Sunday, September 24

Their cancer-stricken daughter just wanted to see snow. The UConn men’s basketball team gave this family so much more.

BUFFALO — When the most devastating news was delivered by doctors last Tuesday, Mario Jimenez turned to his 15-year-old daughter and said, “What do you want to do, Sweetheart? Where do you want to go?”

Months of chemotherapy and radiation and surgery had eradicated the cancer from Aubrien Jimenez’s head but the first post-treatment MRI indicated that it had spread to her back, her hips, maybe into her bones and liver.

This was a very dark time.

“I want to see snow,” Aubrien Jimenez said.

So that’s what happened. Three days later, the Jimenez family left their Bradenton, Florida home and flew to New York City, the plan being to head upstate so Aubrien could watch flakes fall and accumulate.

The trip became so much more, though. Mario Jimenez, a Bridgeport native and lifelong UConn fan who passed that basketball passion to his daughter, dreamed of taking his family to the Huskies’ men’s basketball Big East semifinal game Friday against Villanova at Madison Square Garden.

His heartfelt post on a prominent UConn message board outlining his daughter’s condition made its way to UConn athletic director David Benedict, who called and offered tickets to Friday’s game. The family attended, then spent a night in a cabin deep in the woods of Cooperstown, N.Y., as 8 inches of snow fell, and on Sunday were guests of UConn during an NCAA Selection Show gathering at the Werth Champions Center on campus.

Coach Dan Hurley greeted them at the door. Aubrien, fighting an exceptionally rare form of cancer, was in a wheelchair, essentially immobilized by pain in her back only made slightly manageable by around-the-clock morphine. Hurley immediately began pushing her around the facility.

“Like she was his own kid,” said Mario Jimenez, who attended Bunnell High in Stratford, Class of 2003, but moved to Florida as a teenager. “I was like, why do they care? Why? They’re just great people. This whole UConn weekend, which is what it spontaneously turned out to be, was almost like a Make-A-Wish thing on the fly. It was like the greatest thing that we, as a family, have ever done.”

UConn plays an NCAA Tournament game Thursday night in Buffalo, a wildly important moment in the context of a high-profile basketball program further re-establishing itself. But the team’s recent interactions with the Jimenez Family — the warmth shown by those in and around the program — represent something much more meaningful and impactful. This the real power of college athletics and its people, value that has nothing to do with a ledger sheet or a bracket or winning and losing.

What bliss Aubrien felt entering Madison Square Garden. What a thrill Sunday was. Incredible effort is put forth by families fighting cancer just to feel some normalcy and joy. And sometimes that can be rather easily facilitated by others just opening their ears and hearts and minds and doors. That’s what UConn did.

“Dan was giving us a tour as the show was starting, like it didn’t matter to him,” Mario said. “It meant so much to me, my family, my daughter. Walking out of there, we were on cloud nine.”

The family’s life started turning upside down in December 2020, when Aubrien, a talented softball player at Inspiration Academy, lost her sense of taste and smell. It was initially assumed to be COVID-19. When the symptoms persisted, weeks becoming months, they thought it might be a terrible sinus infection.

Around the five-month mark, with Aubrien’s eyes turning bloodshot, a doctor suggested she be hospitalized immediately. Aubrien was diagnosed with Stage 4 esthesioneuroblastoma, which affects the nasal cavity. Mario said he was told that it affects roughly 1 in 22 million people and that its even rarer for children, with the median age of those diagnosed being 55.

All within the last seven months, Aubrien has persevered through eight rounds of chemotherapy, 30 radiation treatments, and head surgery. During recovery, she developed back pain. Doctors thought it could be nerve damage from aggressive treatments. It was not.

Last Tuesday’s MRI revealed the bleak reality of the situation at a time that could have signaled the optimism of a fresh start. So the family of five — Mario, wife Kimber, their three children, including daughter Eliana, 8, and son, Mario Jr., 6 — headed toward the snow and, unbeknownst to them, into a UConn basketball experience beyond their wildest dreams.

It came together quickly, through the initial care of inspired Boneyard members, right on up to Benedict and the Hurleys.

Before departing Florida, Mario had posted on The Boneyard, “My daughter … is fighting for her life. Diagnosed with stage 4 cancer, we have made the decision to fly to NY from FL on a whim to see if we can have a dream weekend for her, as the doctors believe her case has taken a turn for the worse. I’d love nothing more than to take her to watch the Huskies play and see the snow falling in the NY countryside.”

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