Northwestern pulls together in time of tragedy

Prior to Saturday's game -- the team's first since sophomore Jordan Hankins took her life on Jan. 9 -- the Northwestern women's basketball team pauses for a moment of silence. Courtesy of Northwestern Athletics

EVANSTON, Ill. -- They came in their largest numbers of the season. Despite the opportunity to slip away from campus for a long weekend, by tipoff Saturday against Indiana, Northwestern students filled the bleachers at either end of Welsh-Ryan Arena in matching seas of white shirts.

They roared when Nia Coffey scored for the Wildcats and did their best to hoodwink Indiana players into shaving seconds off the shot clock unnecessarily. They cheered like college kids. Northwestern coach Joe McKeown said they were worth at least 10 points in a 13-point win.

Yet those bodies could have filled not only the small arena but the larger football stadium next door. They could have spilled onto the streets of this suburb on Lake Michigan. It wouldn't have mattered. No more than it mattered that there were exactly enough chairs on the sideline for the team's players, coaches and staff. Not a single seat went unfilled. All of it was an illusion.

No matter how many were there, Jordan Hankins was not.

Not injured or absent, but gone forever after the 19-year-old sophomore and member of the women's basketball team took her own life in her dorm room Jan. 9.

It is a gut-wrenching irony of suicide that a person who must feel so isolated, so alone in her pain can leave a void so large that not even thousands gathered in her memory begin to fill it.

But they came for the same reasons that Northwestern players spent much of the week together, with captains Coffey, Ashley Deary and Christen Inman opening the housing they share to teammates at all hours. For anyone who didn't want to be alone, didn't want to be in a dorm.

All tried to make some sense of why they were one fewer in number than they should have been.

"Even if we were doing nothing together, we were just together," Inman said of the week for the players. "It was simple stuff. Watching movies. As long as we were one collective body, it didn't matter what we were doing or saying, even if it was silent.

"I think just us being in a room together was our support system."

It is difficult to find the right word for Saturday. Was it a celebration of life? A sharing of sorrow? Was it the first step forward or a momentary diversion from the inescapable present? Was it their way of honoring Hankins? Or given that the players said they took the court only because they felt she would have wanted them to get back to basketball after a midweek postponement at Minnesota, was it her way of releasing them?

There are endless questions. There are too few answers.

The team wore warm-up shirts with Hankins' No. 5 on the back. Sophomore Amber Jamison wore that jersey in the game. After Deary scored on the final play of a first quarter that saw the Wildcats surge to a double-digit lead, when it looked as if she waited too long to make her move but glided past defenders to beat the buzzer, she tapped her chest and pointed skyward.

"We all just really wanted to embody her spirit and her aggressiveness and her confidence," Deary said. "And just play with her swagger, because that's what she would have done. She was that type of player to just go at it. I really wanted to make her proud and just be aggressive like she usually was."

So much of the day was discordant. So many of the words were difficult for an outsider to reconcile with what happened in that dorm room that Monday. Inman and Coffey talked about their late teammate's smile as one they would always remember, how it came so easily. Deary talked about the swagger and infectious confidence on the court.

McKeown recalled a recruiting trip in Indianapolis, how he asked Hankins about a group of kids who called out to her in the hallway of her school. It turned out they were special needs students with whom she volunteered. But for a man whose very presence at Northwestern is in large part due to the environment it offered his autistic son, it was her initial response that stuck with him.

Coach, those are my friends.

The pieces don't make any sense together, any more than they did to her younger brother, Jared, who told the Indianapolis Star that she seemed happy when the family visited her recently.

"We all just really wanted to embody her spirit and her aggressiveness and her confidence. And just play with her swagger because that's what she would have done." Northwestern senior Ashley Deary on returning to the court Saturday

None of it makes sense, which would just mean that this tragedy would be like so many. But in the halting, almost plaintive sorrow in McKeown's voice, in Coffey's bowed head as she fought to offer any words alongside her fellow captains, there was clearly a search for understanding. Playing one basketball game doesn't change that. There are more games ahead, sure. But there are simply more days ahead.

"I think the biggest thing is just listening to them more than anything else," McKeown said. "There's no textbook or playbook on how to handle these things. I've been a head coach for 30-some years, and everything I'm telling you is right out the top of my head right now. I think as we move forward, we'll just deal with it as we go and listen to our players. We have five seniors, so we feel like they're going to tell us what they think the team needs, as much as we tell them what we've got to do here and there. I think we're going to lean on each other."

They'll likely wonder why she felt she couldn't. Although the pain here is local, the issue of mental health on campuses is universal.

Among the students in white shirts bearing Hankins' image was Emmett Gordon, a sophomore on the men's soccer team. He had never been to a women's basketball game, had barely ever been to any basketball game at the school. But one of his friends was close to Hankins and designed the shirts that so many wore to the game. Gordon said he, too, knew Hankins, not as well, but well enough to elicit a greeting whenever their paths crossed on what is a small campus by Big Ten standards. So he showed up early, among students who playfully danced to music in the arena but also traded the extended hugs familiar to condolences and commiseration.

He explained that all student-athletes listen to extensive presentations from the school's counseling and psychological services department, known as CAPS. They are encouraged in such settings and throughout the year to seek out help if they need it, to not be afraid to ask for help.

"There is some resource on every campus in every athletic department that is available for our student-athletes," echoed Indiana coach Teri Moren. "And part of the mission is always to encourage your student-athlete to use those resources. I think that's the tough part."

But for someone who is suffering the kind of inner torment that would lead to suicide, particularly any athlete raised on the near-universal athletic mantra of mind over matter, of willing one more sprint or one more rep, silence might still win out.

"I can see how one would feel like that," Gordon said. "Especially when you're in-season and everything is just kind of crazy. You're practicing every day, you have class, you have practice and you're exhausted and you pass out [from fatigue]."

What led Hankins down another path toward tragedy is as yet unknown. A full answer might be forever unknown. Solace may also be forever elusive for those who knew and loved her.

For all the smiles during the win, the routines of a lifetime of basketball overriding other emotions, the day closed on a different note. As players stood in a tight huddle near the center of the court, the pep band played the alma mater at what sounded like a mournful tempo, an arena still full of fans silent but for the student section singing the words.

The day offered neither resolution nor absolution. Just a basketball game.

"You never know what somebody is going through," Deary said. "Our thoughts and prayers are just with her family. We're just happy that she's now at peace. And we just plan to keep her in our hearts and in our minds forever. Just let her spirit live on in this program and with all of us."

They had each other this past weekend, as a team and as a student body.

But they weren't whole. Not without Jordan Hankins.