Player with brain tumor fulfills dream
CINCINNATI — Lauren Hill felt so good after fulfilling her dream that she felt inspired to play another game.
Makes sense, since the freshman forward for Division III Mount St. Joseph’s stirred a capacity crowd just by taking the court.
Much depends on Hill’s health and energy as she deals with an inoperable brain tumor that has left her with just months to live. In between making two layups that started and finished Sunday’s 66-55 victory over Hiram College and brought a crowd of 10,250 to its feet, she spent much of her inspiring game sitting on the bench wearing sunglasses and headphones.
Hill’s condition has made her extremely sensitive to sensations her teammates and opposing players take for granted, but she still enjoyed the bright gym and the cheering crowd. And she certainly savored her two baskets on a day she will never forget.
“This game was amazing,” Hill said. “It was awesome in every way. It’s a dream come true. To play on a college court, to put my foot down on the floor and hear the roar of the crowd — I just love it so much. I love basketball.
“Everything that happened today was amazing. I’m truly happy, it’s a really good day.”
Hill made an uncontested left-handed layup for the opening basket off a bounce pass from redshirt sophomore Taylor Brown, who missed last season with a knee injury. The tumor affects Hill’s coordination, forcing the right-hander to shoot with her left hand.
She also made the last shot of the game, returning with 26.5 seconds remaining for a right-handed layup.
“That’s the one I’ve been having trouble with,” Hill said.
Both shots were greeted with standing ovations from the sellout crowd at Xavier University’s 10,000-seat arena, part of an emotional afternoon for Hill that included love and support from stars in several sports. Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt was in attendance, along with an impressive list of WNBA players that included Elena Delle Donne, Delisha Milton-Jones, Tamika Catchings and Skylar Diggins.
“She lets you know what’s important,” Milton-Jones said of Hill.
Moved by the response — especially after receiving two awards, including the U.S. Basketball Writers Association’s Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award normally awarded at the Final Four — Hill said of her disease: “We’re gonna fight this.”
Hill’s determination to play while raising awareness about pediatric cancer has created a fan base that goes far beyond the school located on the outskirts of Cincinnati.
The 19-year-old native of Lawrenceburg, Indiana, has received support from across the country. Teams and players have signed and sent No. 22 jerseys to Hill, including 15 from high schools that lined the Lions’ bench.
There were plenty of posters and supportive signs, and several fans held up large yellow cutouts that said “Lauren 22.”
Hill started an online layup challenge that involves spinning around five times and shooting a layup with the non-dominant hand. Similar to this summer’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge that became a social media phenomenon, the fundraising campaign (#Layup4Lauren) has captured the attention of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton and other athletes.
The Bengals showed a video of her layup during a timeout in Sunday’s 33-23 home win against Jacksonville. Defensive tackle Devon Still —whose daughter, Leah, 4, is also being treated for cancer — wore Hill’s name on his eye black; left tackle Andrew Whitworth had the No. 22 on his gloves.
Videos were shown with teams meeting the challenge — with missed layups — and challenging others.
Fundraising by The Cure Starts Now Foundation totaled more than $40,000. The NCAA allowed the game to be moved up two weeks because of the urgency of Hill’s condition.
Lauren Hildebrand and daughter Allie, a Lawrenceburg High School sophomore, were among 3,000 fans from Hill’s hometown in attendance, including the school’s pep band. Allie Hildebrand was Hill’s “little sister” during the player’s senior year and said handling her friend’s illness was difficult.
“You can’t cry in front of her,” Hildebrand said. “You don’t want to get upset in front of her. That makes her upset.”
Tears were conspicuously absent in the arena on an upbeat day that celebrated Hill’s perseverance. Mount St. Joseph’s coach Dan Benjamin said things got emotional afterward, but Hill wasn’t having it in a game she has waited for.
“She looked tired on the bus,” Benjamin said, “but once she saw that floor, there was a ton of energy.”
That was obvious when a smiling Hill entered the floor for warmups. Her mood lifted the spirits of several children enduring various forms of cancer. That included Cynthia Towne, 11, who undergoes periodic chemotherapy for an inoperable though less-aggressive form of cancer first diagnosed at 4.
The little girl from Cincinnati grinned widely as she gave Hill a specially made headband sporting the word “Believe” with a yellow ribbon in the middle. Encouraged by recent diagnoses for her daughter, Katie Towne said Sunday was nonetheless bittersweet.
“I’m happy for the joy of her getting her wish coming true, not only for raising awareness but also for being able to play in this game,” Towne said of Hill. “But there’s also sadness knowing that how much awareness she brings right now, she won’t get to reap the benefits personally.”
“That’s what’s amazing; she did this, knowing that,” Towne said.