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Jamar Smith's new life after Illinois
EVANSVILLE, Ind.Jamar Smith’s recollection of that snowy evening exactly two years ago is hazy at best. He definitely recalls the dozen tequila shots, one every 60 seconds, that he and former Illinois teammate Brian Carlwell did as part of a drinking game called “Power Hour.”
The rest of the night is an empty mystery.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber’s vivid memory of Feb. 12, 2007, began with a phone call in the middle of that night from one of his assistants. It continued with being on the line with guard Chester Frazier just after the ugly car accident in which a heavily intoxicated Smith plowed his grandparents' 1996 Lexus into a tree with Carlwell in the passenger seat.
"I’ll never forget it. They were in the apartment trying to get Jamar to talk after the accident,” Weber said. "He was going crazy and breaking things. He broke a window and tried to kill himself.”
The following day, Smith was coherent enough to have the night pieced together for him by teammates, coaches and the girls in the apartment that were partying with the two players.
Jamar Smith's drunk driving incident back in Feb. 2007 nearly cost the life of his teammate Brian Carlwell.
According to the police report, the night began around 9 p.m., when Carlwell, Smith and four girls from the same apartment complex began drinking. The report cited one of the women as stating Smith and Carlwell left a couple hours later when things got “really rowdy and out of control.”
Smith returned to the apartment shortly thereafter with Carlwell unconscious in the car. Smith, according to the women, believed his teammate was dead.
"I knew it was bad,” Smith said upon learning what happened the next day when he woke. "I just didn’t know how bad.”
Not until he learned his 6-foot-11 teammate was in an induced coma.
Not until he discovered his best friend on the team, Frazier, was so distraught he locked himself in his apartment the next day.
"Brian told me afterwards that we were both laughing as the car was spinning,” Smith said. "I woke up the next day and had never felt like that. We drank so much. It was the drunkest I’d ever been.
"I had no idea what happened. It was the scariest time of my life.”
Drinking problem emerges
Smith never had a drinking problem until he got to Champaign. There was the occasional beer while at Peoria Richwoods High, but it was the exception.
Then it became the norm.
Life on a college campus for athletes, especially recognizable and approachable ones, can easily translate into the opportunity to go out and party without ever having to reach into your wallet.
Smith enjoyed college life too much — going out to parties and being allowed into bars regularly despite being under-aged.
"I used to love it,” Smith said. "It was fun because I wanted to be a college kid, but I took it too far.”
Here he was, coming off a season in which he earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman team after averaging eight points.
Halfway through an injury-hampered sophomore campaign, his drinking cost him dearly. There was a 15-day stint in the Champaign County Jail, 100 hours of community service, an $850 fine and counseling.
As well as the lifelong memory of nearly killing himself and his friend.
He had no contact with his family for the 15 days he spent in jail for fear of making things more difficult on both sides. He read, tried to stay in shape by doing push-ups and developed a friendship with his older cellmate named Duke.
"When I was leaving, he told me if he ever saw me in there again, he’d kill me,” Smith said.
At Illinois, Smith eventually earned his way back to being allowed to practice with his teammates.
But he’d never play another game or make another three-pointer at Assembly Hall or anywhere else in an Illinois uniform.
Smith was suspended for the remainder of the 2007 season and went what he estimates as about eight months without alcohol.
His suspension lasted through the 2008 season, and while some anticipated his return to the team, Smith had reverted to his old ways.
"The further that people get away from their problems and consequences, the easier it was to forget,” Smith said. "The further I got from Feb. 12, the easier it became for me to take a drink.”
"I think Coach Weber had an idea, but he couldn’t catch me,” Smith said. "I wish he had.”
With just a few days left in the final summer session in 2008 and months before his first game back with the Illini, it caught up with Smith, as he was found outside a bar by a police officer with alcohol on his breath – a violation of his two-year probation.
"My first thought was, 'Duke is going to kill me,’” Smith said.
Illinois Bruce Weber was forced to dismiss Jamar Smith after violating his two-year probation.
Next came the realization that his career at Illinois was history.
"It probably saved his life,” Weber said.
Smith and his mother went into Weber’s office and were informed he’d been dismissed from the program.
