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College basketball: McLaurin was driven by what he didn't want to be

Illinois forward Sam McLaurin grabs a rebound during the Illini's 84-61 victory over Chaminade on Nov. 20 in the Maui Invitational in Lahaina, Hawaii.
Illinois forward Sam McLaurin grabs a rebound during the Illini's 84-61 victory over Chaminade on Nov. 20 in the Maui Invitational in Lahaina, Hawaii.

As a young boy, Sam McLaurin’s grandparents loaded him and his three siblings into the family van and drove around the seedier areas of Havana, Fla., outside Tallahassee.

Bobby McLaurin pointed out people he did not want his grandchildren to emulate. Some were people with problems like those of Sam’s parents.

“I used to take them around and show them what the drug dealers and dope addicts and crackheads look like,” Bobby McLaurin said. “We’d ride through and show them. ‘Is this what you want to be like? This is it.’ ”

Those images, along with the memory of his parents’ arrests when he was 5, helped shape Sam McLaurin, a senior forward for Illinois.

“As a kid, I was always determined not to be like my parents,” he said. “I wanted something better. My grandma always said I was the one who would say when I was old enough, I was going to leave and not come back.”

That drive led him to Illinois, where he transferred from Coastal Carolina as a fifth-year senior. McLaurin averages 4.5 points and 4.1 rebounds off the bench and makes coach John Groce gush.

“He makes plays on film and I say, ‘Did he really do that?’ ” Groce said. “He deflects the ball, challenges shots, and those things are not on the stat sheet. His activity level is high. He makes winning plays, and that you cannot underestimate.”

After only a few months on campus, the 6-foot-8 McLaurin, 23, was voted a captain by teammates.

A basketball hoop on their property was one way Bobby and Vienia McLaurin kept the kids nearby and out of trouble. Sam took to it quickly.

But more than basketball kept McLaurin focused. His grandparents pushed academics, not allowing extracurricular activities if grades slipped.

McLaurin said he hopes to pursue law school after earning his master’s degree.

At 5, he saw police arrive at his home and arrest both of his parents on drug charges.

“I really didn’t understand it at the time, not until I got older,” McLaurin said. “They said they would be gone for a while.”

His mother, Darnica Gilliam, said she was young and naive, selling drugs to help provide for her four children.

McLaurin was a two-time all-state selection at East Gadsen High School.

He set Coastal Carolina records for career field-goal percentage (61.8 percent) and blocked shots (155). Baylor and North Carolina State recruited him when he announced his transfer intentions, but he was drawn to Illinois.

Although not starting for the first time in his career, McLaurin said he thrives as a team motivator.

“As long as we’re winning, then I’m doing something right,” he said.

Since his parents’ release, they have become reacquainted. But his identity formed while they were away, he said.

“I’m older,” McLaurin said. “I’m a grown man now. I live my own life. All of my brothers and sisters are adults now. We all do well.”

What: No. 10 Illinois (12-0) at No. 12 Missouri (9-1)

When: 5 p.m. Saturday

Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis

Line: Missouri by 1

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