Teammates give Lauren Hill touching, tearful goodbye
CINCINNATI – The Xavier University campus was abuzz Monday afternoon, Ohio’s warmest and sunniest day in more than six months. Students wearing dresses and t-shirts and sunglasses — and some wearing no shirts at all — seemed to be enjoying it, filling a nearby basketball court, sand volleyball court and softball field.
The blue basketball courts sit across the parking lot from the Cintas Center, Xavier’s basketball arena.
Inside, hundreds had gathered to pay final respects to Lauren Hill, a student and basketball player at nearby Mount St. Joseph University. Hill died last weekend after an 18-month battle with an inoperable brain tumor and a very public campaign against childhood cancers that raised $1.5 million in her final months. Last November, Mount St. Joseph had received an NCAA waiver to move its season-opening game up two weeks to allow Lauren to play in a college basketball game.
That game vs. Hiram College was moved to the Cintas Center and played in front of a sellout crowd of more than 10,000.
Monday evening, about 2,000 people were back at Cintas for a public memorial service — a service that started with players from Lauren’s high school alma mater, Lawrenceburg (Ind.), and Mount St. Joseph holding hands while following her casket into the main arena before stopping, forming a tunnel and sending her No. 22 jersey through every player’s hands and eventually atop the casket.
One basketball goal was set up in the corner of the arena, adjacent to the stage. The shot clock read "22." The clock read 22:00. Lawrenceburg’s players wore their jerseys to the service. So did Mount St. Joseph’s players. A few players from Xavier’s men’s basketball team attended the service. Some folks dressed formally, and others wore t-shirts with Lauren’s number or an inspirational quote.
Someone ordered picture-perfect conditions for outdoor basketball Monday afternoon at Xavier.
Monday evening, there were tears of both joy and sadness.
Not once during the service, though, did any of the five speakers mention how unfair it was that Lauren was gone at 19, just 10 months after graduating high school. There was no talk of regret that she wasn’t enjoying the spring or walking her own campus Monday. The messages delivered were messages of positivity, of Lauren’s determination and mission to fight cancer not for herself, but for the next child and family who do.
Dr. John Trokan, a religious studies professor at Mount St. Joseph, said Lauren told him her "dream had come true" when she played in that game in Cintas Center last November.
Later, the Cintas Center video board showed her first layup against Hiram; the pass to the wing to start the scripted play, the screen set that allowed Lauren to get open on the left block, the catch and the delivery and the standing ovation. A timeout was called to allow Lauren to sub out of the game, and by the time she got to midcourt after that layup she got mobbed by her teammates, many of whom were crying.
She was smiling and handing out high-fives.
Monday night, the Hiram team made the four-hour bus trip to the service. The Hiram players traveled in their gray t-shirts from November that read "Fight Like Lauren" on the front with the No. 22 and "Never Give Up" on back.
Lauren got the first layup in that Hiram game; she got the last layup in that game too. The game become such an event that it was televised live by FOX Sports Ohio, and Lauren at one point sat with the game broadcasters and asked them not to say she was participating in her last game.
She wanted them to say it was her first college game.
It was. She played in three more.
She was diagnosed in Oct. 2013 with Diffused Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), a rare, inoperable pediatric brain tumor that kills 90 percent of victims within 18 months. She played through radiation treatments in her senior season at Lawrenceburg. Throughout last fall and winter she received treatments, did interviews, led a "Layup For Lauren" campaign to raise money and was around campus and her teammates as much as possible until the last two months. Mount St. Joseph presented her an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters last February.
Monday night, Cincinnati TV news anchor Brad Johansen told the crowd that Lauren wanted to be interviewed "even in her worst state" so people could see what the disease was doing to her and how important it was to support the fight against cancer. Corey Potts, the pastor at her hometown church, said Lauren would lead prayer circles by asking supporters not to pray for her but for other families of sick children she’d met along the way.
Dr. Mariko DeWire, a pediatric oncologist who worked closely with Lauren, said she’d left a legacy "that forever changed the face of DIPG and told the crowd that as soon she took her final breaths last weekend, the song "Hero" by Enrique Iglesias played on her iPod adjacent her bed.
When DeWire was done speaking, a picture montage spanning Lauren’s 19 years set to "Hero" played on the Cintas Center video boards.
There were no tears in the Cintas Center left to be cried.
By the time Monday night’s service ended, it was dusk. Rain clouds had moved in. Those basketball courts were empty.
Backed into the Cintas Center loading dock was a hearse, blue and white like most everything on Xavier’s campus. There’s a private memorial service for Lauren Hill scheduled for Tuesday back in Lawrenceburg.
The forecast calls for a beautful day to play basketball.