Hancock Carries The Flag and His Father’s Memory in Kazan
By Steve Kelley, USA Team Columnist
KAZAN, Russia – Courage manifests itself in different ways, at different times. It can come in one dramatic act of life-saving heroism. Or it may come subtly, in the course of making a gut-wrenchingly difficult decision.
Luke Hancock, the sharpshooting swingman from Louisville’s national championship team, was among the invitees to the United States’ World University Games tryouts. He was expected to be part of a zone busting group of shooters that would force international teams out of their zone defenses, opening up space in the interior.
Too often in the past, the United States has come to these Games without enough outside firepower. Teams have packed their zones and begged the U.S. to beat them from the perimeter. The U.S. hasn’t. Hancock was going to be part of a different, more dangerous and versatile team.
But on June 24, Hancock’s dad, Bill, died of cancer. It was just days before the Games team would be chosen, days before it would make the long flight from Denver to Kazan. And Hancock had to make a choice no college athlete should have to make: Stay home and mourn his father’s death or push himself past his sadness, honor his father’s request and pay tribute to his dad’s memory by coming to Kazan and playing basketball for his country.
It took courage to come here with the very specific pain Luke Hancock was carrying. It took guts to come halfway around the world to play in the pressure cooker of this very competitive basketball tournament.
“There is an unbelievable maturity he has brought to this team for a man of his age,” assistant coach Frank Martin said, “to be here under such difficult circumstances.”
Hancock’s sacrifice helps explain the importance he and his teammates place on playing for their country. Hancock understands what these Games mean.
And in recognition of Hancock’s commitment, the United States delegation has designated him the flag bearer for Saturday’s Opening Ceremonies. He was stunned when he first was told.
“Why?” he asked.
And when it was explained to him he said, “That’s a pretty cool feeling. It will be a great moment that I’ll be able to bring back with me.”
It is exactly the kind of moment Bill Hancock envisioned when he asked his son to compete for a place at the U.S. tryout camp in Colorado Springs.
“Everybody’s excited when they get an invitation like this, to come play for their country,” Hancock said. “I talked to my dad before I left. We talked about this. This is where he wanted me to be and this is kind of how my family wanted me to go through with it. I thought about not going, just staying home. But my dad made sure that I went. He made sure that I at least tried. It’s been a rough week, but this is where he wanted me to be I guess.
“When I heard I made the team it was a pretty proud moment. But it was also a very tough moment because I couldn’t call home and tell my dad. But my mom (Van) and I had a moment. This has been great for me and my family. It’s kind of lifted everybody up just a little bit.”
Hancock looked down at his blue USA jacket, the tangible proof that he had made this team.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling just to put USA across your chest,” he said. “Even if it was just for tryouts or just for practice. To know that you have the opportunity to wear something that says you’re playing for the U.S. It feels great.”
His teammates understand how difficult it is for Hancock to be here. They’ve offered their support.
“He’s made a great sacrifice to be on the team,” said VCU forward Treveon Graham. “It’s really good to have him on the team. He’s a great player. He’s one of the most vocal guys on the team, so just to have him here is great. We were all pulling for him. We felt he was really strong for going through this. To see him doing what he’s doing now, it’s really good for all of us.”
It was after lunch and before practice Wednesday afternoon. The U.S. team had arrived in Kazan only about seven hours earlier and like all of his teammates, Hancock was as exhausted and he was exhilarated. But sitting in the large, impressive dining hall, watching athletes from all over the globe pass by him, he shook his head.
“I’d heard of the World University Games,” he said. “But I didn’t know it would be like this. It’s pretty overwhelming. I mean this set up right here, this cafeteria setting, is really wild. It’s a pretty amazing, pretty cool setup.”
Hancock, who was Most Outstanding Player in last April’s Final Four, was asked about the influence his father has had on his basketball career. He paused for 30 seconds, bit his lip and then asked if we could return to the question later. At the end of our short interview I asked him again.
“He’s always really supported me without ever trying to force me to do anything,” he said. “He’s always basically supported any decision I wanted to make, whether it was easier for me, or for him or anything like that. He’s been there no matter what the decision was.
“He was the guy who was always showing up two minutes before the game started with a suit on. Just being there. I didn’t really care that he was showing up with a suit on a couple of minutes before tipoff. It was just important to me that he was there. That’s all that mattered. He been at every game he could make, wherever he had to travel, whatever he had to do. I don’t know how many people have told me that the only reason they watch basketball is because of my mom and dad. He’s just always been there for me.”
For instance, Hancock said he wanted to go to a prep school rather than accept the first basketball scholarships he was offered. His father didn’t question the wish or the expense.
“Prep school was an expensive route for me,” he said. “I could have gone to college for free. I did have a couple of places to play, but we ended up paying for prep school (Hargreaves Military Academy), because that’s what I wanted to do. He’s always been there to support me.”
Luke will feel his father’s presence every moment he is at these Games. Whether he is carrying his country’s flag, marching in front of 50,000 people on Saturday night, or draining zone stretching threes in the swelter of a medal round; whether he is wearing his USA gear, walking around the pristine grounds of the Athlete’s Village, or getting dirty, diving for a loose ball in a must-win moment against Canada or Russia.
Halfway around the world, Bill Hancock, probably wearing a suit, will be there where it matters most, in his son’s heart, helping him rise above the sorrow.