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Samardo's time to deliver
Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
It's no problem for Samardo Samuels to concede he is not the big man from Trelawny.
Despite being inches taller and pounds heavier than Usain Bolt, Samuels, who is on the cusp of basketball stardom in the United States, readily admits the world record holder has become almost larger than life over the past two summers - the face of not just the parish both call home, but all Jamaica.
So his laughter mixed equal parts amazement and admiration when the Olympic and World champion sprinter's name popped up in conversation recently.
"Man, it's great," said Samuels. "Everywhere you go you hear Usain Bolt."
That includes the University of Louisville, where this month the 6'9", 240-pound Jamaican will begin his second season trying to help the traditional college basketball powerhouse secure a national title it hasn't won in nearly a quarter century. The 20-year-old Samuels, who just over a year ago was rated the top power forward/centre coming out of an American high school by some scouts, is fully aware of the huge expectations.
"This year it's more on my shoulders," he said.
It's especially so since two former teammates of 'Sam-Sam' - Earl Clark and Terrence Williams - were chosen in the first round of the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft this year. Now the 2008 USA Today national high school player of the year and McDonald's and Parade All-American has been shoved squarely into the spotlight. He knows Louisville will turn to him first to deliver the school from its title drought, come National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) tournament time next March.
"Most times I was the third option," Samuels said of last season's team, which reached the 'Elite Eight' in the nation. "Now they are looking to me."
Samuels claims he is ready. He has been preparing for the challenge a while, stretching back to the days he first played pick-up games at home. Three-on-three at the 'Centre' in Falmouth still brings back precious memories.
"I think one of the biggest things ... is just playing evening basketball with the guys," Samuels said when asked what he cherishes about Jamaica. " ... That used to be fun for me ... Come 5:30 p.m. everybody just plays."
He misses his family - father Roan, mother Jacqueline, plus brother Leon and sister Samantha - who still live in Jamaica. So despite leaving Muschett High and St Benedict's Prep High School in New Jersey while still a teen, Samuels has tried to tug a piece of 'yard' along with him everywhere he goes.
"I got a big Jamaican poster and plenty Bob Marley posters in my room," Samuels explained.
Jerk chicken and rice and peas remain his favourite meal. Bounty Killer is among his top entertainers. There is no place better than Jamaica, said Samuels who, despite an accent that slips in and out of 'yard', makes it clear "that's where I developed" as a person and player. And although he could eventually end up in the NBA, setting him on course to earn millions of dollars, Samuels is adamant he will be available for Jamaica.
"There ain't nothing better than playing for your country," he said.
This summer he skipped prestigious basketball camps in the US to help Jamaica win the Caribbean championship. Samuels is sure Jamaica can become a larger global force in the game. He likes the direction the game is taking at home. Jamaica, he added, is not short on talent. But success will pivot on commitment across the board.
"The sky's the limit," said Samuels, who visions Jamaica one day playing at the Olympics. "I think any sport Jamaicans put their mind to they're gonna do well."
For now, Samuels is keen to transition from role-playing freshman to dominant second-year force. Louisville's season begins on October 28, but Samuels admits he long ago started work on eliminating "distractions" that hampered his improvement on and off the court.
"(There's) plenty of stuff I changed for this season," he said.
Samuels is trying to keep better control of his weight and improve his relationship with teammates. He considers himself a scorer, having averaged 11.8 points a game last year, the seventh highest for a Louisville freshman. But he is more open to the demands of coach Rick Pitino, a man with success at both college and pro levels, to become a better rebounder and leader.
"Coach Pitino has a lot of expectations of me," Samuels said. "He's always challenging me ... every day he pushes me."
His toughness is not in question. Samuels overcame an elbow that knocked out two front teeth during a game last season. He knows it's now time for him to test himself further. It's the only way to accomplish what he wants.
Number one goal
"Number one is to win," said Samuels, who earned a place on the Big East All-Rookie team, shared the conference's rookie-of-the-year honour, and was second team Freshman All-America last season. "Make the team go forward, make the team better ... That's the number one goal ... It's my job to uplift my team."
In the process, Samuels hopes to approach the level of Patrick Ewing, another outstanding Jamaican-born college player, who became a great pro. Samuels said he met Ewing when the former New York Knicks star tried to recruit him to attend Georgetown University, where the centre won a national championship in the early 1980s.
Other big-name schools, like last year's national champions North Carolina, had also tried to lure the Jamaican to their campus. But Samuels chose Louisville because, he said, it was the most comfortable fit. Yet, he declined to say if he will leave school early for the pros, although he freely admits to his ultimate basketball goal.
"My dream is to play in the NBA," said Samuels.
That might not be enough to replace Bolt as the big man of Trelawny. But the parish could certainly accommodate more than one.