On the 5½-hour bus ride back to campus, he phoned his athletic director to convey the same news and to ask for a meeting in the morning, which was Super Bowl Sunday. He didn’t sleep on the bus, even as Saturday night bled into Sunday morning.
The Hills, married for nearly 21 years, kissed each other as Lew bent his 6-foot-5 frame into the passenger seat. They talked on the ride home. Lew said he was tired. He showered and went to bed. Renee went to wake him around 8:30 a.m.
“It’s something you would never expect,” Renee Hill said in a telephone interview Wednesday, three days after her husband died, “when someone lays down to go to sleep and you go to wake him up the next morning and God has already whispered in his ear — and he couldn’t refuse. God needed him more than we did here on Earth.”
Hill’s death at 55 dealt a devastating blow to the school near the southern tip of Texas, about 20 miles north of the Mexican border, and to the collegiate basketball coaching community. Though a native of Mount Vernon, N.Y., Hill was best known and beloved in the southern Great Plains, having starred at Wichita State in the late 1980s and later serving as an assistant under Lon Kruger at UNLV and Oklahoma. He landed the top job at UTRGV in 2016.
“Lew represented the best of all we could want in our leaders,” Kruger said of his longtime assistant, who helped coach the Sooners to the Final Four in 2016, “and anyone working with young people in any walk.”
But Hill’s death also offered a sobering reminder of the possible health stakes involved in playing sports through a global pandemic.
In January, Hill received two sobering diagnoses. The first came after a nearly year-long search for what was causing chronic fatigue, including multiple trips to Houston to see various specialists. It was, doctors finally told him, a rare bone marrow disorder called amyloid light-chain (AL) amyloidosis, which causes organs and tissues to thicken and eventually lose function.
School officials have not announced a cause of death. But Renee Hill is convinced it was the amyloidosis, not covid-19, that he appeared to have beaten. It was the amyloidosis that sometimes made it difficult for Lew Hill to walk around their block. He was due to begin treatment Monday, the day after he died.
“To the outside world, it’s easy for people to say it was the corona. No, it was not corona. There are people losing their life to corona,” she said. “It’s infuriating to me because people don’t know what he was going through. … His energy was sapping [from the amyloidosis]. It didn’t decrease more with covid.”
Renee Hill spoke to a reporter Wednesday, she said, because she hoped to use her husband’s death to raise awareness for Hill’s condition, which sees 4,500 new cases diagnosed every year, primarily affecting men ages 50-80, according to the Amyloidosis Foundation’s website.
“He’s smiling big knowing we are saving lives,” she said of her husband. “If you have a physical tomorrow, get tested for it. If you’re having bloodwork, have your doctor add that.”
But the proximity of Hill’s coronavirus diagnosis to his sudden death Sunday, plus the revelation of his underlying condition, naturally led those close to him to ponder the what-ifs surrounding his return to the bench and the decision to coach Saturday night’s game.
The Vaqueros were supposed to have played at home that night against Grand Canyon University, but GCU was forced to cancel because of its own coronavirus outbreak. The game at Texas Southern was thrown together Friday, about 30 hours before tip-off, when Texas Southern also had an opponent suddenly cancel because of the virus.
“Knowing the long road and journey he’s been on,” UTRGV Athletic Director Chasse Conque said in an interview, referring to Hill’s year-long search for a diagnosis, “a thousand thoughts go through your head. You run through all those scenarios — everything he’s been going through to better understand why he was so fatigued.”
Hill revealed to Conque the amyloidosis diagnosis Friday, sending Conque immediately to Google to better understand the condition. But he did not inform him of the decision to step away from coaching until the following night, on the bus ride home from Texas Southern.
Despite the painful loss, Conque said, Hill’s first words in that call were, “I had fun tonight.” But that was followed by: “Hey, boss. I’m going to need to step away for little bit and take care of myself.”
Conque said he frequently reminded Hill he didn’t have to be Superman. “If there was anything he needed to do for himself or his family, we’d have his back,” he said. “We were sold on Lew Hill. We wanted him here as long as he wanted to coach here.
“The way he coached, the way he loved, the way he treated those young men of his — there’s a void here today.”
On Feb. 4, Hill called one of his best friends from the driveway outside his house. Rickie Stanley, Hill’s former teammate at Mount Vernon High and now the assistant principal at the school, sensed something was wrong.
“This is my time to be outside,” Hill said from the driveway, according to Stanley’s recollection. “I’ve been stuck in hospitals and in my house, and now I’m just sitting out here in the sun.”
Hill texted Stanley a link for a live stream of Saturday night’s game, and Stanley watched on his computer, the first time he had laid eyes on his friend since November. “He looked like he had lost so much weight,” Stanley said. “I was saying, ‘Gosh, covid did that to him?’ He just had that look, like a guy who had a lost a lot of weight really rapidly. I could see he was sick. But of what, I didn’t know.”
Stanley couldn’t have imagined they would never speak again. “People sometimes embellish how great or how caring or how genuine someone was after they pass away,” Stanley said. “You don’t have to do that with Lew. He really was.”
During the Vaqueros’ 77-75 loss at Texas Southern that night — decided on a tip-in with less than a second remaining — Hill stayed seated for much of the game, but he became animated at times. Late in the first half, he was called for a technical foul for berating a referee. An assistant coach had to restrain Hill from going after the ref.
“Even if he didn’t feel his best — and I don’t know that, I’m just saying that — you want to go out there for your team,” said longtime friend John Cooper, Hill’s former Wichita State teammate and now an assistant coach at SMU. “This business is so competitive. You want to be out there. It’s your livelihood. You tell your guys, ‘You have to be tough and fight through adversity.’
“But this whole covid thing has thrown a wrench into everyone’s life. There are so any unknowns.”
According to his wife, Lew Hill’s decision to coach Saturday was easy. It was deciding to step away from the team immediately afterward that was difficult.
“That probably was one of the hardest decisions we’ve ever had to make,” Renee Hill said. “I tell people all the time: My husband can give you the Xs and Os from the 1970s, but he can’t remember what day the trash goes out. Basketball was his life. He was like a walking basketball encyclopedia. We’d go on vacation, and I’d have to force him: ‘Can I please have a couple hours of undivided attention without your phone?’ He’d be on the beach, scribbling on a napkin he found, drawing up Xs and Os.”
Renee Hill excused herself from the phone call to admire a bouquet of flowers their daughter Elle, age 11, had just received from a classmate. “They’re so beautiful,” she whispered. The Hills also have a 16-year-old son, Lewis Jr., and three adult children. They will be looking to her for strength now, but so will she to them.
“He was not just my husband,” she said. “He was my best friend. My everything. Honestly, I don’t know what I’m going to do without him. I still have two kids to raise, and every time I look at them I see his face.”