Regardless of the circumstances, Jalen Hill was able to break out into a huge grin that made those around him feel like everything was going to be okay.
“Just a really good kid, had a great smile,” said Josh Giles, his coach at Corona Centennial High before Hill became the starting forward center at UCLA. “He was a great basketball player, but I just loved him as a person.”
Hill made international headlines ahead of his first collegiate game, becoming part of the Bruins trio involved in a shoplifting in China that resulted in a seasonal suspension. He didn’t apologize, accepted the blame, and became a valued member of the team for nearly four seasons before retiring in spring 2021 due to anxiety and depression.
Even then, Hill sounded like he was about to take another hurdle.
“Now every day it seems like I’m winning because I’m here,” Hill said, unleashing that smile again. “I’m alive and my state of mind has changed tremendously.”
Hill, 22, recently died after going missing in Costa Rica, his family wrote in an Instagram post on Tuesday. Giles confirmed the news to The Times after exchanging text messages with George Hill, Jalen’s father.
“I’m so stunned I don’t even have an emotion right now,” Giles said. “It’s devastating to hear that.”
Hill’s family said in their Instagram post that they could not share any details.
“We know that Jalen has played a role in the lives of so many people,” the family wrote. “We also recognize the role that so many of you have played in his. As we try to navigate this devastating time in our lives, we ask that you allow us time to grieve. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers.”
The 6-foot-10 Hill played his last game for the Bruins on Jan. 30, 2021, going scoreless against Oregon State in 11 minutes. The team announced the next week that he was sitting out a game against city rivals USC due to personal reasons.
Hill never returned as UCLA advanced to the Final Four and later revealed that he had been consumed by anxiety and depression after putting undue pressure on himself to succeed.
“I just think, no, I have to take this break,” Hill told the Times in April 2021 of his decision to leave the team. “It was a difficult decision, but once I knew what I had to do, it wasn’t difficult, I found out, like that helped me.”
Hill, who was an indispensable part of UCLA’s turnaround under coach Mick Cronin, finished his career averaging 6.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while making 54.6% of his shots. Unlike teammate LiAngelo Ball, who left the team in December 2017 after also being implicated in the China fiasco, Hill and Cody Riley stayed to rebuild their reputations.
Appearing on the upswing as he spoke about his struggles, Hill said he has taken measures to help his mental state, such as meditation and being open about his struggles with family and friends.
Giles recalled a thoughtful friend who would walk to his house every school day so they could commute to Centennial with his neighbor Sedrick Barefield, one of Hill’s teammates. The same trio returned home after training.
“When we were driving home, we didn’t want to talk about basketball, so we talked about something else,” Giles said. “Jalen is a curious guy, he asks questions, he’s awesome. Incredible conversations. We would talk about anything – politics, relationships, whatever. There were no boundaries, just open, honest conversations.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/ucla/story/2022-09-20/former-ucla-basketball-jalen-hill-dead Former UCLA forward Jalen Hill has died, his family and high school coach say