Hannah Nihill kept everything out as best she could. Inside those four lines, the Drexel freshman told herself, it’s basketball, just basketball. Maybe her college career started a game late, but here she was, playing against La Salle. Nervous? Sharing a basketball as a point guard doesn’t compare to what she just shared with her little sister, four blocks down the street at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
Hannah’s parents sat at the top of the stands in the Daskalakis Athletic Center, across from Drexel’s bench — the first time in weeks at least one of them wasn’t over at CHOP with Sydney, their 13-year-old, turning 14 next month. They had walked over to the game from the hospital, sat with Hannah’s uncle and grandparents and great aunt and great uncle and girls from the Comets AAU team and half of Drexel Hill. Hannah was starting! Crazy. A week earlier, Drexel’s new point guard was at CHOP on a mission that dwarfed a basketball game.
“I couldn’t even believe she was out on the court,’’ Jen Nihill said later about her oldest daughter.
“We thought she was going to miss a lot longer,’’ Drexel coach Denise Dillon said of the former Cardinal O’Hara High star.
Go back to August 2015, when Sydney Nihill was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Treatment progressed, the little one in the family a smiling fighter from the start, and the news stayed positive until last summer at a routine checkup.
“We were surfing the day before,’’ Brian Nihill, their dad, remembers. “We went in healthy. The numbers had been coming up good.”
They didn’t expect to get the latest numbers that day, so Brian left for work, but Jen called him just a few minutes later.
“They told me not to leave,’’ she told her husband.
He was stuck in West Philadelphia traffic. “I got out on 49th Street. Just ran down to CHOP.”
They had to break the news to Sydney. More treatment.
“I rock bald,’’ Sydney told her parents.
That answer still gets to her dad.
“She’s special,’’ Brian Nihill said. “For some reason, this kid is relentless. She’s 13 going on 30.”
She would need a bone-marrow transplant. Everyone in the family was tested for a match. One of them turned out to be a 10 out of 10.
“I was so happy it was somebody in my family,’’ Sydney Nihill said.
They had all joked it would be Hannah because of her fear of needles. Their brother, Jason, had hoped it would be him, Sydney said. He didn’t fear the needle.
“Ever since I was younger, I would freak out when I had to get a flu shot or something,’’ Hannah said. “Like screaming, crying in the waiting room. Full-on fear.”
This, of course, was different. There was no doubt in Hannah’s mind she was doing it. There also was no doubt she didn’t want to know anything about the procedure. San Diego Padres outfielder Matt Szczur had donated bone marrow when he was at Villanova. He missed 10 Wildcats baseball games, returning three weeks later. A friend contacted him. Would he speak to Hannah? Of course. She passed, preferring to just do it. The procedure was scheduled for Nov. 9, a Thursday.
“I just wanted to go in blind,’’ Hannah said.
In deference to her fear, Hannah was put under anesthesia.
“I was so nervous, for Hannah, more so,’’ their mom said. “I feel like Syd … gets the medical part. Hannah is not my medical person.”
Hannah woke up in recovery. They wheeled her toward Sydney’s room.
“She turned white and passed out in the elevator,’’ Jen Nihill said. “Complete chaotic craziness.”
She woke up again. She was in her sister’s room.
“They kind of plopped her in my room,’’ Sydney said. “We passed out together.”
“Anesthesia did not go well,’’ Hannah said. “My sister, though, she’s a pro.”
Drexel’s season would begin three days later at Penn State. The Dragons were taking the bus up there. Hannah’s first thought: I’m getting on the bus. Nurses at CHOP had briefed the athletic trainer and a team doctor at Drexel, explaining the procedure, saying that when Hannah was up to it, when she felt all right, she would have the green light.
“You’re basically going to feel like you got kicked by a horse,’’ they told her.
“I thought it was a possibility she wouldn’t play until conference’’ games, which meant late December, her coach said.
The schedule said Penn State. Friday, the day after the procedure, there was practice, so Hannah got there just to watch. The team would leave for Happy Valley the next day.
“I was so set on going to Penn State,” Hannah said. “As the day went on, it started to get worse. My back started to feel a little more sore. The next morning, I woke up not feeling great at all. But I was planning on going. I kind of shouldn’t have walked around as much as I did. My immune system was down, and I wasn’t feeling great. But the pain was tolerable.”
