Whatever the circumstances, Jalen Hill could burst out with a big 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 a starting forward center at UCLA. “He was a great basketball player, but I just loved him as a person.”
Hill made international headlines for his first college game and became part of the trio of Bruins involved in a shoplifting in China that led to all-season suspensions. He made no apologies, took the blame and became a valued member of the team for nearly four seasons before retiring in the spring of 2021 due to anxiety and depression.
Even then, it sounded like Hill was about to take another hurdle.
“Now every day it seems like I’m winning because I’m here,” Hill said, laughing again, “I’m alive and my mental state has changed a lot.”
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 that I don’t even have an emotion right now,” Giles said. “To hear something like that is next level devastating.”
Hill’s family said in her Instagram post that it was unable to share details.
“We know that Jalen has played a part in the lives of so many people,” the family wrote. “We also recognize the part that so many of you have played in him. As we try to navigate this devastating time in our lives, we ask that you please give us time to grieve. Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers. ”
UCLA coach Mick Cronin said in a statement: “The news of Jalen Hill’s passing is heartbreaking. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family at this time. Jalen was a warm-hearted young man with a big smile who left us far too soon.”
The 6-foot-10 Hill played his last game for the Bruins on January 30, 2021, going scoreless against Oregon State in 11 minutes. The team announced the following week that he was sitting out a game against city rivals USC for personal reasons.
Hill never returned as UCLA advanced to the Final Four, later revealing that he was consumed with anxiety and depression after pressured himself to succeed.
“I’m just like, no, I need to take this break,” Hill told The Times in April 2021 of his decision to leave the team. “It was a hard decision to make, but once I knew what to do, it wasn’t hard, as I thought, this is going to help me.”
Hill was an indispensable part of UCLA’s turnaround under Cronin, finishing 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 getting caught up in the China fiasco, Hill and Cody Riley stayed to rebuild their reputation.
Hill appeared during the revival as he spoke of his afflictions and said he had taken steps to help his mental state, such as meditation and being open about his problems with family and friends.
Giles recalled a thoughtful friend who walked to his house every school day so they could commute to Centennial with neighbor Sedrick Barefield, one of Hill’s teammates. The same trio would return home after practices.
“When we drove home, we didn’t want to talk about basketball, so we talked about something else,” Giles said. “Jalen is a curious man, he asks questions, he is great. Incredible conversations. We would talk about everything – politics, relationships, you name it. It was like there were no boundaries, just open, honest conversations.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.