"When he said it, I was emotional, but my heart went cold,” Smith recalled. "I just tried to brush it off, but then he gave me a hug like he loved me. I knew — and still know — all those guys on the staff genuinely loved me.”
Inspired by son
Smith grew up without a father and was determined not to allow that to happen to his 2-year-old son, Makhi. When Smith was on his way home to Peoria after being kicked out of Illinois, it was his son who drove him to admit he had a problem, get help and check into a 30-day residential treatment facility that turned his life around.
"He’s the driving force in all of this for me,” Smith said. "No matter what people say, I’ve got to be a role model for my son.
"My name was so tarnished, but one person still looked up to me, and I wanted to keep it that way.”
It was at this facility where he met Chuck, who was a year younger than Smith and was in for a drug problem.
"We talked about everything,” Smith said. "We got real, real close. We spent hours talking about how he couldn’t slip up once he got out of there.”
Shortly after Chuck was released, Smith was staring eye-to-eye with his friend in a casket.
"They found him dead in the garage,” Smith said. "I was scared to go home. That was my wake-up call and when I knew this was real.”
By the time he was released from rehab, the fall semester was already underway at Division II power Southern Indiana. However, Smith knew he needed to get away from his hometown of Peoria, so he moved to Evansville into an apartment by himself, got a dog and also a job at a grocery store.
He would work a seven-hour shift starting in the morning and then spend 3 1/2 hours each day after work shooting on a side basket while his future teammates at Southern Indiana were practicing.
"All he did was work, watch us practice and do what he needed for his probation,” former Southern Indiana coach Rick Herdes said. "He never tried to hide when people talked about his past. He knew he made a mistake, never blamed it on anyone else and he just wanted to move forward.”
Back on the court
His career resumed on Dec. 30, 2008, when Smith played in a game for the first time in nearly two years. He struggled in his Southern Indiana debut, making just 1-of-7 shots from long range and finishing with 11 points.
In addition to having to acclimate himself to his new team, Smith was also self-conscious about the accessory he was required to wear as part of his probation — an ankle bracelet worn 24 hours a day that would alert the authorities if he had a single sip of alcohol.
He tried — unsuccessfully — to hide it by pulling up his sock during games.
"It was embarrassing,” he said.
Not unlike his past, Smith was unable to make it disappear.
Smith said he is heckled relentlessly in nearly every gym. Fans hold up car keys, yell "beep, beep” and taunt him.
Jamar Smith has continued his college basketball career at Southern Indiana, where he's excelled with a 22.2-point per game average this season.
Southern Indiana Athletics
Smith just smiles.
"I brought it on myself,” he said. "I understand it, and I don’t have any problem with it.”
His silky smooth shot began to come back, and Smith wound up averaging 18.5 points while shooting 48 percent from long range in the 21 games during his first season at Southern Indiana.
"In my 23 years in Division II, I’ve never seen anyone as good as Jamar Smith," Herdes said.
"It's ridiculous,” said first-year coach Rodney Watson, whose team is 22-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation. "He's on a different level — and I've had a chance to coach pros."
Mostly due to Smith, who has been nearly unstoppable, averaging 22.5 points while shooting 46 percent from three-point range.
All this while facing even more adversity.
A close cousin died earlier this year from cancer, and then on Jan. 14, teammate Jeron Lewis collapsed on the court and died of cardiac arrest because of a heart condition.
"It was horrible,” Smith said. "Like a horror movie. Nothing can prepare you for something like that.”
Smith’s college career is nearing its end as Southern Indiana, which, due to violations from the former staff, isn’t allowed to play in the postseason.
Smith is just hoping to get a shot in the NBA.
"He’d be our best player on our team right now,” Weber said. "There’s no doubt about it.”
Smith and Carlwell, who transferred to San Diego State at the end of the spring semester in 2008, remain friends and talk on a regular basis.
"Our friendship is even stronger now,” said Carlwell, who is fully recovered from the accident and plays for San Diego State. "We’re pretty tight. There are no hard feelings.
"People would tell me that he tried to kill me. But it was a mistake. Some people have the wrong idea of him.”
"I feel like I owe everything to him,” Smith said. "The fact that he didn’t blame me makes it so I can sleep at night.”
While he still daydreams about his days playing in front of more than 10,000 fans at Illinois, Smith is finally at peace.
With himself and his current situation.
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