Trent, rising

Trent Frazier has emerged as a fearless leader for the Illini, bringing an edge and joy to Brad Underwood’s uptempo offense.
Written KIM SCHMIDT
Photographs by Fighting Illini Athletics,
Brad Olson & Joseph Brumleve

Summers are hot and muggy in south Florida. When the doors to the gym at Wellington Community High School open, the cool rush of air conditioning cuts through the damp heat. Inside, the sound of basketballs hitting the floor echo off the tall ceilings as dozens of 6- to 14-year-olds from across Palm Beach County shoot hoops and run drills. This basketball camp, run by Wellington coach Matt Colin, sells out every year.

Basketball is king in Wellington. Not only is the team outstanding—after an undefeated season, they recently won their fourth regional final and are on their way to the final four—but the whole community shows up for them, filling the stands at each game and rallying around the players.

Illini freshman point guard Trent Frazier came up playing in this gym with Colin as his coach, and that experience informs much of the player he is today. He was taught to be a fighter on this court, to play with heart, and to give back to the community that buoyed his success.

Trent worked as an instructor at Colin’s popular summer camp and the kids would naturally gravitate to him. They loved to watch him shoot. The summer before Trent’s senior year, Colin watched as a group of eight 6- and 7-year-olds chased Trent down the court, a chaotic tangle of arms curling around his body trying to steal the ball away from him. But Trent was untouchable. He cut a fluid path between them, dribbling and maneuvering right through their outstretched hands. He pivoted, changing angles and directions. He moved the ball from his right hand to his left. Trent moved through them effortlessly, like a well-choreographed dance. Not once did a kid’s fingers touch that ball.

Colin laughs when he tells this story. “I wish I had my phone on me because it was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen a kid do.”

Trent, rising

In his first year at Illinois, Trent has emerged as an undisputed leader for the Fighting Illini. By the end of the season, Trent made the Big Ten All-Freshman Team leading freshmen in scoring, assists, steals, and three-pointers made per game. He had one of the most successful rookie seasons in recent Illini history, and he excited fans with his bold shots and speed on the court.

“Trent is a dynamic offensive player,” said Illinois coach Brad Underwood. “He’s got tremendous burst. He’s got great balance, great shiftiness, and he’s got a great knack for being able to make very difficult shots. He’s one of the few guys that I’ve coached that has the ability to take over a game on various levels because of his quickness and speed, as well as his ability to score the basketball in so many different ways.”

But Trent’s freshman season at Illinois started quietly, and he admits struggling for the first few games. Trent found himself turning to his team for support. “My teammates and my coaching staff did an unbelievable job of helping me gain that confidence and be who I am and just play my game,” he said.

Although it ended in a heartbreaking 1-point loss, the game against Maryland on December 3, 2017, was a turning point for Trent. As the stands filled with fans decked out in orange and blue and the players warmed up in State Farm Center, Trent’s heartbeat kept time with the booming base of the music. Behind the scenes, Trent was feeling the pressure.

“I was nervous, really shaky and nervous, and I didn’t know if I could play in that game,” he said. He remembered something Colin told him back in Florida. “My high school coach always says I play well when the lights are on and there are big crowds, and that night I did. I played amazing that night and I think that’s when the switch flipped on. Ever since then, I have been rolling.”

“Coach Underwood loves guys with a lot of passion,” said Trent. “He says I have a lot of swagger. I like to carry that around with my head up high. I’m just one of those guys where no matter what happens, if we come up short, I just keep that swagger. I like to prove to myself I deserve to be here, I can compete with anyone.”

Trent’s confidence makes for a strong-and fun-presence on the court, but that is tempered with an earnest and humble attitude that makes it easy to root for his success. At the end of the day, Trent plays for his team, not for himself.

“He’s an unbelievable competitor. He wants to win and he wants to do anything he possibly can to help his team win. Whether that’s making shots or whether that’s him passing the ball, I’ve seen him make the right play at the right time,” said Colin. “A lot of kids want that last shot for themselves, but Trent will go ahead and make the right play and find the open guy and let him get that shot.”

