No matter the circumstances, Jalen Hill could burst into a broad smile that made those around him feel that everything was going to be fine.
“Just a really good boy, had a big smile,” said Josh Giles, his coach at Corona Centennial High before Hill became a starting center forward at UCLA. “He was a great basketball player, but I loved him as a person.”
Hill made international headlines ahead of his first college game, being part of the Bruins trio involved in a shoplifting spree in China that resulted in season-long suspensions. I made no apologies, accepted blame and became a valued member of the team for almost four seasons before retiring in the spring of 2021 due to anxiety and depression.
Even then, Hill sounded like he was about to clear another hurdle.
“Now every day I feel like I’m winning because I’m here,” Hill said, releasing that smile again. “I’m alive and my mental state has changed tremendously.”
Hill, 22, died recently 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 any emotion right now,” Giles said. “Hearing something like that is next level devastating.”
Hill’s family said in their Instagram post that they were unable to share details.
“We know that Jalen has played a role in the lives of so many people,” the family wrote. “We also recognize the role so many of you have played in his. As we try to navigate this devastating time in our lives, we ask that you please give us time to grieve. Keep us in your thoughts. and your prayers.
The 6-foot-10 Hill played his last game with the Bruins on Jan. 1. Dec. 30, 2021, scoreless in 11 minutes against Oregon State. The team announced the following week that he was missing a game against intercity rival USC for personal reasons.
Hill never returned as UCLA advanced to the Final Four, later revealing that he had become plagued by anxiety and depression after putting undue pressure on himself to succeed.
“I’m just like, no, I have to take this break,” Hill told The Times in April 2021 of his decision to leave the team. “It was a tough decision to make, but once I knew what I had to do, it wasn’t hard, as I figured it out, like, this is going to help me.”
An indispensable part of UCLA’s turnaround under coach Mick Cronin, Hill finished his career averaging 6.5 points and 6.4 rebounds per game while shooting 54.6 percent. Unlike teammate LiAngelo Ball, who left the team in December 2017 after also being trapped in the China fiasco, Hill and Cody Riley stayed to rebuild their reputations.
Hill appeared on the rise while talking about his struggles, saying he had taken steps to improve his mental state, such as meditation and being open about his issues with family and friends.
Giles recalled a caring friend who walked home every day from school so they could make the trip to Centennial with neighbor Sedrick Barefield, one of Hill’s teammates. The same trio were heading home after practice.
“When we got 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 great. Amazing conversations. We talked about everything – politics, relationships etc. It felt like nothing was off limits, just open and honest conversations.