The gap-year road trip that healed an Ivy League hoops star

NEW YORK — She stopped working at the sushi restaurant, laid two mattress pads in the back of her Jeep and drove away from Florida with her new girlfriend, bound for a small town in the Cascade Mountains that looks like Christmas. She brought a basketball only out of habit. Abbey Hsu had to see what else there was. Anywhere else seemed like a good place to start.

This was an impossible couple of years. She tore the anterior cruciate ligament in her right knee near the end of her junior season of high school. On that Valentine’s Day in 2018, she hobbled to a parking lot while others ran from the deadliest mass shooting at a high school in history. A pandemic cut short her freshman year at Columbia, and shortly after her coach sent everyone home, her father got sick. Dr. Alex Hsu became the first medical professional in Florida to die from complications related to COVID-19. It was two days after his youngest daughter’s birthday.

Instead of returning to Columbia in the fall of 2020, with contact athletics canceled, Abbey Hsu stopped. For once. Then she changed directions.

It’s been a long time since she crammed her 5-foot-11 frame into the back of a Jeep to sleep roadside during that trip, taken on a gap year from school. Two weeks of hiking and skiing and hot springs and a visit to that charming Bavarian village named Leavenworth, Wash. So much more to do, she realized then.

She’s now in a film room as a fifth-year senior, with more than 2,000 points behind her and Columbia’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance in sight. She’s also pouring a hydration packet into a water bottle; she’s caught the bug ransacking her team. Felt weird all weekend. She was nauseous when she woke up. But she’s here.

“You just mostly feel lucky,” Hsu says. “You’re still standing today.”

Basketball has been the easy part. After years of whisking five older children from this to that and back, Theresa Hsu decided her two youngest would pick one sport and try to be good at it. As it happened, a cousin in Massachusetts got her picture in the local newspaper, playing hoops for her high school. A copy made its way to the Hsu (pronounced SHOO) household in Parkland, Fla. Abbey, the last of the seven siblings, decided that was cool. She wanted to do that.

So Abbey Hsu started in a rec league where no one kept score. She was maybe 7. “And I loved it,” she says, “even though it was terrible.”

Her station has improved. Her 2,071 career points rank fourth in Ivy League history, and she’s hit a conference-record 363 career 3-pointers. (She set the league single-season mark for 3s with 108 as a sophomore … and then broke it with 112 as a junior.) She’s averaging 20.6 points and 7.1 rebounds in her final season and, on Tuesday, that earned her league player of the year honors. She’s also on watch lists, for the Naismith Trophy and the Ann Meyers Drysdale award, which recognizes the nation’s top shooting guard, and a tall guard with a consistent, mechanically flawless stroke will be at least intriguing to WNBA franchises. “If you were to watch her shoot any random day of the week and come back and watch three months from now, you’d see the same exact shot,” Columbia coach Megan Griffith says.

Columbia, meanwhile, hosts the Ivy League women’s tournament starting Friday with an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament in reach – and a decent chance to earn an at-large spot.

There are happily-ever-afters. And then there is deliverance. “That’s what I came here to do,” Hsu says. “It would become almost fulfillment for me and my career here and then leave a legacy behind. That’s the new standard.”

It’s a stubbornness of purpose. It always has been.

The moment Abbey Hsu felt a tooth loosen as a child, she wiggled it until it was out, so she could get the dollar under her pillow and put it in the drawer where she stashed all her money. She remains proud that the local library recognized her middle-school team for a district championship. Around the same age, she and a friend would spend hours at nearby North Springs Park, waiting obstinately to be chosen for pickup runs with middle-aged dudes. “Even if we weren’t difference-makers,” Hsu says, “I think we definitely earned respect.”

Pursuing results, and getting them, matters. “I always just liked being good at stuff,” she says.