Underwood agrees. “Trent knows who he is and he’s really proud of that. He’s a young man that has really grown into a leader, and he continues to expand in that area every day.”

‘The gym is my classroom’

Trent wasn’t always sure basketball was his game. In sixth grade, he spent most of the games warming the bench. “I was like the water boy,” he said.

But Trent works hard and is driven in equal parts by his ambition as well as the motivation of his family.

He has a deep, abiding love for his family and says that he plays each game for them. As a boy, he played basketball at the local rec center with his father, Rodnell Frazier, as his coach. “Whenever you get the chance to have your dad coach you, it is the best feeling, just knowing that your father is always there for you in every part of your life. I want to be just like him.”

Now, 1,200 miles away from his family and his dad’s chicken Alfredo (“That’s what I miss right there! I think that’s why I lost a few pounds when I got here!”), Trent is finding his way.

The undergraduate experience is life-changing for most of us. In these years, we come to define our adult selves and navigate a myriad of choices, often far from home. For student athletes, their coaches and teammates become a surrogate family providing a shoulder to lean on and wisdom to draw from.

This deep connection shared among players and coaches can’t be measured on a scoreboard or in a column of statistics. This love for the game extends to one another, as they form profound and lasting relationships.

Underwood takes the whole-life approach to coaching very seriously. “First and foremost, I am a teacher. The gym is my classroom. There is so much about the game of basketball that is about real life, including life lessons about accountability, responsibility, leadership, and being a part of something bigger than yourself.”

“I decided to come [to Illinois] because this is where my heart told me to go.”Trent Frazier

Giving back to the community is one of those lessons Underwood prioritizes for the Illinois team. Underwood, who is active in a number of charities, involves the players in visits to area schools and volunteer opportunities with local organizations. “Our players have a platform because of celebrity and they understand there are different eyes on them. It’s our job to help them understand how to give back.”

It’s an approach shared by Colin, Trent’s coach in Wellington. As at Illinois, Trent and his teammates were expected to value and develop their character as much as their athletic ability. “We want to improve ourselves as people because there will be a time when the ball is no longer bouncing for all of us and we still have to live our life. We want to be positive people and positive thinkers and help others through this life. This has been my philosophy through our program here—to get better every day in every way in multiple directions no matter where you’re at.”

‘It was like a love affair’

Accomplished players like Trent are heavily recruited, invited for campus visits across the country. Many schools were actively pursuing Trent, but he felt drawn to the environment at Illinois.

“The day I visited Illinois was the best day of my life. It felt like home. When I was trying to make my decision, my dad and I talked about going somewhere that felt like home and made me feel safe, and Illinois did that,” he said. “I decided to come here because this is where my heart told me to go.”

Illinois was one of the first schools to reach out to Trent, and the coaching staff showed serious interest in him throughout his last couple of seasons in Wellington. Colin watched this recruiting process and wasn’t surprised when Trent chose Illinois.

“Once he gives you all of him, you get it until the end of time. I think that’s what happened with him and Illinois. Once he was getting recruited and the fan base also showed such serious interest, it became almost like a love affair,” said Colin.

“He fell in love with the people of Champaign and the state of Illinois.”

Illini fans have fallen in love with Trent, too, and with his first season behind him, the fans are looking forward to what he and the Fighting Illini will do next.

In a few months Trent will endure another muggy summer, this time in Champaign running drills in the air-conditioned Ubben Basketball Complex with his team. He’ll lift weights and swim. He’ll take classes and go dancing with his friends. He’ll know that while he may not be with his family in Florida under palm trees only half an hour from the ocean, he’ll still be surrounded by people who love him.

“Every night I step out in State Farm Center, man, it’s a blessing.” The gratitude is almost palpable in Trent’s voice when he talks about playing. “I just love when the lights come on and they call out my name and I get to play in front of 15,000 people. It is the greatest feeling ever.”


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