'Divine Intervention' Behind WKRC-TV's New Lauren Hill Documentary

Apr 7, 2016

Lauren Hill with WKRC-TV's Brad Johansen
Credit Provided by Brad Johansen

Truth be told, Brad Johansen didn't want to give up his CBS play-by-play career or leave WKRC-TV sports in 2014. But his bosses really wanted him to switch back to news, where he started his career at Channel 12 in 1992.

In a tearful discussion with his wife Colleen, they decided she would return to teaching full-time at Mason Middle School, and Johansen would switch to news so he could "stay at home and put the kids (ages 13 and 8) on the bus."

Soon after he started co-anchoring the 4 p.m. news in September 2014, "the first story that came my way was Lauren Hill," he says.

"The divine intervention, it just makes you shake your head," says Johansen, a devout Christian.

Had he been traveling to CBS assignments every week, Johansen wouldn't have had the time to develop an intimate relationship with Lauren, battling terminal brain cancer, or her parents, Lisa and Brent.

He wouldn't have done the story seen 'round the world on Oct. 13, 2014, about the Mount St. Joseph University freshman from Dearborn County who wanted to play one college basketball game before dying of cancer.

Hill and a friend high-five after the check presentation at MSJ in Nov. 2014.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

And he wouldn't have the hours of unseen archived footage in the new "Play for #22: The Story of Lauren Hill" documentary. It will be screened for sold-out theater audiences in Greendale and Kenwood this weekend before airing commercial free Thursday April 14 (7-8 p.m., Channel 12). The one-year anniversary of her death is Sunday, April 10.

Johansen has only one explanation: The hand of God.

Kevin Barnett, WKRC-TV executive sports producer, told Johansen about Hill after hearing from friend Dan Benjamin, interim basketball coach at Mount St. Joe. "This girl from Lawrenceburg High school had committed to play for the team, and she wanted to play for the team, but she had terminal cancer. She was going to die, but she really wanted to play a game. She's just the sweetest girl,"Johansen recalls.

On Oct. 1, Lauren's 19th birthday, Johansen went to a Mount St. Joseph basketball practice, which ended with a surprise birthday party. His videographer that day couldn't stay long. So Johansen asked Lauren and her parents if he could meet them another day at their home. That was the start of an extraordinary relationship between the Hills, Johansen and Channel 12 photo journalist Eric Gerhardt. Here's Johansen's story:

"We went back a couple days later to her house. Eric could do it. So we met at their house, and spent many hours doing interviews and crying. We took her to Mount St. Joe. That day, we knew we had something special.

"We aired the first story on Oct. 13, 2014, and it went viral -- a million viewers in 24 hours. We knew it was something special, how this person touched so many people so quickly.

"Like a week after we told the story, we had a conversation with Lauren and her mom. We asked them to give us access to everything. We told them, 'It means you tell us when things are going to happen. And we're going to have to be intrusive. We'd be around for the good, the bad and the ugly. If you don't want this, you need to say it now.' "

Hill, her parents, and Keith and Brooke Desserich (far left and right) hand over a check for cancer research to Cincinnati Children's Cancer and Blood Diseases Institute's DIPG registry. The Desserich's created The Cure Starts Now Foundation after their 6-year-old daughter Elena died from a brainstem glioma in 2007.
Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU

Lauren immediately agreed, to the surprise of many.

"Lauren was very much about the mission of letting people know what this is, DIPG, Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma. Lauren very much didn't want to waste one moment. She surprised everybody, including her parents, in the kind of person she turned out to be. She had been a girl in the background most of her life. But she took on this role."

Johansen broadcast her college debut Nov. 2, 2014, on Channel 12 from the sold-out Cintas Center.

"So much happened before that game. It became a national story and an international story. ESPN came in for a week with her before the game. We had so many conversations about this. We said, 'Remember when everybody was all over the game, that everybody is going to go away. But we'll still be with you, and tell the story.'"

To tell the story unlike any other news outlet.

"Ninety percent of what's in the documentary, no one has seen before. We just shot so much with her. There was so much film on the floor. We could have done three hours."

The Greendale and Kenwood screenings were made available to Lauren's friends and supporters of The Cure Starts Now Foundation, which has raised $2.2 million since her story broke 18 months ago.

"There are people – as crazy as it seems – who only know her from our story, but they feel like they know her," Johansen says.

DVDs likely will be available to benefit The Cure Starts Now, he says. The Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville wants the show. Lauren's parents received a standing ovation when presented the For The Love Of The Game award during the NCAA Women's Basketball Championship Tuesday.

Could "Play for #22: The Story of Lauren Hill" also air on ESPN, CBS Sports, NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports or another channel?

"I suppose, if someone presents us with an offer. Nobody has approached us with any plans. The more eyes that get to this, the better," he says.

"I imagine it will be like the first story: Nobody knew what was going to happen when it aired. Hopefully this documentary touches people the way the first story did."