Chester Frazier: From Ashes To Phoenix

The hug said it all. Bruce Weber was greeting his Illini seniors prior to the last home game of the season Sunday when Chester Frazier walked up with his mother and family. The two embraced as kindred spirits, as friends beyond basketball. They had tied their destinies to each other for four years, and now their shared pathway was nearing an end. It was a fitting tribute for a special player.

Illinois guard Chester Frazier is a candidate for Illinois Most Valuable Player after being the unrivaled leader of a rags to riches team. His willingness to buy into Weber's program, plus his all-out hustle and defense, helped him transform Illini fans into believers. In doing so, he found a special place in Weber's heart.

"Everyone's different along the way," Weber explains. "Some come into the office, some not quite as much. Some go through a lot of ups and downs. I think the situation with his dad dieing and then Jamar (Smith), and his background. Mom's got enough things to worry about back home. He's away from home and kind of accepted some extra loving care.

"And then he wants to coach. He comes to practice basketball. In a way, it's kind of what I was when I grew up. I just loved to play. I fought, I'd dive on the playground and rip my knees up. I didn't care. So I guess I can relate to him.

"And then he's become a really good person. He's grown up a lot. He'll text me about scores. He'll watch our recruits on TV, he'll watch our recruits on youtube. He's become a basketball junkie. So I guess you get a little closer with guys like that."

Weber and Frazier met almost by accident.

"The first time I saw him, I was on a recruiting trip to see somebody else. We were recruiting some other guards. We weren't sure we would get them, so we were looking for a backup somewhere. I was at one prep school out East, and somebody said you might want to look at the kid at Notre Dame Prep. He's hard-nosed.

"I called the coach and said, 'I'm in the area, is there any way you can go tomorrow morning?' He got the guys together at 7:00 in the morning in an old little gym with two rows of bleachers. And the crazy thing, Chester didn't miss a shot that day. He was everywhere, all over the place. I went up to Bill Barton, who's an assistant right now at Duquesne University, and asked if was always that good. And he said not quite that good. I liked his toughness.

"When he came on his visit, I remember Deron (Williams) saying, 'He's a point guard. He's got toughness, he sees the court, gets it to people. So that's what we looked at."

Times were hard for Chester at Illinois. Never a proficient shooter, his entire game suffered as he struggled to overcome one problem after another.

"The bad part is he has gone through so many injuries, and he has played when 98% of the guys wouldn't have played. The things he fought through are just amazing. This is the first year, he's had some little things like everybody, that he's been pretty much healthy.

"When he came in, he was dunking. He wanted to be in the dunk contest. I think just the wear and tear on his body, the torn quad, the knees, the pounding he's taken. You probably haven't seen his abilities and athleticism, he's kind of lost it a little bit.

"But he's fought through some tough times. The situation with Jamar was really hard on him. His father died. Last year he was really struggling. I think he's grown up a lot. He's come a long way from a very tough background in Baltimore growing up. He's made himself into a quality person.

"He comes to practice every day and gives it his all. Those days where I don't want him to practice, and we'll have Bubba (Chisholm), Stan (Simpson) and C.J. (Jackson) on defense, and the next thing I know Chester's on defense with the scout squad. I'm like, 'What in the heck is he doing in there.' He just loves to play."

Frazier tends to try too hard sometimes, as if to force a square peg into a round hole. He gets a A for effort, but the results aren't always what he wants. Weber says that tendency has gradually changed for the better over time.

"Last year, we had so many struggles and he wanted to win so bad, he tried too hard and tried to do too much. One of the things that helped was that Demetri (McCamey) kind of developed. He didn't have to make every play. Physically, he didn't have the athleticism to make every play because of the injuries. He's done what you hope all college kids do. Just cherish your opportunity here and try to help your team win whatever way you can."

Many players must coax themselves into a state of arousal before a game. Chester says it is the opposite for him.

"I try not to get overwhelmed with games anymore. Usually, I get fired up and I come out and pick up a foul or two or do something crazy. But now I just try to keep a level head. I try to mellow out before the game and just meditate and take it easy on the court rather than being too fired up."

Frazier describes his life in Baltimore and believes it helped motivate him to prove himself.

"I grew up in what's called The Projects. A lot of crime, a lot of violence, a lot of drugs, poverty everywhere. There were 8 of us in a small three bedroom house. It wasn't as bad as people think, but not many people made it out of there. Not many people had the chance I had. A lot of my friends sell drugs in the streets. I feel proud. I feel I did it for those people who didn't get a chance, who didn't feel like they had a way out."

His dad taught him how to work hard. And playing basketball on the streets of Baltimore taught him how to be tough.

"The big thing in growing up in a tough neighborhood, you have to fight for everything. I can't take a play off on the basketball court. I was always smaller, so I rarely got the ball. I had to fight to get the ball, so I had to learn to steal the ball from the bigger guys.

"That's where I learned to play defense. I couldn't get a rebound playing with the bigger kids, so I learned how to rebound. It's the different things you learn playing with the tough street guys. You just had to be tough."

Chester was not always appreciated at Illinois. He has heard his share of boos. So he was no doubt thrilled at the great reception his adoring fans gave him before the Michigan State game. He had earned the individual praise, but he was happier to help lead his team to a successful season.

"It feels good to shut up the doubters. You read some of the news clippings from earlier in the year about us fininshing 7th or 8th in the Big 10. To have a chance to contend for a title, it just feels good to win. That's the main thing right now is winning."

Frazier has a chance to win Defensive Player Of The Year in the Big 10. Weber believes he deserves it but is afraid it will go to someone with better overall statistics or more team wins.

Since he wants to go into coaching, perhaps Weber and Frazier can continue their close relationship a bit longer.

"The NCAA has a rule for a student assistant. It used to be, if you didn't finish up your degree you could stay on and finish up. They've changed the rule. Even if you've finished, it's up. He'll probably have his internship left after the semester. So we'll try to work it out where he can stay on as a student assistant. He could get his foot in the door. It's an entry level position.

"The kids respect him and know where he's coming from. I've wondered who will take his place. If he stays, maybe he can nourish that and help some guys along."

That would be a special legacy for a unique Illinois basketball player. It never hurts to have a player willing to disregard his body in an all-out effort to win games. Perhaps Chester Frazier can help develop another Illini to become like him. Illinois could do much worse.

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