Ernestine Samuels, having been diagnosed with breast cancer in 2008, has experienced far too much pain and misery over the past few years.
But what may have hurt her more than anything occurred just months ago — when she learned that her son, Jamar Samuels, would be suspended for the first three games of his senior season at Kansas State for a violation of team rules.
“I was very, very upset,” Ernestine said by phone this week. “This is supposed to be his senior year, there’s no way he can get suspended. He has to set examples because he’s a senior and he wasn’t doing that. I was very, very hurt.”
The last thing Samuels ever wanted to do was hurt his mother, so he vowed to change.
“I’m out here playing for her,” Samuels said. “She did everything in her life for 22 years to raise me, it’s my turn to step up as a man and help her.”
The experience helped shape Samuels, who will take to the Bramlage Coliseum court one final time tomorrow on Senior Day. And though it won’t be the last game Samuels plays in a K-State uniform, it does signify the end is quickly approaching — a conclusion to a senior season that Ernestine couldn’t be more proud of.
“He has come so far,” she said. “I’m very, very proud of him.”
There were undoubtedly bumps in the road during Samuels’ four-plus years at K-State, some of which will come to light in the words below. But the most important thing to take from this is the simple fact that Samuels reached this point.
“When we get guys and they’re 18 years old, they’re boys,” associate head coach Brad Underwood said. “Now you see Jamar five years later and you don’t see a boy, you see a grown man.”
This is the story of how that boy grew into the man he is today.
Sports became a way of life for Samuels sometime around the second grade. His father had left him and his two brothers, leaving Ernestine as a single mother. Ernestine said Samuels soon after became very frustrated, and she sensed he might have blamed himself for his dad leaving them.
“He just seemed so frustrated all the time,” she recalled. “I worried about that. I told him it wasn’t his fault and things like that but he had so much frustration in him.”
So she went to Samuels’ elementary school to talk with one of his teachers, who agreed that he wasn’t himself. After the meeting, they decided the best way for Samuels to take those frustrations out was through sports, so he began playing soccer.
“We put his frustrations to work outside of being mean to people and things like that,” Ernestine said. “So he started playing soccer and he was excellent, he went on traveling teams when he was in the fifth or sixth grade. From that point I knew sports had to be something to take his frustration away.”
Samuels then started playing football, where he excelled as a safety on the defense, and then went onto play basketball.
“I thank God for his teacher working with me to get some of that frustration out. It was really worth it,” Ernestine said.
And with that, his basketball career began.
Frank Martin took over as the head coach at K-State in 2007. Soon after, Denis Clemente decided to transfer from Miami to play for Martin. Then came Samuels, who became the first high school commitment of Martin’s head-coaching tenure.
“Jacob (Pullen), Mike (Beasley), Bill (Walker), Freddie Brown, Luis Colon, Dominique (Sutton) — all of those guys signed to play for (Bob Huggins),” Martin said. “Denis and Jamar are the first guys who signed up to play for me.”
“That’s extremely gratifying. Jamar believed in me. He wanted to be a part of it. That’s something that always stuck with me. I’m a real loyal person — loyalty is a big, big part of who I am. When kids show that loyalty toward me that’s something I never forget. That’s why I’ve fought so hard to help him find success because I know he was loyal to me during a time where he didn’t have to be. He believed in me to come to school here and I will always remember that.”
Samuels’ dedication to the program is something the coaching staff consistently brings up.
“His loyalty is something we preach and we talk about literally in this program on a daily basis,” Underwood said. “He didn’t waver and we haven’t wavered in him. We’ve believed in him through the ups and the downs. To think five years with Jamar has come and gone that quickly, it always brings us a real sense of how time flies, and yet you’re so happy for him because it’s quite an achievement.”
To truly get a grasp on people, Martin will examine a kid’s relationship with his mom.
“I look at the way they treat and feel about their mothers and that tells me a lot about kids,” the K-State head coach said. “Jamar lives for his mom. There’s nothing he wants to do more than to succeed to help her.”
So when Samuels found out she had cancer in 2008, like any son or daughter, it affected him a great deal.
“When things like that happen, they really, really hurt Jamar,” Martin said. “Because he’s very sensitive and he’s got a soft heart.”
On Jan. 30, 2010, Ernestine made the near 1,200 mile trek from her home in Washington D.C. to Manhattan to see Samuels and the 11th-ranked Wildcats take on No. 2 Kansas. College Gameday was in town and Manhattan was abuzz with excitement.
“The doctor told me I could go down there to the game,” Ernestine said.
No one, including her doctor, expected what happened thereafter.
Following the Wildcats’ 81-79 overtime loss to the Jayhawks, Ernestine returned home, where she became very ill and was hospitalized for more than six weeks. Samuels never knew about any of this.
“I went there in 2010 and that’s when I got sick,” said Ernestine, who will attend tomorrow’s game against Oklahoma State. “My whole body shut down and I went to the hospital. We didn’t tell Jamar what was going on. It hurt me not to be able to tell him, but he was playing ball and I didn’t want him to go through what I was going through. That would have been a lot on his mind, and it sort of hurt him that I didn’t tell him until I basically got well.”
Those who know Samuels best say he has a heart of gold. And because of that, emotional situations like this are sometimes kept from him with the common goal of doing what they believe is best for him.
Looking back on that situation now, Samuels simply shakes his head.
“I’m sitting there, talking to her on the phone not even knowing she was hospitalized,” he said. “My family, they sometimes don’t tell me things like that. It was tough to know that she had the strength to come out here and come watch me play.”
