Lauren Hill spent her final year polishing a layup and inspiring others to live fully. She succeeded at both as she fought an inoperable brain tumor.
The 19-year-old freshman basketball player at Mount St. Joseph University died at a hospital Friday morning, the co-founder of her nonprofit foundation, Brooke Desserich, told The Associated Press.
“She’s made an impact on the world, more so than me – more than I ever will do,” her coach Dan Benjamin said. “I’ve gotten so many emails and phone calls from all over the world. People are contacting me because they want to share her story.”
Hill wouldn’t let the tumor dictate her final days. Along the way, she became known simply as Lauren, someone who knew how to make the most of every day and who had a knack for encouraging others to do the same by the way she persevered.
“We are forever grateful to have had Lauren grace our campus with her smile and determined spirit,” Mount St. Joseph President Tony Aretz said. “She has left a powerful legacy. She taught us that every day is a blessing; every moment a gift.”
Her nonprofit foundation helped to raise more than $1.5 million for cancer research.
“She not only became a spotlight on the lack of funding for cancer research, but she most certainly has become a beacon guiding researchers for years to come,” Desserich said.
A year and a half ago, Hill was just another high school student getting ready for college. She decided to play basketball at Mount St. Joseph, a Division III school in suburban Cincinnati. Soccer was her favorite sport, but basketball became her selling point.
A few weeks later, she started experiencing dizziness while playing for her high school team in nearby Lawrenceburg, Indiana. Tests found the tumor. Treatment didn’t work. She knew she had less than two years left.
While the tumor squeezed her brain, Hill squeezed back, holding onto life as tightly as she could.
“I’m spreading awareness and also teaching people how to live in the moment because the next moment’s not promised,” Hill told the AP after one of her team’s 6 a.m. practices. “Anything can happen at any given moment. What matters is right now.
“Especially after this kind of diagnosis, your perspective on life and what you value changes.”
For Hill, that meant spending time with her parents and a brother and sister, going to college, raising money for cancer research, inspiring others, and achieving her goal of scoring a basket in a game.
A lot of people got involved to make it happen.
The NCAA agreed to let Mount St. Joseph move up its opening game against Hiram College by two weeks because Hill’s condition was deteriorating. Xavier University offered its 10,000-seat arena so more people could attend. Tickets sold out in less than an hour.
By the time the game came around on Nov. 2, the tumor had affected Hill’s right side so much that she had to shoot with her non-dominant hand. With Tennessee women’s coach Pat Summitt and an impressive cast of WNBA players on hand, Hill took a pass and made a left-handed layup only 17 seconds into the game.
Tears. Goosebumps. Applause.
She also made the last basket of the game, returning for a right-handed layup this time.
“It’s a dream come true,” she said. “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.”
NCAA president Mark Emmert said Hill achieved a lasting and meaningful legacy.
“Lauren Hill’s bravery, enthusiasm and strength were an inspiration not only to those who knew her best but also to the millions of people she touched around the world by sharing her story,” Emmert said.
News of Hill’s death sparked quick reactions all over social networks. It was a worldwide trending topic on Twitter, where Cavaliers superstar LeBron James wrote a short letter to Hill in a series of five tweets.
“Can u please tell my Grandma I said hello,” James said. “Don’t be afraid, she knows you cause we spoke about u plenty of times.”
After the game, things got tougher. The spreading tumor caused her to be sensitive to light, sound and movement. She couldn’t sleep well. She tired quickly and needed a wheelchair at times. She had good days and bad days.
Those close to her watched her grit it out.
Hill played in four games and made five layups before the spreading tumor made her give up playing. When the season ended, her team held its annual dinner in a room at the hospital where Hill was being treated.
Hill hoped that raising money would help others have a better chance at beating cancer in the future. Her Layup4Lauren challenge and other fundraising activities brought in donations worldwide.
The U.S. Basketball Writers Association voted her the Pat Summitt Most Courageous Award, which is normally awarded at the Final Four. Athletes from other colleges autographed No. 22 jerseys – her number – and sent them in support.
Hill befriended Cincinnati Bengals defensive lineman Devon Still, whose 4-year-old daughter, Leah, is fighting cancer. They exchanged jerseys, and she attended a Bengals game and met Leah.
As the cancer slowed her down, her family, friends and teammates took a bigger role in promoting her campaign. And she kept reminding everyone to appreciate life.
“Life is precious,” she told WKRC-TV. “Every moment you get with someone is a moment that’s blessed, really blessed.”
JOE KAY, AP Sports Writer