No matter the circumstances, Jalen Hill could break out in a wide grin that made those around him feel everything was going to be all right.
“Just a really good kid, had a great smile,” said Josh Giles, his coach at Corona Centennial High before Hill went on to become a starting forward-center at UCLA. “He was a great basketball player, but I just loved him as a person.”
Hill made international headlines before his first college game, becoming part of the trio of Bruins involved in a shoplifting spree in China that led to seasonlong suspensions. He made no excuses, accepting blame and becoming a valued member of the team for nearly four seasons before retiring in the spring of 2021 because of anxiety and depression.
Even then, Hill sounded as if he were on the verge of clearing another hurdle.
“Now every day it just seems like I’m winning because I’m here,” Hill said, unleashing that smile again, “I’m alive and my mental state has changed immensely.”
Hill, 22, died recently after going missing in Costa Rica, his family wrote in an Instagram post 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. “To hear something like this is next-level devastating.”
Hill’s family said in its Instagram post that it was unable to share any details.
“We know Jalen has played a part in the lives of so many people,” the family wrote. “We also acknowledge 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 please give us time to grieve. Keep us in your thoughts and prayers.”
Said UCLA coach Mick Cronin 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 great smile who has left us far too soon.”
The 6-foot-10 Hill played his last game for the Bruins on Jan. 30, 2021, going scoreless in 11 minutes against Oregon State. The team announced the following week that he was sitting out a game against cross-town rival USC for personal reasons.
Hill never returned as UCLA advanced to the Final Four, later revealing that he had become consumed by anxiety and depression after putting excessive pressure on himself to succeed.
“I’m just like, nah, I need 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, like I figured out, like, this is going to help me.”
An indispensable part of UCLA’s turnaround under Cronin, Hill finished his career with averages of 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 ensnared in the China fiasco, Hill and Cody Riley remained to rebuild their reputations.
Hill appeared on the upswing while speaking about his travails, saying he had adopted measures to help his mental state such as meditation and being open about his troubles with family and friends.
Giles recalled a thoughtful friend who would walk to his home every school day so they could make the commute to Centennial along with fellow neighbor Sedrick Barefield, one of Hill’s teammates. The same trio would return home after practices.
“Driving home, we didn’t want to talk about basketball, so we talked about something else,” Giles said. “Jalen’s a curious guy, he asks questions, he’s awesome. Unbelievable conversations. We would talk about everything — politics, relationships, you name it. It was like no holds barred, just open, honest conversations.”