Austin Hatch, survivor of two plane crashes, refuses to quit on basketball dream
Just after Austin Hatch finished a drive to the rim with an acrobatic up-and-under in practice Tuesday, the defenders the Michigan-bound wing had just beaten reacted in an unlikely manner. They celebrated with him.
"Everyone was elated," said Jamal Adams, coach of Loyola High School in Los Angeles. "It was an amazing move, a high Division I basketball move. There was a dog pile on the court. The celebration caused us to miss about five minutes of practice."
It's rare for a basket in practice to inspire such a reaction, but anyone familiar with Hatch's story surely understood the jubilation. The layup served as a reminder of the skill and athleticism Hatch routinely displayed before the second deadly plane crash of his life splintered his family and left him clinging to life.
Eight years after he and his dad walked away from a 2003 crash that killed his mother, 11-year-old sister and 5-year-old brother, Hatch had to cope with another tragedy. His dad was flying the family between its Indiana home and a Michigan summer house in June 2011 when the small, single-engine plane plummeted nose-first into a garage along a residential street north of Charlevoix Municipal Airport, killing Hatch's father and step-mother and critically injuring him.
Not only did Hatch suffer severe head trauma, a punctured lung, fractured ribs and a broken collarbone, but doctors also had to put him in a medically induced coma to control the swelling in his brain. Even after he emerged from the coma eight weeks later and gradually regained the ability to talk and walk, doctors warned him his days of playing basketball at an elite level were likely over.
"Almost as soon as I woke up from the coma, I told people I was going to play basketball again," Hatch said Wednesday at a press conference during which he publicly addressed his recovery for the first time. "There were people who doubted me, but I used that as motivation. I basically just said, 'Thank you for your opinion, but I'm going to prove you wrong.'"
Every day that passes, Hatch moves closer to achieving his goal.
In December 2012, Hatch began participating in drills again at Canterbury High School in Fort Wayne, Ind. In February, Hatch received clearance from doctors to go full speed in practice.
And in August, he moved from Fort Wayne to his uncle's home in Pasadena and enrolled at Los Angeles basketball power Loyola for his senior year with the idea of playing for the Cubs once he feels game-fit later this season.
Hatch's return will be rewarding for his friends and family, but to them basketball won't define his recovery. They remember visiting him in the intensive care unit while he was in a coma and not being certain he'd ever wake up.
"It was scary, especially whenever his intracranial pressure would elevate," said Becky Levi, Hatch's strength and conditioning coach in Fort Wayne. "I don't think people really understood the severity. People would ask me, 'When is he going to play again?' I'd look at them like, 'You do realize he's in a coma. Basketball isn't really the issue right now.'"
When Hatch finally emerged from the coma, basketball still wasn't of importance.
First, Hatch had to cope with the shocking revelation that his father – the man he still refers to as his "best friend, coach, teacher, mentor and No. 1 fan" – had died in the plane crash. Next came the challenge of overcoming an array of physical problems.
Hatch only spoke in a whisper. He required a wheelchair to get around. And initially, he sometimes didn't recognize friends or family members he'd known for years.
The first time Levi visited Hatch at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago after he'd awoken, the kid she'd worked out daily prior to the crash had no idea who she was. Only after Levi returned a second time was he able to mouth the words "strength coach" when asked to identify his visitor.
"I woke up and I had no idea where I was," Hatch said. "I had no idea what year it was or anything. It was almost like I was just born."
Doctors are astounded by the speed in which Hatch has progressed since then, but to him, the first year of his recovery seemed agonizingly slow.
Physical therapy helped improve his walking ability and motor skills. Word searches and crossword puzzles helped him regain his mental acuity. And though he could neither balance on one foot nor catch a ball thrown at him when he returned to Fort Wayne in Oct. 2011, daily workouts throughout the next year helped him eventually rejoin the Canterbury basketball team in a limited capacity.
Hatch's first practice since the crash in Nov. 2012 was an emotional day for his Canterbury teammates.
"When he put on the practice jersey and got back in the gym, I kind of had to stand back, realize what it took for him to get back to that point and admire what he had accomplished," said Hatch's best friend Travis VanHorn, a former Canterbury guard who is now a freshman at Wake Forest. "We weren't necessarily surprised because of the hard work he put in, but the fact that he was there for that practice was just remarkable. It was amazing to see the progress he was making on a week-to-week basis."
It's a testament to Hatch's character that he didn't make his in-game return late in Canterbury's season last February when doctors initially cleared him to play.
Canterbury coach Scott Kreiger had selected a February game and was ready to alert local media outlets, but Hatch decided it was too soon. He still lacked the speed, strength and coordination to be worthy of playing time and he didn't want to take minutes from teammates better-equipped to help Canterbury win.
"I told my therapists, my doctors and my coach, 'I'm not going to be an asset to my team,'" Hatch said. "I don't want to be put in a game just because of who I am and what I've been through. If I'm not going to help the team win basketball games, I don't deserve to be out there."
At some point soon, whether it's at Loyola this year or Michigan next winter, Hatch hopes to progress to the point where playing time would be out of merit rather than sympathy.
When he chose Michigan over Notre Dame, Indiana and Virginia two weeks before the 2011 crash, the 6-foot-6 Hatch appeared to be a perfect fit for John Beilein's system because of his ability to score off the dribble or shoot from the perimeter. He had led Canterbury High to a 17-5 record as a sophomore, tallying 23.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game and shooting 45 percent from behind the arc.
Bursts of his former prowess come more often now than ever before, but he isn't yet the same player Beilein recruited.
"He's a good high school basketball player right now, but he was a great high school basketball player back then," Adams said. "He's getting better every day. Some grainy YouTube videos are my best evidence of who he was before the accident. I see moments when he becomes that guy again and those are becoming more frequent."
Since there is no guarantee Hatch ever becomes the player Beilein envisioned knocking down jump shots in his 3-point happy offense, Hatch will be forever grateful the Michigan coach decided to honor his scholarship. One of his motivations for doing extra work before and after school every day is to reward Beilein's faith in him, even if that ends up being in the role of a team manager or practice player.
Those who know Hatch best insist he's a different person after the second crash. He was always mature for his age, but now he values life more than ever.
"I have been put to the ultimate test of resilience, faith, courage, work ethic, things of that nature," he said. "I'm not sure there is anyone who has been through and survived two plane crashes. I think God had his hand on me."
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