This all happened in the middle of Samuels’ sophomore season — a year where he was named the Big 12’s Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 11 points and 4.9 rebounds off the K-State bench. He seemed on the verge of becoming the Wildcats’ next big star. But two things weighed heavily on his mind from that sophomore campaign. His struggles in the Wildcats’ NCAA tournament run to the Elite Eight, when he had three games where he scored two points or less.
“I promised myself, my family, my teammates that I would never have a tournament like that again,” Samuels said prior to his junior season. “Probably one of the worst tournaments I’ve ever had in my life.”
And then there was his mother’s health. Samuels was far away from home, and while he wasn’t close to leaving K-State to make a move back to the East coast, the thought at the very least had crossed his mind.
“I had thought about it but I never wanted to pack up my bags and just leave,” Samuels said. “My brothers told me ‘no you’re in the right place, we got her, we got her. Just keep doing what you’re doing and everything is going to be all right.’ I prayed everyday and she’s still here with me.”
Samuels was still asleep in his hotel bed when Martin received a phone call from Ernestine at 6 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2011. Martin, whose team would play No. 21 Alabama 15 hours later at the Sprint Center in Kansas City, Mo., waited for Samuels to wake up before delivering the news.
Once Samuels emerged from his room, Martin pulled him aside in the lobby and informed him his grandmother — Ernestine’s mother — had died.
“I told him that something had happened with his grandma and that his mom needed to speak to him,” Martin said. “He immediately knew what I was talking about because she’d been real sick for a while. So we were back in that hotel lobby and he was extremely emotional.”
Martin told Samuels they’d put him on a plane to go home right away. But as a senior, the 6-foot-7 forward felt he needed to be there for his team.
And he was in a big way, scoring 14 points and grabbing four rebounds in the Wildcats’ 71-58 win over the Crimson Tide.
“After the game I approached him again and I said if you want to go home — life is about family, not basketball — and he thought about it and a little bit later he said if he could go home he’d like to do that. He went home and took it head on.”
K-State left a day later to head to Hawaii for a tournament over Christmas, and after Samuels attended his grandmother’s funeral, he jumped on a plane, flew across the country and practiced with his team the day before the tournament started.
This is where Samuels’ leadership and maturation was put on full display. He stared adversity in the eyes and answered the call. K-State won the tournament due in large part to Samuels, who averaged 11.7 points and 8.3 rebounds in the three-game stretch.
“His leadership and his focus were the main reasons we were able to have success in that tournament in Hawaii,” Martin said.
Martin admits that he and Samuels have privately butted heads during the past, but like a parent who is teaching a child life lessons, they’ve both worked through their issues.
“It’s no different than me being upset with my 13-year old because he messed up academically,” Martin said. “I don’t quit on people because they make mistakes. I just ask them to learn and get better. He’s done that. I’m extremely proud of him.”
Samuels arrived at K-State as an emotional player. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and sometimes that did more damage than good.
“Jamar’s first two years, and let’s even go a little further than that — Jamar had never committed a foul in his eyes,” Underwood said. “His reactions had effects on officials, had effects on other people, it was something that effected our team. You don’t see that from him this year. He has grown up.
“If you would have told me that Jamar Samuels, after his first couple of years, had the ability to be the leader on our team, I would have called you a liar. Now he’s nothing but a terrific leader and that’s on and off the court.”
Martin takes it one step further.
“This year he’s been as good of a leader as we’ve had here in this program,” he said.
The senior is averaging 10.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game this season. His rebounding is far and away the best it has been in his career, his defense has been rock solid, and he has become a 67 percent free-throw shooter in his final year, an 11-percent improvement from his freshman campaign.
“The improvements are monumental,” Underwood said. “His freshman year Jamar may have shot one off the backboard from the free-throw line and the next one may have been two feet short. His growth as a player, his understanding of the game — he has matured and it’s been really fun to watch.”
In less than 24 hours, the end of an era will occur inside of Bramlage Coliseum. Samuels, who redshirted during his first season at K-State, has been involved in the best five-year stretch of K-State basketball dating back to the 1970s.
He’s one of just four players to have scored at least 1,200 points and collected more than 600 rebounds in a K-State career, joining Rolando Blackman, Bob Boozer, and Ed Nealy — three of the best players to ever wear the Wildcats’ uniform.
While it’s important to take note that Samuels played in more games than several of the all-time greats, his numbers below still speak for themselves:
• 696 rebounds (sixth at KSU)
• 105 steals (seventh at KSU)
• 383 FTs made (third at KSU)
• 683 FTs attempted (third at KSU)
• 1,231 points (12th at KSU )
• 91 blocks (seventh at KSU)
• 130 games played (second at KSU)
But out of all that, the area the coaching staff is proudest of is how much he’s grown as a human being.
“You see a young man who has just matured into a grown man,” Underwood said. “His maturation is not atypical, but it is very significant. That’s part of the process because there are a lot of ups and downs and a lot of things that transpire for that to happen and Jamar has been through his fair share, as have the seniors previously.
“But you’re so proud when you see those kids develop because I know when Jamar Samuels leaves here, he’s going to have his degree and he’s ready to tackle whatever the next challenge is in life. The challenges this world gives you everyday he’s prepared for.”
Samuels, the man with an affable personality and a smile that can light up a room — the guy who still maintains he’d someday like to be the mayor of Manhattan — will play his final home game tomorrow with a character trait he can be proud of: the boy that arrived at K-State more than four years ago will leave as a man.
“I know I haven’t had a consistent four years here, but I want everyone to remember me as the guy that worked hard,” Samuels said. “K-State shaped me into a man. I can finally look at myself in the mirror and say that I’m a grown man. I came a long way.”