Luke Hancock loses inspirational father to cancer
Georgia Dome, near midnight on April 8, 2013. The conversation in the audio file is hard to make out, losing a battle with a blaring song. WEEEEEEE ARE THE CHAMPIONS, MY FRIENDS. AND WEEEEEE'LLLLL ... A few reporters are trying to talk to a man in the front row behind the Louisville bench. He is a retired CPA but has the mustache and the demeanor of an unflappable ex-stock car driver. One of his sons will volunteer that in the old days, dad was fond of tearing down gravel country roads at speeds fast enough to turn his passengers' hair gray.
Now the weathered man is the only one seated. Thousands of other Cardinals fans are up, craning their necks so they can better see the celebration on the raised court. If you don't know better, you might think he's merely overwhelmed. If you have an inkling of what's spreading through his bones, you suspect that this is his daily struggle with pain and fatigue. Just getting to the Final Four from his Roanoke County, Va., home, Bill Hancock says, "was fairly physical." Talking is difficult. He calls over his wife, Van, so she can speak for him. One of the first things Bill had said was, "I'm not the one you want to interview."
But Bill Hancock was undeniably part of the Louisville story. He was an inspirational and painful part that few outside his family knew about until late on April 6, after his youngest son, Luke, had scored 20 points to lead a comeback victory over Wichita State in the Final Four, and then mentioned to a small group of reporters, casually and quietly at the end of an interview, that the performance had been meaningful because his ailing father was there to see it.
All talk about the Cardinals, up until then, was about the gruesome compound fracture Cardinals guard Kevin Ware suffered against Duke during the Elite Eight, and the way he responded to it. Ware was a national celebrity in Atlanta; when he emerged from the locker room after that Wichita State game, on crutches, I overheard teammate Chane Behanan joke, "Kevin Ware for Pope! Pope Kevin Ware for President!" Hancock's immediate response to the injury had been so moving -- he did not want Ware to be alone, so he put a hand on Ware's chest and said a prayer for him, until he came out of shock -- that he had been interviewed about it many times that week, and not once did he bring up his private pain. Hancock did not want his father to feel any public pressure to make the arduous trip to Atlanta.
After missing the first two weekends of the NCAA tournament, Bill made it to the Georgia Dome. It was uncertain if it would be his last chance to see Luke play, but Van worried that might be the case. She kept the nature of Bill's illness under wraps. "It's just so bad," Van said on that post-title game tape, "that I don't want to even say it." One of Luke's half-brothers, Will, said, "He's my dad and I can't get anything out of him. That's just the Virginia in him."
Facts trickled out later that month, in the Roanoke newspaper. Prostate cancer. Diagnosed in 2011. Metastasized through his skeleton in 2012. He was undergoing chemotherapy. Near the end of April, the doctors told him there was nothing left they could do.
On Monday morning, Bill Hancock passed away at the family's Roanoke home. He was 70 years old. Luke had departed four days earlier to prepare for the World University Games trials in Colorado Springs, Colo., and heard the news while en route to the camp, but he and Bill had already spent quality time together. In the final three months of his life he checked off the bucket-list item of seeing Luke play at Madison Square Garden, in the Big East tournament, and then watched him win a national championship in Atlanta. When Luke saw his older brothers the night before the title game against Michigan, they made a promise: "We'll make sure dad gets there."
Bill was in the front row, in an aisle seat. When Luke ran out for warmups, he choked up. He had hoped to catch his father's eye, but Bill was already hanging his head in exhaustion. It wasn't until afterward that they were able to smile at each other -- after Luke had once again served as the catalyst of a Louisville comeback, scoring 22 points and hitting five threes against the Wolverines. Bill was no basketball player, but his advice to Luke had always been, pull the trigger.
"I pulled the trigger, right?" Luke said.
"Yeah, you did," Bill said.
That was their moment. When Van was asked how Luke had managed to shoot so well and remain so unflappable, given the circumstances, she said, "He's like his dad -- very even."
Later on that tape they all stopped to listen to what was happening on the court. CBS' Jim Nantz was emceeing the Cardinals' party. "How 'bout Luke Hancock, ladies and gentlemen," Nantz said. The crowd chanted Luuuuuuuuke as he stepped to the front of the stage. "Guess what? You've just been named the Most Outstanding Player." Of the Final Four. An improbable outcome for a backup guard who had zero Division I offers coming out of high school, before he spent a year at Hargrave Military Academy and caught the eye of George Mason, where he played two seasons before transferring to Louisville in 2011.
Luke had been planning to stay on campus for the early part of the summer, but spent the past five weeks in Roanoke due to Bill's grim, late-April diagnosis. The diagnosis came around the same time Luke and teammate Stephan Van Treese were holding a postseason fundraiser in Louisville. They pledged to shear their NCAA tournament beards, calling it "Shave For Life," in conjunction with a local Relay For Life event. The whole thing was Luke's idea. They received $9,625 in online donations, and it all went to one charity: the American Cancer Society.