’s license until July 2009 – where he practiced and met his new teammates. The gym was his asylum.

“He did all the little things he needed to do,” Herdes said.

Smith is 12 games into his career at Southern Indiana, and he’s already the star of the Screaming Eagles.

The redshirt junior is averaging 17.4 points and has started the last six games, all wins for Southern Indiana (21-4), the No. 13-team in Division II.

Smith is scorching the net, shooting 54.1 percent from beyond the 3-point arc.

“I feel blessed just to get back on the court and play,” Smith said. “Things are clicking for me and the whole team.”

Smith has completed his court-mandated alcohol treatment program and is no longer required to have a job because he is a full-time student. But Smith, who told Judge Richard Klaus that he was an alcoholic in September, is not in the clear.

He has a year of probation left and has to wear an alcohol monitoring ankle bracelet, even while playing, until March.

Smith meets monthly with his probation officer and is due back at the Champaign courthouse for a checkup on April 6.

Smith said he will prove to everyone that he is progressing by “keeping (his) nose clean and staying out of trouble.”

“I think he’s really on his track,” Herdes said. “If you’re looking for me to say something bad about Jamar Smith, you’re not going to get it. He’s been a great kid here. He’s got a second chance, and that’s why he moved away. He wanted to get away from his past. But he’s going to have to face that. He will and we’ll try to help him do that.

“Step by step. He has to take it one day at a time.”

At first, Smith said it was difficult to watch the Illini’s current success. He still wants to be on the court with his close friends at Illinois but said he has “moved on” from that.

Now, Smith said he doesn’t miss an Illini game. If he can’t watch it live, Smith digitally records it. He even calls his former teammates and coaches to talk about the games. Dominique Keller, who grew close with Smith last summer, said he talks with Smith two to three times a week.

Last Friday, Smith talked with Weber and told him about his 20-plus point performances. Weber challenged him to get 30. Smith text messaged his former coach on Saturday night saying, “I did what you told me to, Coach.”

“It’s good for him,” Weber said. “I still want him to do well, not only in basketball, but in life and take care of himself because he is a good kid deep down.”

In September, Smith said he was looking for a “fresh start.” He’s back on the basketball court – a place the Peoria native has always excelled. But even though he’s still filling the net with jumpers, the lifelong Illini fan is now doing it in front of 2,000 fans instead of 16,618 capacity crowds at the Assembly Hall.

“I don’t want to necessarily say (going to Southern Indiana) was the best thing for me because I still bleed Orange and Blue whether I’m there or not,” Smith said. “I miss it a lot, being able to play there. I miss it. But my thing, I always say it is what is. I got to just make the best of the situation I’m in now.”