Let me set the scene for you real quick: I’m on the bus with my team heading back to Ann Arbor from Columbus.
Route 23 North.
It’s freezing cold out. And super dark.
I’d just dropped 50 against Ohio State. No one at Michigan had ever scored that many points in a game. My phone is buzzing like crazy. My Instagram notifications are going nuts.
I can’t keep up.
I decide I’m just going to put my phone away and take a break. But right before I do, something pops up on my IG that says @kingjames.
I figure it’s this dude I know who has King James as part of his handle, so I don’t think anything of it and put down the phone. A minute or so later, my brother texts me like, “YOOOOOO did you see this????” I click the link and….
At that point, I basically do what anyone would do in those circumstances.
I start freaking out.
I mean really, really freaking out. To the point where my teammates are all like, What is wrooooong with you?
“OH MY GOD, YOU GUYS!!!! LEBRON JAMES JUST SHOUTED ME OUT ON HIS INSTAGRAM!!!!!!!!!”
Now, before I go any further, I should probably just say: I’m not at all the fangirl type. I’m not someone who’s all into celebrities or focuses on fame or whatever. But, like … THIS IS LEBRON JAMES!
So now the whole back of the bus is freaking out.
I figure it’s this dude I know who has King James as part of his handle, so I don’t think anything of it.- Naz Hillmon
I take a pause and walk to the front of the bus where the coaches are, and … they’re kind of freaking out, too. It’s a quieter, more dignified freak out. But they’re blown away, as well.
It almost felt unreal. I was on top of the world.
Then it hit me.
What on earth do I say back to LeBron James?????
That’s seriously a lot of pressure.
Responding to LeBron? It’s not something to be taken lightly. There’s a lot of ways you can mess that up. And then all of a sudden this really cool thing turns into something waaaay less cool.
I wanted to come off like I’d been there before (yeah right!), but also make it clear how thankful and excited that I was. Nothing was coming to me. So I called up my dad.
Another freak out ensued, and then we workshopped it. We went through about 10 different potential responses before settling on this one.
Then I watched in real time as, a few moments later, LeBron posted my reply to his 80 million followers.
I mean, are you kidding me?
It was like a dream. That whole night really was like a dream.
Well, actually … all but one part of it.
That game, my 50 points, LeBron showing me love, everything that resulted in one of the coolest things ever to happen to me….
It all came about in the context of a loss. And not just any loss.
A loss to ... Ohio State.
That 50-point game is almost like a blur to me now. I don’t even remember that much about how it all went down.
The things I do remember are actually kind of weird. What sticks out for me from that day is that my dad called me in the morning and had me order a cake because my mom’s birthday was coming up. I love my mom more than anything, and I was more than happy to place that order, but at that point it was like: I’m trying to get into game mode, Dad! This is the biggest game of the year … and you’re calling me about cake?
Then I remember having a great nap that afternoon, one of my best naps of the year. And I specifically remember Coach Arico coming over to me in pregame, looking me in the eye, and saying, “Score the ball today.”
I had six points in the previous game. She wasn’t having that.
“Score the ball, Naz!”
When things got going, I don’t even remember getting specific buckets. Throughout the whole game, I was mainly just concerned with us as a team cutting into Ohio State’s lead. The one thing I actually do specifically remember from that game happened during one dead ball, when I had this intense feeling come over me like….
Wait, hold up … did you do your French homework?
Don’t ask me why, but that’s what popped into my head. Like, really? French homework? Now?
Then it was like: Yes, of course you did it! But … wait … you’re in the middle of a basketball game here … FOCUS.
When the buzzer sounded, I had no idea I’d scored 50. My teammates had to tell me in the locker room. I was pretty shocked, actually. But, beyond that, the only other feeling I remember is just being really mad about losing to Ohio State.
I’m from Ohio. I won a state title in that building. Losing to OSU there stung.
So before LeBron entered the equation, I was actually having a pretty crummy night overall.
That was our first loss of the season. We had been 10–0. Then we lose in Columbus, and our athletic department shuts down. We have to live with that rivalry defeat for three weeks.
It was the worst.
We all wanted to get back on the court so bad. And for me, as someone who uses basketball to take my mind off of how crazy and difficult things are in the world sometimes, it was especially tough.
Basketball is my escape. So with no basketball, it was like … Now what?
I actually ordered a crochet kit off Amazon and started watching YouTube videos to learn how to knit.
So, I mean … yeah. Things got weird there for a while.
Basketball is my escape. So with no basketball, it was like … Now what?- Naz Hillmon
This season has definitely been one for the books. But I truly believe that we’re at a point now where, as a team, we’re starting to put some things together.
We’re ready for this tournament.
The way I see it, we haven’t been nearly at our best yet. The pause in the middle of the season really impacted us. We’ve had players sit out because of the protocol. And … we’re still pretty good.
Before we got shut down, we were clicking on offense. And now I feel like we’re clicking more on defense. Once we get both of those going, and we have everybody at full strength, we can be a very dangerous team. The toughness and grit that all my teammates have is something that you can’t teach. So when you add that grit into the mix? Who knows how far we can go.
The one thing I can promise you is that with us … you’re never going to have to worry about this team taking anything for granted. We’ve seen firsthand that everything can change at any moment, that this game we love so much can be taken away from us.
So we’ve all — all of us, the players, coaches, the entire staff — just made sure to be fully appreciative of whatever opportunities we have to be together and play games and get better. We’ve also worked hard to keep everyone’s heads up through all the uncertainty, and, maybe more than anything else, we’ve kept each other laughing all season long. Without that, I’m not sure we could’ve made it through.
Off the court, we’re constantly cracking jokes or being silly for no apparent reason. (I’m looking at you two especially, Maddie and Michelle, the Disney crew.) So if you’re having a bad day when you come into the gym, there’s always at least one person in that locker room who will go out of their way to cheer you up and make you smile.
It’s just something we do for each other, and it really is wonderful. Especially in this time where we’re all dealing with some once-in-a-lifetime-type challenges on a daily basis.
We look out for one another. We lift each other up — on the court and off.
Now it’s time for us to have that translate onto the big stage, during the tournament, and I absolutely cannot wait.
When I chose to come to Michigan, I made that decision because I wanted to be part of something exactly like what we’re doing right now. I wanted to be part of a team that could say it won a Big Ten championship, or made it to the Final Four, or accomplished … even more.
Coach Arico had me convinced from the start that we’d get there, and if there’s one person in this world who I wouldn’t doubt, it’s her.
I’m forever thankful that Coach believed in me and has given me the opportunity to play at the greatest university in the world. In my time here she has taught me so much and instilled so much confidence in me. That means the world. More than I could ever get across here. Even just that little comment she made to me before that 50-point game … I truly believe her words that day were a big part of why I was able to score the ball like I did.
As much as she’s a coach, she’s also a mentor, and she’s always been there for me no matter what. So you better believe I’m all in.
I always have been.
Going all the way back to freshman year, when Hallie Thome took me under her wing and taught me what being a Michigan Wolverine was all about, I’ve always believed that we could get to this place.
And now we’re here.
Three seasons, some of the best friendships imaginable, a 50-point performance, a LeBron shout-out, and, yes, one recently avenged loss to Ohio State later and … here we are.
This is going to be so much fun!