JOHN RIORDAN: Emotional days for sports stars and fans in Ohio

The college basketball season in the US started early this past Sunday.

There are still 10 days to go before the long road to March begins for academic institutions across America, but Ohio hosted a one-off, a lower tier women’s basketball game which drew national media attention.

The reason for the changed fixture and the heightened focus from everyone on top of the handful of students and alumni of Mount St Joseph University was Lauren Hill, a young Freshman from Indiana who was achieving her modest dream of stepping onto a college court, any college court.

Even though it was just a Division III game that would normally garner a modest attendance, this season opener between Mount St Joseph and Hiram College — both from Ohio — was moved to the 10,000-seater arena which normally houses the Division I basketball powerhouses from Cincinnati: Xavier University.

Within seconds of the tip-off, 19-year-old Hill received a pass in space in the lane and sunk a routine lay-up.

An opening two-pointer should never cause such a ruckus. The roar of the capacity crowd is stunning even when watching this ostensibly nondescript highlight.

Hill’s team-mates surrounded her as she trotted gingerly away, beaming. The bench cleared in celebration and even opponents wanted to hug her too.

There was a long queue to high five Lauren Hill and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

Hill’s terminal brain cancer means she may not see her team finish the season and with the noticeable effects of the pain she’s in evident for all to see, it would have been highly unlikely she would have been able to line out for the university which awarded her a scholarship had the sport’s authorities not agreed to this powerful gesture: bringing the game forward to the first weekend in November to facilitate everyone’s wish, and especially hers.

The game was well won by Mount St Joseph by the time Hill’s coach, Dan Benjamin, sent her back in the tie with 20 seconds to go. There was still enough on the clock for one final chance to shine and one final outpouring of love and support.

With the defenders under the basket understandably reluctant to tackle the woman of the hour, Hill sunk another basket to perfectly bookend what she would go on to tearfully describe as “the best day I’ve ever had”.

Such was the keen local interest that even the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals scoreboard showed footage of that lay-up during their home win over the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The Bengals are going through their own cancer ordeal: their big defensive tackle Devon Still’s young daughter is battling Stage 4 cancer, a sad situation which has resonated throughout other NFL stadiums.

In a beautiful gesture aimed at solidarity with the basketball game happening in the same city, Still decided to change the wording on the black adhesive strips beneath his eyes from “Leah Strong” to “Lauren Strong” having received the “green light from baby girl”.

And if that doesn’t cause a tug at the heartstrings, consider the next development in the tough life of the little four-year-old — she’ll be seeing her famous dad play tomorrow night in the flesh for the first time since he was drafted by the Bengals two years ago.

They’ll be at home again, taking on divisional and state rivals Cleveland in a vital game. But all the more vital will be little Leah’s ongoing battle: she goes back for another round of radiation on Monday in the hope that her chances of survival rise above 50/50.

On a much happier note, there was another significant Ohio basketball event over the last few days which was overwrought in its own way.

After a four-year exile, LeBron James returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers on a wave of hype and hometown sentimentality fuelled by the clever marketing of the many corporate giants he endorses.

Fully aware that I was falling into their trap, I was taken by what Nike and Beats did anyway, both gritty ads about — respectively — Cleveland and his nearby birthplace Akron.

The former expanded a pre-game huddle to include all Cavaliers fans, waves of people flooding in to welcome their hero back. The latter ad for Beats was a stunning cross-cut montage of the bleakness of Akron and the public housing he grew up in spliced together with footage of LeBron working out at the high school from which he was drafted.

The disembodied voice of his mother, the Hozier soundtrack and the shots of empty fridges and decrepit buildings being torn down all made for a rousing experience.

It helped you to forget there was an expensive pair of headphones forming the sting in the tail but also did well in highlighting LeBron’s bigger plan: regeneration of a once-great state.

* Twitter: JohnWRiordan


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