Saturday, August 16, 2008

Weber Finally Makes Right Call on Smith

A little over two weeks ago, Illinois men's head basketball coach Bruce Weber dropped guard Jamar Smith from the Illinois basketball program. Smith had been a two year starter for the Illini and, along with sophomore point guard Demetri McCamey and Kentucky transfer Alex Legion, was expected to be a key player in what projected to be one of the best backcourts in the Big Ten.

But, according to the Chicago Tribune, Weber kicked Smith off the team for violating what the coach termed a "personal agreement."

As the Tribune notes:

"Weber's decision came two days after Champaign County state's attorney Julia Rietz filed a petition to revoke Smith's probation for his DUI conviction last year. Smith was barred from drinking, and police told the state's attorney Smith acknowledged drinking three beers when they came across him after responding to an unrelated call outside a Champaign bar at about 2:30 a.m. Friday."

Drive and Dish passed on the opportunity to write about Jamar Smith when he was dismissed from the Illinois basketball program two weeks ago. Yours truly hasn't really had much spare time lately, and the Drive and Dish editorial staff thought that the Jamar Smith dismissal -- if not the entire condition of the Illinois basketball program -- was deserving of a well thought through essay, rather than just a few sentences and a link to the Daily Illini's recap of the Smith affair. Unfortunately, we didn't really have sufficient time to develop such a post when events were unfolding and the story was hot.

Hence, Drive and Dish's silence on Jamar Smith.

But after Drive and Dish reader Toki Wartooth made note of Smith's dismissal in the comments section of a Drive and Dish post, one of our grunt writers visited the comments section of Mr. Wartooth's fine Illini blog, Paint the Town Orange, and left a lengthy (and perhaps somewhat rambling) comment regarding Bruce Weber's dismissal of Jamar Smith.

Rambling though it may be, our Paint the Town Orange comment probably better summarizes this blog's thoughts on Bruce Weber, Jamar Smith, and the overall state of Illinois basketball than anything we could conjure up in a hurried late night blog post (sunrise and the ever-ticking alarm clock loom over this blogger's head like the Sword of Damocles). So we've decided to republish the commentary here:

"I strongly believed that Bruce Weber should have dismissed Jamar Smith from the team when he received his felony conviction. At the time of the Smith DUI/accident (back in 2007), Illinois was short on talent ... but more than anything, the Illini looked like a team that was lacking in discipline. Making matters worse was the fact that they appeared to lack respect for the coaching staff.

Back in 2007, Bruce Weber tried to get Jamar Smith and Richard McBride to quit chucking up bad 3 point shots early in their offensive sets. But in game after game, Smith and McBride just ignored him and kept on gunning the 3's (usually without even looking into the post).

Bruce Weber also wanted Smith and McBride to calm down, make decent decisions in the offense, protect the ball, and quit turning the ball over. But they both continued making glaringly bad decisions and committing unforced turnovers.

Further, Bruce Weber wanted his players -- most notably Smith, Warren Carter and Shaun Pruitt -- to dedicate themselves to improving their basketball skills, their athleticism and their strength and conditioning in the off season. He also wanted said players to commit themselves to playing hard nosed defense -- the bedrock of the Gene Keady/Bruce Weber style of basketball. But those players couldn't be bothered with committing to grueling off season workouts and to such a thankless, unglamorous task as bucking up on defense ... they were already big men on campus. The Illini nation fawned over those cats, regardless of how they performed on the court. So from their perspectives, what more did they have to prove? Besides, all those off season workouts would have cut into their busy social schedules.

In his first two seasons, Jamar Smith had already been suspended for a few games because of unspecified disciplinary reasons.

His on court productivity had declined precipitously after the first half of his freshman season.

But none of that seemed to matter. Jamar Smith was a kind of a big deal in Champaign. He and his underachieving teammates had the run of the town. Basketball was the vehicle for their celebrity, but it seemed to take a back seat to other, more pressing, extracurricular activities.

It appeared that sometime after 2005 or 2006, Bruce Weber had lost his team. No matter what he said (or yelled) to his players, it just seemed to go in one ear and out the other. Bruce Weber's authority was nil.