Once upon a time, Hsu grew tired of the youth basketball grind and was considering giving it up for flag football when she was invited to be a guest player for an AAU team competing at a tournament in North Carolina. She performed well enough to get noticed by Dartmouth coaches. Word traveled to her parents, who quickly disseminated it. “With just that little bit of praise, that notoriety, she was getting up at 5 or 6, going to work out,” Theresa Hsu says. “She just got more and more intense. And never looked back.”

She didn’t want to stop even when she was forced to stop. Hsu was a prospect with multiple mid-major Division I opportunities when she went up for a layup late in her junior year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Physicality from opponents was nothing new. But this time, on this shot attempt, she doesn’t think the other player meant anything by it. It’s all semantics, though, when a torn ACL diagnosis arrives. “Basketball was my whole personality,” Abbey Hsu says. “My whole life. So without it for like eight or nine months, I was pretty destroyed.”

It was about two weeks later when she heard strange sounds from the direction of Building 12 on the Stoneman Douglas campus.

Because it was Valentine’s Day, she assumed someone was popping balloons. Then the fire alarm went off. Her teacher instructed everyone to leave class and head for the stairs. I have an elevator pass, Hsu responded flippantly, noting the crutches she was using to get around. She was directed to a stairwell anyway. When she saw her schoolmates running, she thought they were goofing off during a fire drill. She limped to a Walmart parking lot west of campus while the police cars and helicopters arrived.

Eventually, Hsu reached a friend’s house. There, she saw the news on television. A former student took an Uber to Stoneman Douglas, walked into Building 12 with a rifle and opened fire.

The attack lasted six minutes. Seventeen people were killed and another 17 were injured.

“It felt like a movie,” she says. It didn’t feel real even as she and her classmates returned to school after a two-week hiatus to emotional support dogs and staffers handing out roses. She didn’t stop feeling intensely guilty about it – Why not me? Why was I a lucky one? – until she was long removed from it, having transferred to St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale for her senior year and then moving more than 1,200 miles away for college. “I think it just made me realize, be grateful,” Hsu says. “I could still go on the court and play basketball. I still have that chance. I’m still living.”

Despite the ACL tear, Columbia’s interest never waned. “We went all in,” Griffith says. Nor did the Hsus’ interest in using basketball to attend an Ivy League school, scholarship or not. One of Griffith’s first recruiting calls to Abbey Hsu became a four-person conference, with mom and dad on the line, too; the coach immediately understood that all decisions here were family decisions. Alex Hsu never played, but basketball had become something more for him. No one else’s parents sat in the stands as their daughters practiced, silently enjoying the view. Alex Hsu did.

To a teenager, this was so embarrassing. “I was a big brat to him,” Abbey Hsu says. “Looking back, it was so stupid.” Her dad was busy. How he spent his free time was a quiet gift, for him and her.

A simple man, is how Abbey Hsu describes her father. Her favorite memories with him are ordering dim sum and watching television. Usually he was on the couch first, after a long day of work. He always made room for more, though, in every sense. Dr. Alex Hsu gave patients his personal cell number, so they could avoid going through a service. No insurance? Didn’t matter. He took care of his own, and was revered for it. “He was, like, famous,” Theresa Hsu says. “Everywhere we went, they seemed to know him. And we got red carpet treatment, for sure.”

His youngest daughter was a lot like her dad. Hard-working and even-keeled. Always worrying about everyone else. Content with quiet, too. Abbey Hsu’s favorite part of New York is Columbia’s campus, since it walls off the clamor of the city. “I don’t do too well with all the noisiness,” she says. Her dad loved that she was there, though, and playfully pestered Griffith not to leave while his daughter played for the Lions. (Griffith, an alum, assured him she was going nowhere.) The team was on the verge of a postseason bid when the pandemic shut down her first season of college basketball. Like others, Hsu went home with only an abstract concept of what the world was enduring.

Her father, who’d practiced medicine for more than three decades, fell ill soon after.

Alex Hsu was in the ICU when he died on March 24, 2020. No one was allowed by his side.

