Jordan Hill attempting to rise above personal tragedy once more

Tuesday December 13, 2011 12:58 PM

Steep Hill To Climb

Jordan Hill working hard in effort to rise above personal tragedy once more

Jason Friedman

HOUSTON - Jordan Hill had lived in fear of this phone call for years.

Long gone were the days of relative innocence, of children sitting in the shade seeking solace from the stifling, sticky South Carolina summer heat. Life in small town Laurens wasn’t easy. It was, however, simple. It was a life without strangers and ample time for idle hands. For a child, that meant seemingly endless days with little more to do than to hang out and crack jokes with friends, family and neighbors. It meant fun and games and all those delicacies of the south like sweet tea and lemonade. Ultimately, it meant an exceptional closeness of kin forged beneath the fire of that sweltering southern sun.

There were, however, far less utopian realities accompanying life in Laurens. When the town’s children played hide-and-seek, they did so with a tacit understanding that there were some things from which they simply could not hide; things far more sinister than the imaginary monsters kids conjure while lying wide awake in bed at night. Laurens’ poverty rate was sky-high, its crime rate higher still, and both stood lurking around every corner, ready to open their jaws and devour anything and everyone in sight.

Somehow, Jordan Hill managed to elude and escape the beast but he most definitely did not do so unscathed. His mother died of breast cancer when he was three-years-old and his relationship with his father was frequently rocky at best. He bounced around as a child, changing cities, states and caregivers before finally breaking free on his own thanks in large part to basketball, hard work and more than a fair bit of good fortune.

Hill always knew, however, that his friends and family might not be so lucky. While attending college at the University of Arizona, he received a late-night phone call informing him that his brother back home had been shot. His worst fears realized, Hill agonized thousands of miles away while his brother fought for his life in the local hospital’s intensive care unit. And while that story had a happy ending – Jordan’s brother ultimately pulled through and survived – from that point forward Hill felt that receiving such phone calls in the future was not merely probable, but inevitable. Too much trouble surrounded his friends and family. It was only a matter of time before the next call came. Sooner or later, the dark side of Laurens was destined to have its day.

Such foreboding prescience comes standard for those who have seen what people like Jordan have seen and lived what he’s lived. It’s a twisted gift borne of twisted experience. And last Friday night, its haunting, tragic accuracy arrived in the form of yet another phone call from home, this time informing him that his cousin, 33-year-old Yohance ‘Yogi’ Hill, had been murdered.

“I got a call late at night from my sister,” Hill recalls. “My sister doesn’t usually call me that late so I knew something was wrong. I could tell from her voice that she’d been crying and she just told me what happened. I just dropped the phone. I was in shock.

“He was shot multiple times all over his body. Everywhere. I couldn’t believe it. I had seen him at Thanksgiving; we were sitting around just hanging out, having fun and laughing. And I had just talked to him on the phone two days before the incident. He was planning on coming to Houston and chilling with me. He’d never really been out of South Carolina before.

“He definitely wasn’t a perfect guy, I’m going to tell you that right now, but he was a clown, he’d definitely make you laugh. I’m sad to say I knew something like this was going to end up coming but I just didn’t think it was going to come like this. It’s such a heartbreaking situation. Everybody makes mistakes in their lives but people just don’t deserve to die like that. You shouldn’t be able to take somebody’s life, no matter the circumstances or situation.”

Not surprisingly, Hill found sleep nearly impossible to come by upon hearing the news. And when he did sleep, he had nightmares; dreams filled with bullets and blood raining down upon him and his loved ones, leaving nothing behind except pain and the howling sobs of grief-stricken family members.

Basketball obviously takes a signifcant back seat in times such as these. But it does provide Hill with an outlet of sorts as well; a cleansing catharsis for unleashing some of the physical and psychic turmoil that has taken such a toll in recent days. It's also much more than mere escapism; basketball also represents a return to responsibility. For as much as Hill harbors a childlike passion for the sport, he also understands that it is his job. Hill has had to grow up quickly and one of the lessons he has learned along the way is that no matter what transpires – be it triumph or tragedy, joy or pain – life inexorably keeps rolling right along. So no matter the nightmares and no matter the grief, what he doesn’t want to do is wallow.

That’s easier said than done, of course. The pain is still fresh and there are times it still gets the best of him, especially when off the court and alone with his thoughts. But it says something that Hill has been one of the bright lights of training camp so far despite the tumult that rages within. His new head coach has raved about his performance to date; a testament to Hill’s ability to compartmentalize and handle the task at hand – something that hasn’t always come easily to him.

“That praise means a lot, especially coming from a guy like Kevin McHale,” says Hill. “Hearing that come from him was definitely a good feeling. I just want to go out there and help him, help myself and help this team get better.

“I’ve been going through a lot of adversity throughout my life and certainly sometimes I’m the guy that has trouble dealing with it, but I’m going to try my best to go out there and push everything aside and do what I have to do first, then step back and work everything else out after I’m done with work.”

There is still so much more to sort through and so many more feelings left to untangle. For the foreseeable future, the fear of those dreaded late-night phone calls figures only to be heightened. It’s something Hill will have to deal with and face head-on. But this much he knows as well: the only way to ease the pain of the past is to make peace with it and work as hard as he can to ensure a brighter future.

A large piece of Laurens, South Carolina – its heat, its tastes and smells and, yes, its pain and poverty – will always live inside Jordan Hill. It does not, however, define him. He hasn’t just escaped its perils and pitfalls, he has risen above them. And he now understands that the best thing he can do to honor the life of his cousin and everyone else in his hometown is to keep working, keep growing and continue to rise so that his success might lift them too, elevating everyone in an homage to their common struggle and the collective power of perseverance.

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