Terminally Ill Player Scores First Basket Of NCAA Season

Nov 3, 2014
Originally published on February 23, 2015 11:49 am

Nineteen-year-old college freshman Lauren Hill played her first game Sunday night, for a tiny, Division III college in Cincinnati.

That's not usually big news. But Hill has a rare form of brain cancer, and her first collegiate game might also be her last — which brought an unusual degree of attention to the court at Mount Saint Joseph University.

The NCAA allowed this game to be played two weeks early, because of Hill's condition. So many people wanted to see her play that the school had to move the game from its 2,000-seat venue to another one in town that seats 10,000. The game sold out.

Just after Hill's first basket, right as the game began, the crowd went wild.

Hill's coach, Dan Benjamin, had gone over this moment with her. " 'What are we gonna do after you make the first bucket, call time out and celebrate, or run back on D?' " he remembers asking her. "She looked back at me and said, 'Coach, we're gonna call time out and celebrate.' "

Hill was diagnosed with a very deadly form of brain cancer in her senior year of high school, just over a month after she signed on to play at Mount Saint Joseph. She has a brain tumor about the size of a lemon. Doctors expect her to die before the end of the year.

One of Hill's final wishes was to play college basketball.

Another wish was to raise awareness about her disease and raise money to fight it.

"She wanted to fight, she wanted to be fearless, she wanted to win the battle," says Keith Desserich, who runs The Cure Starts Now. The charity is dedicated to raising research funds to fight DIPG, the type of cancer Hill has.

"And she wanted to make sure that no child has to go through what she's going through today," he says.

Desserich says that Hill has become a voice for other children who have suffered with this disease and not been heard.

Hill's tumor leaves her disoriented during play. She gets tired a lot. She's even begun shooting with her nondominant hand. But during the game, she said that she's OK:

"I knew that when I was diagnosed with this, it's a challenge. It's a really big challenge," she says. "But I decided to face it."

After Hill and her teammates celebrated her first shot, and after the crowd of 10,000 chanted Hill's name, she told Brad Johansen with local TV news station WKRC, what it all felt like: "I've never felt so good in my entire life," she said.

The team's next game is three weeks from now, and Hill's coach is not sure if she will play.

But Hill would not call Sunday's game her last. Instead, she said, "This is my first collegiate game."

She said she'll keep playing if she can. She's just taking things moment by moment — a good strategy both on the court and off.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And now this - a 19-year-old college freshman played her first game yesterday for a tiny, Division III college in Cincinnati. That's not usually big news, but Lauren Hill's medical condition and her struggle through it brought that game and her team national attention. NPR's Sam Sanders has the story.

SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: So many people wanted to see Lauren Hill play that her school, Mount St. Joseph University, had to move the game from its 2,000-seat venue to another one in town that seats 10,000. The game still sold out. The crowd went wild just after Lauren Hill's first basket right as the game began.

(APPLAUSE)

SANDERS: Hill's Coach, Dan Benjamin, had even gone over this moment with her.

DAN BENJAMIN: What are we going to do after you make the first bucket? Call a timeout to celebrate? Or are we going to run back on D? She looked at me, and she said, coach, we're going to call a timeout and celebrate.

SANDERS: Why all this attention? Well, Lauren Hill has a very deadly rare form of brain cancer. She was diagnosed in her senior year of high school just over a month after she signed on to play at Mount St. Joseph's. Lauren has a brain tumor about the size of a lemon. Doctors expect her to die before the new year. The NCAA allowed this game to be played two weeks early because of her condition. One of Lauren Hill's dying wishes was to play college basketball, another wish - raising awareness about her disease and money to fight it.

KEITH DESSERICH: She wanted to fight. She wanted to be fearless. She wanted to win the battle, and she wanted to make sure that no child ever has to go through what she's going through here today.

SANDERS: Keith Desserich runs a charity called The Cure Starts Now. It's dedicated to raising research funds to fight the exact type of cancer Lauren Hill has. Desserich says she's become a voice for other children who have suffered with this disease not been heard. Lauren's tumor leaves her disoriented during play. She gets tired a lot. She's even begun shooting with her non-dominant hand, but she said during the game that she's OK.

LAUREN HILL: I knew that, you know, when I was starting this with this, it's a challenge. It's a really big challenge, but I decided to face it.

SANDERS: After Hill and her teammates celebrated her first shot, after the crowd of 10,000 chanted Lauren Hill's name, she told Brad Johansen what it all felt like. He's with the local TV news station WKRC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRAD JOHANSEN: How good does this feel?

HILL: I've never felt so good in my entire life.

SANDERS: The team's next game is three weeks from now. Lauren's coach is not sure if she will play, but Hill would not call yesterday's game her last.

HILL: Let's not call it my last game. This is my first collegiate game.

SANDERS: Hill said she'll keep playing if she can. She says she's just taking things moment by moment. That's a pretty good strategy on the court and off. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.