Lauren Hill's team returns to arena where she made layup
CINCINNATI (AP) Wearing blue and gray sweats, the Mount St. Joseph's players stepped off their bus without saying much. Their hair was pulled back for a basketball practice that they knew would be so much more.
In a single-file line, they walked up to the loading dock at Xavier's Cintas Center on a brisk, sunny Friday. They passed the spot where a white hearse had delivered Lauren Hill's gray casket to the arena for a public memorial exactly seven months ago in April. The players hadn't been back since.
They reached the basketball court and walked beneath the basket where Hill made a left-handed layup last November, the one that had 10,000 people snapping photos and blinking tears. The college freshman died from an inoperable brain tumor five months later.
''I was rushed with a ton of different memories,'' senior forward Erica Walsh said.
The Division III team is moving on to a new season while taking their beloved teammate's lessons with them. Hill inspired millions last season by choosing to play college basketball even though she was dying from a cancerous tumor. She made a left-handed layup to open the Lions' first game against Hiram College, which was moved to Xavier's arena because of the demand for tickets.
It was one of those moments when sport transcends the game.
She played in a handful of games and scored 10 points before she had to stop. Hill kept raising money for cancer research to help those who would come after her. She also reminded everyone to treat each day as a precious gift.
That was her idea of beating cancer - or, as she liked to put it: ''kick its butt.'' She would fight as hard as she could for as long as she could and then simply outlive it.
More than $1.8 million has been raised for pediatric cancer research, with a goal of hitting $2.2 million - her jersey number was 22 - over the weekend. Mount St. Joseph will play Hiram College again on Saturday at the Cintas Center, with proceeds going to fight cancer.
''It may not be today that we kick cancer's butt, but she gave everybody more hope that there is going to be an opportunity that one day we'll have a cure for everything,'' coach Dan Benjamin said. ''Tomorrow's game really is about keeping that awareness going.''
All of that and more because Hill decided that instead of curling up in a ball of self-pity for the final year of her life, the 19-year-old would touch as many lives as she could.
Her mom, Lisa, arrived at the end of the two-hour practice on Friday, gave each player a tight, lingering hug, and then blinked back tears during a talk to the players. Her message: You have to live in the moment and keep moving forward, just like Lauren.
''I know it's emotional,'' Lisa Hill said. ''She's not here. But I look at you and each of you has a piece of her inside that you carry forward.''
She's an integral part of everything they do.
Benjamin awards a No. 22 practice jersey each week to the player who gives an exemplary effort. Every practice begins with players huddling at midcourt, raising their arms in unison and chanting: ''Play for 22.'' Benjamin wears a gray shirt that says ''Fight Like Lauren.''
And at the close of practice on Friday, they ran the play that was drawn up for Hill's left-handed layup last season. The point guard holds up a hand with thumb and index finger outstretched in an ''L'' sign to start the play.
Hill's attitude endures, too.
''If I'm having a bad day or I see someone else having a bad day, I can always turn it into a positive,'' Walsh said. ''I try to keep a smile on my face. If I see someone else who's down, I give them a hug or a pat on the back and say it's going to be OK, because it all will be in the end.''
Benjamin reminded them before practice: ''Life is good.''
As they started to stretch for the workout, the players looked up and noticed the shot clock above the basket read 1.4 seconds - no special significance to the number, though it was fitting. That was Hill's overriding message: You have time left. Maybe a lot, maybe a little.
Just cherish it, and try not to waste a second of it.
Follow Joe Kay on Twitter: http://twitter.com/apjoekay. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/joe-kay