“I definitely had to intercede on that front,’’ her mother said. “Obviously, she’s very head strong. Her first game, I kind of put the brakes on.”
Her coach had her foot on the brake, too.
“We told her to not even come,’’ Dillon said. “She’d be so worked up [on the bench]. ‘I can play. I can go.’ ”
Hannah got it. That horse had given a good kick. But the La Salle game, the home opener, was the next Thursday, a week after the procedure.
Like Kyle Lowry
It doesn’t take watching more than a few plays to understand why this 5-foot-3 player is on the court. Her crossover dribble is wicked, her intentions on defense clear. The father of a teammate on her Comets AAU 9-year-old team came over to her during one game and said, “You play like a little Kyle Lowry.”
“Who’s that?’’ Hannah remembers thinking.
The father had coached Lowry at Villanova.
“I love her,’’ Jay Wright said this week about Hannah, immediately making the comparison himself. “She’s Kyle Lowry.”
Hannah’s parents eventually got her up to speed on the tough Philly guard who went on to be an NBA all-star and 2016 U.S. Olympian. “My parents would watch him and say, ‘Jay Wright said you’re him.’ ”
There was athleticism in her family. Her dad played baseball at West Chester. Her brother plays at Bonner.
“When we moved to the neighborhood, Hannah was 3,’’ Jen Nihill said of landing in Drexel Hill and St. Bernadette of Lourdes parish. “It’s funny. We moved into the heart of basketball. Here we have this basketball player.”
Sydney plays basketball for fun. Hannah was either on the backyard court or in the makeshift workout room in the garage. Sydney could always shoot, though. She’ll tell you about the time she took Hannah down in the backyard.
“I can’t steal the ball from her,’’ Sydney said. “But it’s make it, take it. We played to 21. When I make it, and I don’t miss it, I always have the ball.”
Hannah confirms the basic facts.
“I totally let her win,’’ Hannah said with a big smile.
These days, they check in on each other a lot, texting, calling. Sydney is home. “It’s hard with her being trapped at home,’’ Hannah said. She gets home when she can to see her sister.
Even before the procedure, Sydney was at CHOP, four blocks down the street from Drexel. Hannah would go after practice and stay for a couple of hours.
“It kind of gave me relief that they were right down the street,’’ Hannah said. “I’m like, I can go see my mom and my sister after this. It kind of got me through everything. That’s why we were saying I was destined to go here. It worked out perfectly.”
Off and running
Linda Genther was in the stands for the La Salle game. Director of the Comets program, an assistant coach at Academy of Notre Dame, she was Hannah’s coach on that 9-year-old team.
“Her motor on the court is just something to behold,’’ Genther said. “She flies around. She’s like that little gnat you can’t get rid of.”
They’ve seen it at Drexel. Fastbreaks are going fast. There’s a break. Everyone is huffing and puffing. Hannah is just sitting there. A teammate once asked: “You ever get tired?”
“No,’’ Hannah said matter-of-factly.
For the La Salle game, she practiced full-on the day before, so Dillon started her. If she didn’t know everything that was going on, she never would. Less than 70 seconds in, Hannah got by her defender into the lane and drew a foul. She missed the first free throw, made the second. Off and running.
“College is more intense with everything,’’ Hannah said. “I kind of like it better than high school ball because it’s more fast-paced, and that’s more my style of play.”
Her line against La Salle: 27 minutes, 7 shots, 5 made, 1 three-pointer, 5 assists, 1 turnover, 3 steals. Drexel won by 25.
Afterward, everyone tried their best to play it cool. Great game, Hannah.
“The whole time I couldn’t even believe she was out on the court,” her mother said. “One of the greatest moments in my life.”
In the stands, Jen Nihill kept having flashbacks to what happened seven days earlier, four blocks away.
“She potentially saved her sister’s life,’’ Jen Nihill said.
“I think it’s brought us a lot closer,’’ said Sydney, who reports she is feeling good and got a terrific progress report last week after a biopsy. She watches all of her sister’s games. Hannah has only missed that one at Penn State. Going into Friday’s home game against Elon, the Dragons are 14-5, 6-1 in the conference.
All that pales, of course. The big game has already been played, right down the street. Can Hannah put the whole thing into words?
The sisters like to joke how, now that they share bone marrow, they’re so much more alike. Her sister is her best friend, Hannah said. She “would do anything” for her, take any needle.
“Really, there are no words,’’ Hannah said.