Mount St. Joseph women's basketball coach Dan Benjamin shares his thoughts about his time with Lauren Hill, a freshman who was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor before joining the team and made two layups in her first game at Xavier's Cintas Center. In this exclusive AP column, Benjamin shares his thoughts and experiences with AP sports writer Joe Kay.
Lauren committed to us on Oct. 1 of 2013. About 49 or 50 days later, she found out she had this tumor. That's when I came into her life, but actually I like to say she came into mine.
At the time, I said we've got to reach out to this girl. She's committed to us. She chose us. I didn't know what the NCAA would allow us to do, but I was going to do something. That's kind of when our relationship developed.
We had her in here as a high school senior to watch a game or two. At the second game, we gave her a blanket that the admissions department bought and we signed it. We went to present it to her. Each player went up and shook her hand, and her mom and dad and her brother and sister were with her. And I don't know why I was last, but I was last. I reached out to shake her hand and she refused and just grabbed me and gave me a hug.
She's made an impact on me, she really has. I've gone through some personal things and I've thought to myself, "How tough can life be when you watch a young player going through what she's going through?" She knows what the end result's going to be. She knows it's terminal. Yet she's plugging along every day. She's facing it head-on — typical Lauren.
We've had a few tears. As a coach, it makes it very tough. As a parent, it makes it even tougher. You think you can protect them all the time. That's kind of what a coach does. You teach them life lessons, and here I am getting life lessons from this young lady.
What I'll never forget about the game at the Cintas Center is the way they made something remarkable happen for one afternoon that meant the world to somebody. The execution of the first play will stick with me, the many practices of what we called Lauren's layup. That was her play. For her to go out and make it on the first attempt was amazing. I watch it by myself all the time and I go crazy.
Her initial diagnosis was that she would make it to December, around Christmas time, which is why I went ahead and got the first game moved up. But that's Lauren. She's not going to let it beat her. She beat the first deadline, and now she's just going to keep fighting.
I describe it as bittersweet. Watching her go through the journey has been tough, knowing that she's getting weaker, knowing that she needs us even more now.
In my mind, there's no doubt that God put me in her life and her in my life for a reason. I'm just thankful that I've gotten to play a small part in helping her do such a big thing for the future of DIPG (Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma) research. I keep thinking I've got to be there for her and her mission, which is carrying on the research to find a cure.
She's made an impact on the world, more so than me — more than I ever will do. I wish everybody could meet her. She's so genuine. 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.
Why has her story caught on? I think it's her spirit, her personality. You've got to be around her. I keep telling people that once you get around her, you'll know what I mean. It's hard to describe, but it's a spirit of never giving up.
When she walks into a room, the room lights up. And that happened even before it went public and she got all the attention. Also, she's unselfish and caring about everybody else. She's worried about her family, about these young kids who are not going to get the chance to grow up and do what she did playing basketball or soccer or whatever it is because of DIPG.
I don't think anybody else could have handled this. And she's done it so gracefully and she's so amazing. I don't know what her pain level is or how much she's suffering, but the girl smiles every time she gets a chance. That's what she's done every day. That's what she's done since day one.
She's been our rock since day one, when we got to know the situation. It's very tough to see the changes in her. It's very tough to know you can't do anything about it. Now it's time for my team to become her rock.
So we're going to deal with it as Lauren will deal with it: Day by day, moment by moment.
Dan Benjamin is the women's basketball coach at Mount St. Joseph, where Lauren Hill played the past season while fighting a cancerous brain tumor. The NCAA granted permission to move up the school's first game because of her worsening condition and she made a layup for the first basket of the game. She has helped raise more than $1.5 million for cancer treatment and research. This column is Benjamin's words as told to AP sports writer Joe Kay.