LaShae Halsel was playing with friends on a day off from school when she saw a shiny car pull up in front of her house just down the street.
“Two men in uniform got out,” she recalled. “I just stopped. Then I started running to the house.”
By the time her 9-year-old legs got Halsel to the front door, the men were gone and she found her older brother, Donovan, there in tears. The men had come to speak to their mother, but she was at work.
“He said the men were crying. He knew,” Halsel said of her brother. “Him telling me that made me start crying.”
It’s a memory from a decade ago, but it’s still etched in the brain of the University of Kentucky basketball player from Bowling Green.
When the men came back just a short time later, word had spread to family.
“It felt like our living room was packed with people,” Halsel said. “My aunt was holding me.”
The officers asked Susan Halsel if she wanted to discuss it privately.
She declined, saying: “No, I prepared them for this.”
It’s hard to prepare your elementary school kids to learn that their father was gone, taken by a roadside bomb that detonated after he’d exited his nearby vehicle in Baghdad, according to The Associated Press.
Susan urged them to be strong like he was, like she was trying to be.
Army Staff Sgt. Santiago Halsel, father of Donovan and LaShae, husband of Susan, had died at age 32.
“It’s something you don’t forget,” LaShae said.
Nine days later, endless lines of people paid their respects. LaShae’s best friend brought her a stuffed bear with a little hat. Around his neck was a locket with a picture of her dad.
The bear travels everywhere that Halsel does with her Kentucky teammates. It’s like carrying a part of her dad with her.
It turns out Santiago Halsel has been there in other ways, too.
‘It was a happy cry’
LaShae Halsel wasn’t expecting to become a social media sensation in June. In fact, the senior forward confessed that her mind started to wander as Cats Coach Matthew Mitchell was beginning his speech to the team.
“I kind of dazed out a little bit while he was talking — you can see it on my face,” she smiled. “Then he looked straight at me when he said it and I was like, ‘Wow.’”
Halsel had walked onto the team in 2016, shortly after Kentucky had multiple players opt to transfer and the assistant coaching staff went through a complete overhaul.
A former standout at Warren Central, Halsel averaged 9.1 points and 11 rebounds per game as a senior in high school. When her season ended in a district tournament loss, Halsel figured her playing career was over, too.
“I missed it a lot,” Halsel said of basketball. “It was really sad. I was like, ‘I wish I could go practice or something.’”
Halsel had a friend who was a former UK player. She encouraged the forward to at least try out. Halsel made the team and has played sparingly in her two seasons wearing blue and white.
But to the senior, it’s been about more than minutes played and points scored.
“People think basketball is just games and that’s it, but people don’t see the behind the scenes,” she said.
“It’s enough just to have my sisters by my side. That’s something I’m going to have forever.”
It seemed only fitting to have her “sisters” around her on June 25 when she started to zone out as Mitchell spoke.
He reminded the team of how much Halsel contributes daily in practice and as a leader.
Then he told them that he was giving Halsel a scholarship for her final season at Kentucky.
Halsel never expected a basketball scholarship. But she’s grateful for the reward for all of those hours at practice.
She’s especially grateful that it happened this season, when her military scholarship — which covers tuition and books — runs out when she turns 22 in October.
“This helps my mom, too,” Halsel said. “I don’t like putting a lot of stress on her paying for my apartment and stuff. It was something that helped us.”
When she saw video, which was retweeted hundreds of times, Susan Halsel couldn’t help but cry.
“Every person I know cried,” LaShae’s mom said. “But it was a happy cry because you see how happy she is and how happy her teammates were for her.”
For Mitchell, it was about rewarding a player of high character who has become a vocal team leader in practices and in meetings.
“She’s been so valuable in so many ways and really has become one of the main heartbeats on the team,” the head coach said recently, before Kentucky left for its overseas trip to Italy.
The scholarship wasn’t some public relations stunt. Mitchell was uncomfortable that the intimate team moment was even recorded.
“That kid just purely earned it,” he said, saying that she embodies everything the coaches try to teach at UK.
“I was just so happy for her and proud for her and I knew this meant something to her.”
A permanent reminder
Turns out, Santiago Halsel was just around the corner for one of the biggest moments of his daughter’s life.
His is among the thousands of names of Kentucky soldiers who lost their lives in wars that adorn the walls of Memorial Coliseum.
Until a UK staff member pointed it out a day later, LaShae had no idea that her father had been there with her throughout this journey.
“To know he’s at Kentucky, it was something that hit me that I was meant to be here,” Halsel said. “It was like my dad’s way of saying, ‘I knew you could do it. I’ve always believed in you.’”
“To know after the fact that he’s there,” she continued, her voice trailing off as tears crowded her brown eyes.
Not every moment on the basketball team has been easy for Halsel. She isn’t the fastest person on the team or the most skilled.
But on the days when the former walk-on was ready to walk away, she would think about her father and his commitment to everything he loved, including his country.
“Don’t quit now,” she’d tell herself. “This is something he would’ve loved to see you do.”
Even after she learned it was there, Halsel didn’t rush to see her dad’s name on the wall. She wanted her mom to be there, too.
It was a special reunion near the front doors of the historic building.
“I had no idea it was out there,” Susan Halsel said of her husband’s name. “We never come in that way.”
Both mother and daughter are likely to stop by more often now.
“It was kind of like, ‘he’s here,’” Susan said. “We have a little thing within ourselves that we believe he’s with us. And he sometimes does little things that let us know.”
UK in Italy
Tuesday: 12:30 p.m. ET vs. TK Hannover in Florence
Friday: 12:30 p.m. ET vs. Marghera Select in Mestre