An Unforgettable Sunday Afternoon For Lauren Hill

Tom Rinaldi tells the story of Lauren Hill, diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer and expected to live only until December, as she takes the basketball court for Division III Mount St. Joseph.

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Few will remember the final score of Sunday afternoon's basketball game between Division III Mount St. Joseph University and Hiram College.

What everyone will remember is the number 22. And the power of one.

Mount St. Joseph freshman Lauren Hill played only 47 seconds in her team's season-opening win over Hiram, fittingly scoring the first basket of the game and the first points of the 2014-15 college basketball season. By the opening tipoff, she had fulfilled her dream to play college basketball and began a new dream: to bring attention to the rare form of brain cancer that is stealing her strength and cutting short her life.

Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Lauren Hill goes up for a layup, scoring the first points of the game. She also scored the game's final points.

"I never thought I would play on a college court, put my feet on the floor and feel the vibration of the crowd," Hill said after the game, which Mount St. Joseph won 66-55. "This game has been amazing, and everything that happened today was amazing. This is a really good day."

This day was the culmination of Hill's dream not just to play in one college basketball game but also to raise awareness for diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma, or DIPG, a rare pediatric brain cancer that typically affects children between the ages of 5 and 7. Hill was diagnosed with the disease just 48 days after committing to Mount St. Joseph last October.

This September, doctors told her she has only a few months to live. She has chosen to spend those months speaking for kids who are too young to explain their symptoms to their doctors or raise awareness about the lack of research for a cancer with a zero percent survival rate and few new treatment options.

On Sunday afternoon, 10,000 people, including professional athletes from the WNBA and NFL as well as local celebrities, packed Xavier University's Cintas Center arena not because Hill is dying or because she wanted to suit up for one collegiate game while she still has the strength.

No, they flocked to Cincinnati because she made this game -- and her fight -- about something bigger than herself.

"Lauren's dream to play basketball in a Mount uniform will come true this afternoon," Mount St. Joseph president Dr. Tony Aretz said during a pregame speech. "But more important to Lauren is that now you all know what DIPG is. Ten thousand of you are here to share in her day. Today, we play for 22."

Throughout what was an emotional afternoon, there were tears. So many tears. During player introductions, when Hill was announced as the fifth and final starter for the Lions, and when she scored that first layup, no one on either bench attempted to hide their emotion. But beneath all those tears was hope and happiness and a celebration of life.

"Today has been the best day I've ever had," Hill said. "Thank you. I don't know what else to say but thank you."

After the opening tip, the Lions ran a play they'd practiced many times over the past few weeks and shared with Hiram's coaches at a dinner Saturday night. Hill took a pass in the post and scored on a layup just 17 seconds into the game to put the Lions up 2-0. The scoreboard paused as Lauren's teammates and coaches ran to center court to celebrate with her, hug her and help her off the court. Head coach Dan Benjamin, the man they call Coach Bear, presented her with the game ball, and her father, Brent, helped her to the bench.

It was as emotional a start to a game as many in the crowd had ever witnessed, including the media members and professional athletes in attendance to support Hill and her cause.

"When I read Lauren's story and heard about the game, nothing could keep me away," said Elena Delle Donne, the 2013 WNBA Rookie of the Year. "It's incredible what she's doing and how many people she's reached. To be her age and have the perspective to think beyond herself, she's amazing."

Typically, Mount St. Joe home games draw about 100 fans. And typically, that fan base doesn't include Buffalo Bills running back Fred Jackson, Indiana Fever player Tamika Catchings or legendary NCAA coach Pat Summitt, all of whom were also in attendance.

But when word of Lauren's story began to spread, the demand for tickets and media credentials made a site change to nearby Xavier University necessary. "Xavier offered to let us move the game here," Aretz said. "And their employees are volunteering their time today."

Three hours before the arena doors opened, hundreds of people were lined up outside the arena, waiting beneath a yellow inflatable The Cure Starts Now archway. Parents of players tailgated in the parking lot, barbecuing and playing cornhole.

When the arena opened and fans filed into the lobby, positive tunes played throughout the arena -- "Roar" by Katy Perry, "Brave" by Sara Bareilles and "Best Day of My Life" by the American Authors -- and balloons floated overhead. Volunteers in blue TCSN shirts sold gray wristbands, black headbands and rally towels adorned with Lauren's photo and her No. 22 jersey.

In the locker room before the game, Lauren's coaches and teammates surprised her with gray uniforms made especially for the game. Gray is the color of brain cancer awareness, a nod to the precious gray matter the disease destroys. Hiram players warmed up in gray Play For 22 T-shirts with Mount St. Joseph on the front, the same shirts Lauren's mother and father and younger brother and sister wore as they watched the game from behind the team bench. We Love You buttons and Never Give Up T-shirts and No. 22 jerseys filled the arena. The Cintas Center was blanketed in an ocean of gray. On this afternoon, everyone was cheering for the same team.

"I've never seen anything like this," Delle Donne said. "What she did is incredible."

With 30 seconds remaining in the game and the crowd on its collective feet, Benjamin called a timeout. When play resumed, Hill had returned to the floor and immediately attempted a layup, which she missed. Her teammate, Tara Dennis, rebounded the ball, passed it back to Hill and she scored her second basket of the night. The crowd went crazy -- again.

If thoughts and emotions produce energy and that energy can alter an atmosphere, if the power of smiles and hugs and "good afternoons" and "be wells" can build and build until all that positivity overflows to change the molecules of air within a basketball arena, then that is what happened inside the Cintas Center on Sunday. The building overflowed with positive vibes, and that emotion was infectious. This day was not about basketball. It was not about a game. This was a celebration of life and a community coming together to support one girl and two teams as they banded together to beat up on cancer.

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