Don't forget, Smith's DUI/accident occurred the night before a crucial game near the end of February and near the end of Illinois' basketball season. The Illini were desperately fighting to remain in the hunt for an NCAA Tournament berth. They were the quintessential "bubble team." And Weber had instructed his players to refrain from partying that night. Once Smith was in police custody (I believe he was in the hospital at the time), it was determined that he had a .2 blood alcohol content -- and that was several hours AFTER the accident ... which means that Jamar Smith had gotten VERY inebriated with less than 24 hours before the tipoff of a must win game.

Don't get me wrong: I'm not hating on those guys for having possessed such less than exemplary attitudes. They were young, immature college kids who were on top of the social ladder because of their status as athletes. Truth be told, my own attitude wasn't really all that much better when I was at their stage in life. In fact, I once missed the bus for an away basketball game on a Saturday morning because I took a took a Friday road trip to a campus 3 states away, and didn't make it back to campus in time (err, at all). I felt bad about it, but as a walk on, I didn't play much anyway and I wasn't going to miss out on an impromptu road trip! And as bad as that may sound, it wasn't the first time I'd missed a team bus. During my freshman year, I was absent from an important track meet at the University of Iowa -- at which I had been slated to run anchor on the 4/100 relay -- because I was too hung over to make it to the team bus at 6:00 am (I told the coach that I had to write a paper).

But I paid a price for those mistakes. And although I eventually matured and learned from those incidents (and others), I regret having made those mistakes to this day.

I'll never get those games/track meets back. I'll always regret the fact that I denied myself the opportunity to compete in those athletic events. My perspective abruptly changed after having lived through a spate of major, season ending injuries later on in college. Never again would I take athletic competition, or my youth, health, or status as an athlete for granted!

And I know as well as anyone that young, cocky athletes need structure in their lives and they need to be held accountable for their actions -- both on and away from their respective fields of competition.

In my opinion, Bruce Weber had lost control of his team long before Jamar Smith smashed up that old Lexus and left Brian Carlwell for dead in the passenger seat (in a blizzard and with the mercury hovering near zero, no less). To put it in popular terms, the inmates were running the asylum. Hell, I wasn't even around that team -- or anywhere near Champaign for that matter -- but even from afar, I could see that the Illini were suffering from a MAJOR attitude problem.

Which is why Bruce Weber dropped the ball by not dismissing Jamar Smith from the team a year and a half ago.

Weber desperately needed to reassert his control over his pampered, undisciplined squad. Even in spite of all Bruce Weber's recruiting and on court woes, the biggest problem with the Illinois basketball program in the post-2005 Final Four years has been the astoundingly poor attitude displayed by its players. Bruce Weber would have been well served by laying down the law and reasserting his control over his basketball program.

But Bruce Weber was worried about his recruiting struggles and the subsequent severe talent drop off that his program had endured. Weber had just come out of the Julian Wright PR fiasco, the Jon Sheyer PR fiasco and the Sherron Collins PR fiasco. Eric Gordon was supposed to be the program's (and Weber's) savior, but he'd recently left Weber standing at the alter as he hooked up with Kelvin Sampson and IU.

So Bruce Weber, Ron Guenther and the Illinois basketball program were desperate. In pleading with the administration for Jamar Smith to remain on the team, Weber was acting out of a position of weakness, not out of a position strength. And it was obvious to everyone -- especially to his players.

So at the very moment when Bruce Weber most needed to reassert his authority and appear STRONG (in order to change the attitude and the trajectory of his basketball program), he made a move born of desperation -- and as a result, he sabotaged his authority and made himself appear weaker than ever.

So it should have come as no shock when Illinois had continuing attitudinal problems with the 2008 team -- most notably vis a vis Shaun Pruitt.

Bruce Weber got lucky, though. He'll have 2 very good recruiting classes matriculating to Chambana in the next 2 years. And Alex Legion helped Weber out in a major way by deciding to insert himself into the Illini mix. Maybe having Tracy Webster abruptly leave town, and having Jerrance Howard replace him has changed the metrics for the Illini. Maybe it's Divine Providence. Who knows!?!

The bottom line is that things are looking up for Bruce Weber and the Illini. But no matter how much talent Weber and Howard amass in Champaign, Weber won't succeed unless he has control of his team (and has the respect of his players). Talent alone won't make a college basketball program elite -- just ask USC's Tim Floyd.

