Q&A with former Illinois basketball player Sam McLaurin


The Daily Illini File Photo

Sam McLaurin posts up during the game against Norfolk State at Assembly Hall Tuesday night, December 11, 2012.

By Will Gerard, Staff writer

It is not uncommon for college basketball players to become coaches after their careers end. But Sam McLaurin’s path is definitely unique. After spending a few years playing in Europe, McLaurin now spends his time coaching young players in China.

The former Illini player has lived in Zhengzhou City, Henan, China, for the past four months.

McLaurin transferred to Illinois from Coastal Carolina in 2012, and he played primarily as a defensive specialist and rebounder off the bench. The 6-foot-8 forward appeared in the last NCAA tournament game for the Illini program alongside players like Brandon Paul, DJ Richardson, Tracy Abrams and Tyler Griffey.

He briefly played overseas in Finland until retiring “about four years ago,” when it was time for his third knee surgery.

Sam McLaurin spoke with Illinois men’s basketball beat reporter Will Gerard during a phone interview over this past Thanksgiving break.

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Here are selected excerpts from the McLaurin interview:

WG: How is coaching in China?

SM: It’s all fundamentals, man. Sometimes you try to add little things, but you just can’t leave any stone unturned. When you expect them to know something about basketball, nine times out of ten — and maybe ten times out of ten — they just don’t know. So you have to make sure you explain every part of each drill. I understand what they see from players in the NBA, because that’s what they watch. But, as we all know, the game is not like the NBA. Those guys are just rare in every form.

WG: Did you enjoy your last year of playing basketball in Finland?

SM: It was fun! It was a great experience. Playing in Europe brings you back to your high school days just because the ball is always in your hands. You play a lot of minutes. It’s four quarters and it just gives you that real high school feel, man. Most guys would say the same.

WG: Since you mentioned high school basketball, what factored into your decision to attend Coastal Carolina? Were you talking to any big programs, or were you just simply overlooked?

SM: I was talking to some big programs at the time. I played with one of the top AAU programs in the country, Team Breakdown out of Miami. I played alongside Brandon Knight, who was on my team at the time. I had my opportunities. One of my high school teammates that I grew up with was also a Division I player and we had the opportunity to sign to Coastal Carolina together, and that was my main determining factor. Plus, if you’ve ever been to that area, it’s just a lot of fun, and as a young kid, it’s hard to go there and turn away.

WG: Do you support student-athletes getting paid?

SM: Absolutely, man. When I was at Illinois, I was getting my master’s (degree), so I wasn’t able to receive my Pell Grant anymore. So that was a big hit to what I was really surviving off during college. Yeah, the meal checks were a little bigger, but it’s all based on the cost of living. I didn’t really have a lot of money when I was at Illinois. I was poor. That’s for sure. When I was at Coastal, there were guys that couldn’t receive a Pell Grant, and their parents weren’t providing them money, and a lot of guys would do some things that weren’t in their character just for money. I think paying players would alleviate a lot of the off-the-court issues.

I had teammates get kicked out of school for selling drugs. We’ve heard stories of guys stealing stuff, but it all goes back to the lack of money. A lot of these guys are coming from bad neighborhoods with no resources whatsoever. Just because you’re giving them food to eat, some nice school-sponsored shoes and a dorm room, that doesn’t mean they can afford what they need like the other kids around them.

 WG: What stood out to you about Groce and his staff at Illinois?

SM: For me, I thought it was a perfect situation because he was a first-year head coach. His honesty, man, was just something that really stuck with me. The recruiting process is a lot like a sales process. They show you all the shiny stuff, but ultimately, it’s about getting the sale. But with him, he didn’t promise me anything, and so I knew that when I came in, it was a place where if you worked hard, they’d reward you. No one was going to just give you anything. He set expectations and didn’t offer anything outrageous or under-the-table.

WG: What was the biggest adjustment to playing in the Big Ten?

SM: Facing bigger players was definitely the toughest part, for sure, just because when I was at Coastal Carolina, I had a bigger guy that could guard those other bigger guys. He was about 6-10 or 6-11 and 260. I would guard the fours. When I got to Illinois, the only guy who could guard those big guys was Nnanna Egwu. Early in his career, he was struggling with foul trouble, so by default, I had to guard those guys, and that made it very difficult to guard them on one end, and even worry about offense. That weight wears on you, man. People don’t see that. But man, facing a big guy for forty minutes can wear on you.

WG: What made that team special?

SM: Everybody bought into what the coaches were saying and guys were resilient. I mean, there were times during the season when people wrote us off. I remember going out to bars and stuff and people were chanting ‘N-I-T, N-I-T…’ We heard it all. Coach Groce always said to take it one day at a time. When you really buy into those thoughts and fight every game with a fresh, new type of feel, man, a lot of things happen for you. I know everyone always talks about that Indiana game, but we were losing the entire. We had the drive to never quit, and when they broke, we won the game. If you keep fighting, things start to go your way eventually. You can’t give in.

WG: I know you mentioned the NIT chants, do you feel like the Illini fan base puts a lot of pressure on players, and how else did you experience that first-hand, even whether it was on social media?

SM: Oh yeah, absolutely, because when we weren’t doing good, man, they hated us. The things they use to say to Brandon Paul, oh my god. But now, Brandon is in the league, and look what everyone says, and that’s great, but that’s just how it goes, man, and that’s sports for you. When you’re up, you’re up, and when you’re down, you’re down, and they let you know it. But it would be another thing if no one had paid attention to our wins. When you look at the mid-major level, there are teams where no one comes to the games because no one cares enough. So, the passion is still a good thing, man, and you’d rather have it that way.

WG: Do you regret the tweet you sent out after committing to Illinois?

SM: Nah, I just laugh about it, man. It’s one of those things, I’ll never be able to live down. It’s funny now. Whenever you google my name, it’s one of the first things to pop up. When it first happened, my phone blew up like crazy. Everyone was texting me. I remember when I got with the coaches the next morning, we had to get in the car to drive back to Bloomington because that’s where I was flying. Coach Ford was like ‘hey man, let’s just go ahead and delete this tweet and send out another one.’ I was excited because there was a lot pressure at that time with all the offers I had received. I knew it was just getting worse day-by-day with more schools calling. It was fun. Great memories.

WG: What are your plans for the future? Do you intend to coach in China for a while?

SM: Yeah, man, money is good here and the people are nice. Once you get used to being here, it’s really not that bad. China is growing at a rate where you see it changing before your eyes. You wake up one day and there’s a new store in a place you never saw before. Things just pop up overnight, and it’s constantly changing and growing. As long as everything stays good on the business side, I think I’m going to live here for a few years and learn some Mandarin.

[email protected]