Courage. Love. Passion. The only stats that really count.
Dan Benjamin, women’s basketball head coach at Mount Saint Joseph University (MSJ) and a former Mason coach and substitute teacher, knows this as well as anyone.
Benjamin’s 2014 season took an unexpected turn when freshman forward Lauren Hill joined the team. Hill was diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer after she committed to play basketball at MSJ her senior year in high school. The cancer has proven to be 100 percent fatal, and Hill was given one month to live in September of 2014. Despite these adversities, Hill’s dream was simple: to play in a college basketball game. The NCAA allowed MSJ’s season to start early, and the Lions faced Hiram College on November 2 at Xavier’s Cintas Center. The game had a crowd of 10,250. It sold out in 30 minutes.
The lethal diagnosis wasn’t the only unexpected turn — the cameras that have been cluttering the small gym at MSJ are a new aspect of the team’s practices. Hill’s courage to continue to play the game she loves has found its way onto news channels around the world.
“For the team it’s going from our small little campus (to) nationwide, and now internationally known,” Benjamin said. “I know (Hill) and I personally have gotten phone calls from (media in) Norway, Spain, France, Taiwan, (and) Canada.”
According to Benjamin, MSJ women’s basketball has never received such wide publicity, and the boom in media coverage has posed some unexpected challenges for his team.
“Our team is not used to playing in front of 10,000+ people,” Benjamin said. “We’re usually playing in front of 200 people, if that. So their focus has been challenged. The first couple days when we had cameras in the gym filming us we remained focus and they understood what was at hand.”
The tradition of “The Walk”refers to the Indiana University football team’s game day superstition of walking through the campus toward the stadium, and Benjamin replicated this to familiarize his team with the Cintas Center.
“I told (the team), ‘It doesn’t matter where we go, the cameras aren’t going to set who we are and the cameras aren’t going to take a shot (or) defend you,’” Benjamin said. “I say, ‘Just get in the moment and let yourself be an athlete. Let yourself take over as an athlete and don’t worry about what’s going on in the crowd.’”
Benjamin said he is glad that he can help fulfill Hill’s dream of playing in a collegiate basketball game.
“I don’t know if it’s so much the weight, as it’s more the excitement and the bittersweet knowing that (Hill) can’t compete for more than 40 minutes, yet she is able to take the floor and do the things she wanted to do,” Benjamin said. “(She can) just say, ‘I wanted to play in a game, all I want to do is play in a game and just want to play the game I love and the game I have so much passion for,” Benjamin said.
According to Benjamin, many athletes today want recognition for their accomplishments, but Hill is only looking for the adrenaline rush of playing the sport she loves.
“Everybody nowadays thought of, ‘Hey I need a trophy and I get a trophy for showing up,’’’ Benjamin said. “That’s not (Hill). (Hill) said, ‘I don’t want your trophy, what I want is to compete. I don’t want to know how many points I have…I just want to know did my team win, or did we lose?’ That’s her, and it’s bittersweet knowing that I’ve had the opportunity to give this girl (the experience) to live out a dream, and just to play in a game.”’
According to Benjamin, Hill doesn’t want any special treatment because of the adversities she faces. She is, however, always sure to show her love for her coach and her teammates.
“She wants to be treated like a (teammate), she doesn’t want to be anything special,” Benjamin said. “She won’t let you do anything for her…Everyday when I see her she has to come talk to me. She has to give me a hug before she leaves. We do something where we preach after every practice, we get in our circle before they leave and I tell them I love them.”