Illinois finally made the right move by dismissing Jamar Smith. He was lucky to have been given a second chance. He was astoundingly stupid (and, frankly, arrogant) to have so blatantly violated the terms of his probation. He simply had to go. But Illinois should have pulled the plug on Smith when he first incurred his legal troubles, back on Feb. 21, 2007. Remember, Jamar Smith didn't just get in an accident and get convicted of DUI. While DUI's are, obviously, not good, merely being convicted of DUI isn't normally grounds for expulsion from a college basketball team (second chances are completely appropriate in such instances -- just ask Chris Duhon and J.J. Redick).

What made Jamar Smith's actions in the wake of the DUI/accident so extraordinarily egregious -- and what should have been the grounds for his dismissal from the Illinois basketball squad -- were the facts that Smith:

1.) Left the scene of an accident -- a really bad accident, no less

2.) Left a teammate for dead in the smashed car overnight -- with no apparent concern for the teammate's health or well being

3.) Failed to place a call to 911

4.) Otherwise failed to report the accident to the appropriate authorities

5.) Failed to seek medical assistance for his nearly fatally wounded teammate/friend

6.) Sought the counsel of teammates (most notably Chester Frazier) to help determine whether or not the injured teammate (Carlwell) was living or deceased

7.) Barricaded himself in his apartment in an attempt to avoid dealing with the authorities (including medical personnel, police and coaches) and, presumably, in order to sleep off his drunken state.

Worse yet, if Smith -- and the teammates whom he consulted in order to determine whether or not the injured player (Carlwell) was still alive -- believed that the injured player had likely perished, their lack of action in seeking assistance for the injured player, and in reporting the accident to authorities, indicates that they may have been plotting a strategy (and making up a story) to to help Smith evade accepting culpability for the accident and for the purported death of the injured player. Even worse, they may have been devising a strategy for disposing of the wrecked car/body of the purportedly deceased teammate.

Illinois basketball is better off without Jamar Smith. His absence will probably cost the team wins in 2008/'09, but the fact that there's finally some accountability in the Illinois basketball program will serve the Illini well in the long run."


Our apologies for the length of the excerpted Paint the Town Orange comment, and for it's less- than-stellar writing style (it's a little bit tough to read). That comment was written "on the spot," in "stream of consciousness" mode (if we were pretentious, we'd say that we were channeling Kerouac) and it got published without having been proofread or edited in any way (actually, we didn't even so much as read it through before hitting "send").

Nevertheless, in spite of its run-on sentences, changing verb tenses and overuse of parentheses and dashes, Drive and Dish stands by the sentiments and opinions expressed in the Paint the Town Orange comment.


cedar falls hawk(eye) said...

illanoy is a bunch of criiminals. Smith is getto thug who should be behind bars. whadda you expect though, they let him off easy down there in illanoying (cause its a total backwater hick state).

all them whining illini should be behind bars. same goes for their cheatin coach and corrupt, cheatin athletic deapatment.

wrigleyville illini said...

Cedar Falls Hawkeye: Could you possibly be more of a TOTAL FREAKING DOUCHE BAG?

Your Illini hatred and your overall idiocy seem to know no bounds.

I'm beginning to think that there's something in the water over in Iowa.

Have Jumpshot Will Travel (a.k.a. Trashtalk Superstar) said...

Wrigleyville Illini,

Cedar Falls Hawk(eye) used to live in Naperville, Illinois, and used to be a regular at Wrigley Field and certain Wrigleyville bars. But he never resisted the urge to make disparaging comments about Chicago and the state of Illinois, even though he made the Chicago area his home.

But C.F. Hawk(eye) was not unique in that regard. I've known countless native Iowans transplanted in Chicago who have shared a similar dislike for all things in Illinois -- except for their jobs, homes, friends, the Cubs, Wrigley Field, Chicago bars, Chicago restaurants, Chicago girls, social life in Chicago, etc.

Anonymous said...

As a huge Illini guy, it pains me that I agree with every single thing that you've stated. The irony is that the perception when Weber was first hired was that he would be one of those coaches that would focus on recruiting the proverbial "character guys", yet the way the Illinois program has acted over the past few years it appears to be completely the opposite. I'm glad that the recruiting has gotten back on track for Illinois starting in 2009, but this has definitely been a rough period for the program.