From afar, Griffith and the Columbia staff made it clear to some players in Florida at the time: Go to Abbey. Talk to her. Immediately. It was all they could do. It was nevertheless unimaginable. “I did anything I could to not think about it,” Abbey Hsu says.

The news spread and found its way to Lia Sammaritano. She was a junior basketball player when Abbey Hsu started at Stoneman Douglas – “She immediately was the best,” Sammaritano recalls – and eventually enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. The two had kept in touch when Abbey wound up at Columbia. They always said they should find a way to connect. It never happened.

In a moment of tragedy, Sammaritano reached out to Abbey Hsu again. They began to talk regularly. They were back in Florida and started hanging out instead of only discussing it. “From the outside, we’re so different,” Sammaritano says. “You’re not going to get much out of her, she’s not super talkative, where I’m a little more extroverted. … We just found this balance.” In May, Hsu decided to take a redshirt and a gap year instead of returning to Columbia. (The Ivy League eventually shut down all sports for 2020-21 anyway.) The idea of a cross-country road trip simmered; Sammaritano and Hsu got caught up in a social media trend of turning vans into mobile living units. Not having a van was a bit of a hangup. But Hsu’s boxy Jeep seemed like a suitable alternative. Poking around for potential stops, Hsu had discovered the charm of Leavenworth, Wash., and thought it could be a good target point. Her mother had moved back to Kansas City the previous August, providing a natural stopover midway.

So in March of 2021, while college basketball tried to figure out how to finish a season in a bubble, Sammaritano quit her job as a receptionist and Hsu left her gig with Bluefin Sushi. And they hit the road.

“The best decision we made,” Sammaritano says. “It was super healing for both of us.”

They visited Moab. They skied in Colorado. They saw hot springs in Idaho. They found their way to Leavenworth. “It feels like you’re in a Christmas story when you’re in there,” Hsu says. The concept of living out of the Jeep gave way to stealing a few nights at hotels. But where Abbey Hsu was? It was less important than where she was headed.

“What really helped me during that year is finding who I was outside (of basketball),” Hsu says. “I found out I liked hiking a lot. I like the outdoors a lot. I could still enjoy life without basketball being there 24-7. That just gave me a little reassurance. I still love basketball, but once the ball stops bouncing, I won’t be lost.”

She’d created a version of herself that could exist with the sport, not because of it. But Abbey Hsu does like to be good at stuff. On the return leg of the road trip, the pair stopped again in Kansas City and Hsu found her way into a gym with a shooting machine. She went to work.

Many months later, near the end of the 2022-23 season, Griffith brought her team together. She asked each player why they believed they could win the program’s first Ivy League championship.

Before Abbey Hsu’s turn came, she thought about her gap year. And all the time after that. And who she was and what she decided she had to do. She found her answer there.

“I know,” she told the group, “because I would shoot so much that my fingers bled.”

Abbey Hsu, left, and Lia Sammaritano crossed the country in Hsu’s Jeep on a “super healing” adventure. (Courtesy of Lia Sammaritano )

February and March are hard. Griffith and her staff check in on their star guard a little more this time of year. A conversation between Griffith and Hsu, diving into the enormity of all of it, is almost a rite of late winter. “You’re like, ‘Are you carrying this on your own too much?’” Columbia’s coach says. “I just try to help her process it. Otherwise, it sits with her.”

Abbey Hsu still doesn’t feel free of the burden Parkland heaped upon her and the hundreds of others who escaped that day. She’s still not sure she fully grieved her father, and she knows there’s no end to that process, anyway.

There’s only moving ahead.

She can identify triggers. She knows how to deal with them better, she says, because she knows herself better. Every good cry is another step.

“If I complain about all the stuff that I’ve been through,” she says, “I’m kind of taking away from the great life I got to live.”

She has ideas for other big trips, including one to Hong Kong, to see where her father grew up. But before that? Maybe she sees where basketball takes her this time, no roadmap required.

(Illustration: Daniel Goldfarb / The Athletic; photos: Vera Nieuwenhuis, Isaiah Vazquez / Getty Images)