Wednesday, March 26, 2003

DUI turning point for UK's Camara



By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Jules Camara, one of Kentucky's all-time blocks leaders, was at this moment blocking only the door.

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Jules Camara
(Stephen M. Herppich photo)
| ZOOM |
He had holed up in his dorm room, not leaving even for class or when friends came to the door. The sanctity of home was half a world away. When he finally emerged for a court hearing, TV cameras circled like buzzards.

"He felt like he was O.J.," said Steve Smith, his high school coach at Oak Hill (Va.) Academy.

This was in September 2000, and the rail-thin, 6-foot-11 forward from the West African nation of Senegal was in trouble. He was facing a DUI charge, and UK had just adopted a no-tolerance policy for such violations. More than fearing his dismissal, Camara was ashamed.

That he is still at UK, a valuable reserve on the nation's No. 1 team, is the happy ending. This gentle giant knows those painful days 21/2 years ago became a critical point in his maturation.

"It changed me a lot," he said. "For me, it was a matter of 'fessing up and dealing with those issues rather than running away. That's how you learn in life."

CAMARA FILE
Full name: Souleymane Charaf Camara
Birth date: July 23, 1979
Place of birth: Meckhe, Senegal
Major: Economics
Favorite sport besides basketball: Soccer
Dream date: Janet Jackson
Favorite game: Duke-UK, 1998 NCAA Tournament
Little-known fact: Speaks three languages
  Source: UK media guide
Camara is perhaps the most likeable guy in the Wildcats locker room. He is fully Americanized - speaking English at 78 rpm, playing cards, cracking jokes.

When the team huddles under the stands before taking the court each game, he gets in the center of the circle and says, "Can't nobody push me around." Then the Wildcats bounce him around like a pinball and whoop it up.

He nearly transferred. When his high school coach finally reached him after the DUI charge, Camara was at the breaking point, fearing he had embarrassed his coach, teammates and school. They talked three times each day for a week.

"He needed somebody to talk to," Steve Smith said.

Finally, UK officials assured Camara they would change the alcohol policy to allow first-time violators to stay on scholarship, though they would be required to sit out for a season. Camara decided to stick it out.

He knows his UK coach, Tubby Smith, was key in helping him get a second chance.

"He treated me as a son," Camara said. "I can't thank him enough for that."

Steve Smith had helped him through a similar adjustment.

Camara's father, Alioune, a principal in Dakar, Senegal, wanted his son to come to America. Jules' size made him a budding basketball star, yet when he arrived in tiny Mouth of Wilson, Va., he didn't know a word of English.

"He stayed at my house the first six weeks, and at first we couldn't communicate," Steve Smith said. "But once we could, he really soaked everything in. He was a very conscientious student, and he'd listen to everything you told him."

Smith said Camara became one of the most popular students at Oak Hill, a boarding school, and he had a 3.8 GPA and earned induction into the National Honor Society. He is also fluent in French and Wolof, a West African dialect.

Though soccer was his first love growing up - his father was named one of Senegal's top 50 players of the 20th century - Camara grew into basketball as he grew. The past several years, his mother, Marie, would ask him only about school when he called home. But when she came to Lexington for Senior Day, she gained an appreciation when seeing him play for the first time.

"I am happy and so proud of what he has done," she told reporters through an interpreter.

Camara has been a defensive star, ranking fifth on UK's all-time blocks list (155). He has averaged 6.0 points and 3.8 rebounds over his career.

"He may be the best defender on the team," UK assistant David Hobbs said. "He understands where he's supposed to be and covers up so many things. The general fan probably wouldn't appreciate him as much as we do."

Camara hasn't been home for two years yet no longer feels homesick. The economics major plans to remain in America after graduation.

"The most important thing in life is the relationships you make," Camara said. "I've made so many friends and had such a great time. It's a privilege to be on this team."

E-mail nschmidt@enquirer.com

Related stories:
Oak Hill coach proud of UK alum
DAUGHERTY: Tubby talks, Cats listen




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