The poltergeist inhabiting Jamar Smith’s lanky frame looks a lot like the freshman phenom who never missed a shot. But looks are deceiving. That Jamar died, a long time ago.
It’s hard for us, his friends, fans, admirers to accept that the younger, vital Jamar is gone, forever. Wraiths, demons, vampires often affect onlookers this way — because they physically resemble the persons they once were.
But if we got today’s Jamar on the court, he would disappoint. He would show flashes of brilliance, as he did at the Ubben all summer. He would alternate cold-spells, and moments of seeming ineptitude. His performance would recall to us his sophomore year, when his statistics dipped into human range, then kept falling.
Jamar has a chemical medical problem, perhaps quite similar to the one that plagued his hero and fellow Peorian Frank Williams. Unfortunately, Jamar — who always hoped to emulate Williams — can’t help emulating Frank’s dark side as well.
The Bottle owns Jamar.
If you’re Babe Ruth, you can drink a gallon of whiskey, and a case of beer, and eat of bushel of hot dogs — and then get up the next day and swat baseballs 400 feet. Thing is, you’re not Babe Ruth. If you were, you could also look forward to dying young. What’s more, the Babe played baseball — a game which consists mostly of standing around. He had to hit the ball out of the park, because otherwise he’d have had to run fast.
To be an Illini basketball great, one must be fleet of foot. One must be in top physical condition. One must have the stamina and the will to push oneself to the limits of one’s physical capability.
So far, I could be describing Nate Mast. To be truly great, one must have a talent that can’t be taught. Jamar had that.
I’m also describing a different Peorian named Smith, who also played basketball for Illinois. Mark Smith, unlike Jamar, will remain in the conversation of all-time greatest Illini players. Before substance abuse killed him, Mark Smith performed to the level of Andy Philip, Johnny Kerr, Don Freeman, Dave Downey, Nick Weatherspoon, Derek Harper, Efrem Winters, Kenny Battle, Deon Thomas, etc.
Jamar joins Rich Jones, Ron Dunlap, Scott Haffner, Curtis Taylor, Brett Robisch, Jamie Brandon, Willie Coleman, and Awvee Storey in the debate for all-time Illini coulda, woulda, shoulda.
Mark Smith should be a focus of study for Jamar Smith. Jamar should learn everything he possibly can about Mark Smith. It might save his life. Because Jamar didn’t even get as far as Mark before The Bottle brought it all crashing down. But Jamar, unlike Mark, is not dead yet. If he can exorcise The Bottle, he might have a productive life ahead.
I’ve served a lot of drinks to a lot of people over the years. Only a few have shown that they can’t drink without becoming a problem. Only a very, very few of them are changed, by alcohol, into completely different people. I suspect Jamar fits the former category, and possibly the latter. If you had could choose between the chance to play your way into the NBA, and beer, what would you choose? What if beer came knocking at your door every night, calling to you, telling you how much fun everyone was having without you?
It just happened that Jamar’s fateful weekend came during a dry spell for me. That is, smack dab in the middle of a two week booze-free run. There was no particular reason for my teetotaling, other than an offhand comment to a friend in which I recalled that I hadn’t gone for two-weeks without whiskey, wine or beer since I was studying for the bar exam.
I like booze. A lot. I am a big proponent of the benefits of delicious alcohol.
But I’m one of those lucky people who can put the bottle down for extended periods, without suffering the shakes, nausea, headaches, or any withdrawal symptoms. I slept well, and I got a lot done these last few days. And the next time I knock back a few, I will be pretty much the same person I always am (if a bit jollier).
Jamar Smith does not respond to alcohol the way I do. That’s the reason he can’t have it anymore. Jamar has had enough to drink.
I’d like it if Jamar kept his basketball scholarship. I think he should be encouraged to hang around the Ubben, and to practice with the team. They could benefit from playing against an opponent of his caliber. He could benefit by being in a brightly lit, alcohol-free environment; and from getting an endorphin rush, rather than his drunk on. He could benefit from finishing his degree. But he can’t play in games anymore. Not here. There must be consequences for bad behaviors.
FoxSports’s Jeff Goodman says Jamar has no plans to transfer. I think that’s probably for the best. Yes, Jamar could go elsewhere. He might even find success elsewhere. He could play at Bradley, and be close to his grandparents.
But basketball is not the priority right now. Jamar has bigger priorities. He has to beat back The Bottle. He has a child to raise. He has a future, maybe.
If you see Jamar in public, tell him you’re rooting for him. If you see Jamar in a bar, tell him you’re rooting for him — and that he should go home.