Promising recruit's tragic death stuns IUPUI coaches

Jeff Eisenberg

As Steven Jamison's body slowly succumbed to rectal cancer the past few months, IUPUI assistant coach Austin Parkinson tried to give the promising young guard an incentive to keep fighting.

Sometimes he'd phone Jamison to reassure him that a scholarship would still be waiting for him when he got healthy. Sometimes he'd text to remind Jamison he was welcome to call any time he needed to talk. And sometimes he'd email to let Jamison know the coaches still had faith he'd one day follow in the footsteps of San Antonio Spurs guard George Hill, an IUPUI product and fellow alum of Indianapolis' Broad Ripple High School.

Parkinson's daily encouragement typically brought a smile to Jamison's face, but the cancer ultimately robbed him of the chance to achieve his Division I basketball dream. On Friday, less than four months before he would have signed his letter of intent to play at IUPUI, the 19-year-old would-be high school senior lost his eight-month battle with the disease.

"I knew Steven wasn't going to play basketball this summer, but it was still a shock for it to end this quickly," Parkinson said Saturday by phone. "It was kind of out of the blue when I heard yesterday. I had tried to call him last week and hadn't heard back from him. Obviously the condition was much more serious than we expected."

Jamison's death stunned all but his close friends and immediate family because he preferred to keep the severity of his condition secret so his peers wouldn't treat him differently. Though fatigue and other symptoms eventually forced him to miss school and stop playing basketball, he would typically insist he just had mononucleosis or the flu whenever someone inquired about his health.

"Steve denied that he had cancer to the very end," Broad Ripple athletic director Mike Hannan said. " He almost got angry about it. He should have had everything to look forward to in life, so it was tough for him to deal with."

Among those struggling to cope with Jamison's death is IUPUI head coach Ron Hunter, who admitted his thoughts often drifted to the talented 6-foot-6 guard as he tried to focus on scouting potential recruits in Las Vegas on Saturday.

Since Jamison and Hunter's son R.J. became friends after playing in many of the same Indianapolis youth tournaments as kids, the IUPUI coach first met his future recruit at a very early age. What impressed the elder Hunter most was that the upbeat, outgoing disposition Jamison possessed as a 10-year-old never wavered even as his health deteriorated nearly a decade later.

"I've known the family and the kid for such a long time, and I feel absolutely awful that a kid that bright, that had such great promise, is no longer with us," Hunter said. "We have so many bad kids running around the streets of Indianapolis, and this was one of the most positive kids you could find."

A 19-year-old's death would leave any family grief-stricken, but Jamison losing his battle with cancer seems especially cruel. It was only four years ago that Tony and Mary Jamison lost two daughters, 17-year-old Allyson and 9-year-old Mary, in a fire at their Indianapolis home.

The Jamisons can at least take pride that their son accomplished a lot in his short life — especially on the basketball floor.

Overshadowed on his high school team by elite Class of 2012 guard Ron Patterson, Jamison began to generate some interest from schools in the Big Ten and Horizon League with his stellar play on the summer circuit last year. He played alongside the likes of Marquis Teague and showcased deft passing, above-average athleticism, and the length and instincts to choke off the passing lanes, all skills that fit well in IUPUI's up-tempo system.

When coaches were finally allowed to initiate contact with members of the Class of 2011, Parkinson's first call was to Jamison to assess his interest in playing at IUPUI. Jamison had begun to receive interest from bigger programs like Iowa, Minnesota and Butler, but he wasted no time telling Parkinson he could envision himself donning a Jaguars jersey one day.

"Typically in those conversations you're talking about the program and gauging their interest, but right away he told me, 'IUPUI is the place I want to be,'" Parkinson said. "We get up and down the floor and we press, so I remember thinking when I saw him play that he was such a great fit. So when I talked to him for the first time and he expressed enthusiasm, it seemed too good to be true."

It appeared as though Jamison would build on an all-city sophomore campaign as a junior this past season, but he began to show signs of weakness and fatigue last November. Though he persevered through the symptoms to score 29 points in a loss to Bowman Academy on Dec. 22, he rarely practiced after game days early in the season and he stopped playing basketball altogether by mid-January.

Half-brother Eric Scott told the Indianapolis Star that doctors diagnosed Jamison in February with Stage III rectal cancer, a condition that rarely afflicts people so young and has only a 35 to 60 percent five-year survival rate.

Aggressive treatment initially offered Jamison a glimmer of hope, but Scott said the cancer had spread to Jamison's lymph nodes and his health had deteriorated quickly in the past three weeks. Jamison weighed just 105 pounds when his family admitted him at a nearby hospital on Friday morning.

"He just dwindled away in front of our eyes," Hannan said. "It was really sad. His clothes just hung right off his body."

Word of Jamison's death spread quickly among the Indiana basketball community. About 150 people attended an impromptu student-organized memorial service at Broad Ripple on Saturday afternoon to say goodbye to their friend and celebrate his life.

The IUPUI coaches intend to return home from the recruiting trail for Jamison's funeral whenever the family decides to hold it. Hunter said he will ask permission from Jamison's parents to place a No. 25 IUPUI jersey with his name on the back in his casket.

"The last conversation I had with him, his voice was weak and you could tell he was sick, but he kept telling me, 'Coach, I'm going to play Division I basketball,'" Hunter recalled. "I told him he was going to be a great player and I was saying that because I meant it. I really thought he'd be strong enough to make it."