Austin Hatch made his long-awaited return to play basketball in front of a crowd late last spring. Most people missed it. It was a May event called “Dribbling for the Dominican,” a 3-on-3 tournament staged by Canterbury High School to raise money for its student trip to the Dominican Republic, an event centered around helping the less fortunate with housing and other needs.
Hatch called basketball friends V.J. Beachem, now a freshman at Notre Dame, and Clay Yeo, now a freshman at Valparaiso, to be on his team.
It was just like old times.
“It was a great time,” Beachem said. “Me and Austin have been friends since middle school; that was really when our relationship was the strongest. We hadn't been in touch as much after that. But he called and asked if I wanted to play and I said, 'Of course!' It was a lot of fun.”
There was a decent-sized crowd, Beachem said.
Some of the questions about whether Hatch would be able to play basketball again, two years after life-threatening injuries suffered in a plane crash, began to be answered, even if relatively few people witnessed it.
“I think he'll be able to get his game back one day. It's definitely coming along,” Beachem said. “I could see spurts of it. I'd think, 'That was the old Austin.' He was definitely having a lot of fun. And he's still competitive. I love playing with him.”
Long journey back
Hatch's quest to return to the basketball court after the unfathomable struggle he's been through has been played out primarily in private.
That's the choice of Hatch and his family. He politely declined to be interviewed for this story.
A glimpse back into his final year at Canterbury shows Hatch was closer to playing in a game than most people realized. Canterbury officials were ready to call ESPN with news of his return. Canterbury's 700-seat gymnasium might have burst.
Hatch ultimately chose not to play last season, for reasons that reflect his unselfish nature.
Hatch's physical rehabilitation has been remarkable over the two years since the June 2011 plane crash that killed his father, Stephen, and stepmother, Kim.
Austin Hatch suffered a head injury, punctured lung, broken ribs and broken collarbone and had to spend weeks in a medically induced coma.
It was the second plane crash Hatch has survived. He and his father survived a 2003 crash that killed his mother, Julie, and siblings, Lindsay and Ian.
Austin Hatch now lives with his uncle's family in California, studying and preparing to play basketball at Los Angeles Loyola High School.
“(His recovery) is not miraculous, because he's completely responsible for it,” former Canterbury teammate Chase Moyle said. “I remember when he couldn't walk and now he's doing everything. There was a time they didn't think he would even live. It's incredible, but at the same time, it's completely deserved. I don't think anyone wanted it as much as Austin did.”
Scott Kreiger, who took over as boys basketball coach at Canterbury after building a Class A girls powerhouse, saw Hatch's progress on a daily basis last season.
Hatch practiced with the team, wearing protective headgear as he worked his way back. He progressed over the course of the season from drill work to one-on-one work, to two-on-two, to five-on-five.
Hatch was cleared medically to return to game action, Kreiger said.
“It was down to about the last three weeks of the season and he was at the point where we felt he was capable of doing some things to help us,” Kreiger said. “We thought if we are going to deal with the crush that is really going to come when people find out he's going to play again, we'd probably better do it now than to wait until closer to the tournament when it had the potential to be a distraction.”
A plan in the works
Kreiger and his coaches thought the best time for Hatch's return would be at home against Bishop Luers in early February.
They sat down with Hatch to talk to him about the plans to put him back on the court.
“As soon as he realized what was going on, he spoke up and said, 'I appreciate what everybody's doing, but I'm not ready to play,'” Kreiger said. “We were dumbfounded. Here it is, his goal since he came out of the coma to get back on the court, and he's the one who says, 'I'm not ready.'”
Then Kreiger listened to Hatch's reasoning.
The coach was reminded what a unique young man sat in front of him.
“He said, 'I'm not ready to play because I'm not good enough,'” Kreiger said. “'If I went out there right now, I'm not any better than the guys that are out there, guys who've been out there all year. If I'm not good enough to go out there and win that spot, I don't belong out there.'
“You might say that's a pride thing,” Kreiger said. “That's an Austin thing. He's not going to take someone else's spot who has earned that spot just because 'I'm Austin Hatch.'”
Canterbury Athletic Director Ken Harkenrider knew there would have been tons of interest from fans and media wanting to see Hatch's return. The list of those pulling for him to play basketball again runs across the nation.
This is a young man who, after all, has survived two plane crashes. He's lost his mother, father, stepmother and two siblings in those crashes. Few can even imagine such a burden.
Basketball has been a motivating factor, something to strive for as he worked his way back to health. He verbally committed to the University of Michigan after his sophomore year, when he was The News-Sentinel's Player of the Year.
“He's the hardest worker I've ever seen,” Moyle said. “He spends two hours a day working out, two hours every day at basketball practice and then shoots at the gym. He never takes a day off.”
Thinking of others
Last February, Kreiger's team was 9-4 at the time of the decision on Hatch returning. The Cavaliers would finish 15-9 and win a sectional title. They had a good team. Kreiger said he wasn't trying to give Hatch a chance to play just for the sake of playing.
“We watched him play (in practice),” Kreiger said. “He was doing things that would have been useful to us. He's a big, strong kid and we didn't have a lot of size. I said, 'Aus, seriously?' but that was the end of the conversation. So the next conversation was, 'So, when do you play?' We were concerned with having a controlled environment.”
Hatch was worried about his teammates.
“He's concerned about the guys' feelings playing in front of him,” Harkenrider said. “I guess as he's taken each step along the way, he's continued to worry about the right thing.”
Hatch spent the rest of last season practicing with Canterbury and friends such as Moyle, now a student at Duke University and Trent Van Horn, now at Wake Forest. Hatch remained a loyal teammate and friend. He kept working on basketball.
“It would have been great for him to play, but tough at the same time,” Moyle said. “It's bittersweet that he didn't (play last year), but at the end, it was just great to have him on the bench, practicing and contributing that way.”
After the season, Hatch decided to move to Los Angeles and live with his uncle, aunt and cousins, with plans to play for Loyola High, a high-profile program with other NCAA Division I recruits. Moyle and other friends text and talk with him regularly. Hatch seems to be enjoying his new team and the challenge of competition, Moyle said.
Michigan coach John Beilein declined to comment on Hatch's scholarship situation for next year when asked by The News-Sentinel. It's been reported in the past that Michigan intends to welcome Hatch as part of the team when he enrolls in the fall of 2014.
At some point, Hatch will take the floor for Loyola this winter. Chances are, there will be heavy media coverage.
Kreiger said he understands the interest in Hatch and his career, even though no one can understand fully what he's been through.
“Tell me where, anywhere, this has happened before?” Kreiger said. “Here, he's losing his whole family and the biggest thing in a lot of people's mind is when is he going to play basketball again?
“I think that was the thing that kept him grounded. Basketball drove him, that was his identity,” Kreiger said. “But at the same time he could walk away from it and know there are a lot bigger things than a basketball game or missing a couple free throws.”
Before Hatch moved to Los Angeles this summer, he stopped by to talk to Kreiger and pulled out his phone to show Kreiger a video.
The video was of Hatch dunking at Spiece Fieldhouse.
“He said, 'I can't imagine how good it's going to feel to get those first points (in an official game),'” Kreiger said. “I told him, 'I can't imagine, either, but I bet there's going to be a whole lot of people who feel just about as good as you do when it happens.'”