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The Dagger: College Basketball Blog

Two-time plane crash survivor Austin Hatch sinks first shot in his return

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

The most satisfying technical foul of Loyola High School coach Jamal Adams' career came midway through the fourth quarter of the Cubs' 87-59 victory over Sherman Oaks Notre Dame on Wednesday night.

Loyola received it after its entire bench charged onto the floor to mob senior Austin Hatch in celebration of his first basket in a game in nearly three years.

Hatch, a survivor of two deadly plane crashes, has practiced with Loyola since moving from Indiana to Los Angeles in August, but he hadn't felt comfortable playing in a game until Wednesday night's league opener. The 6-foot-7 Michigan signee checked in early in the fourth quarter and buried his first shot four possessions later, a wide-open right-wing 3-pointer set up by two perfect off-ball screens.

"We've hit buzzer beaters and won league championships, but I haven't experienced a better moment on the basketball floor than that," Adams said Thursday. "Everyone was so excited for him. The whole bench was on the floor. The refs had no choice to call a tech for game interruption, but it was worth it. It was unbridled joy. There were parents weeping in the stands, half of our guys were crying. It was an unbelievable moment."

Such jubilation is typically reserved for game-winning buzzer beaters, but anyone familiar with Hatch's comeback story surely understood Loyola's heartfelt reaction.

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 eerily similar 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 stepmother and critically injuring him.

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Austin Hatch poses with his uncle in November (AP)

In addition to sustaining severe head trauma, a punctured lung, fractured ribs and a broken collarbone, Hatch also spent eight weeks in a coma as a result of the swelling in his brain. Doctors were still skeptical he'd ever play basketball again even after he emerged from the coma and gradually regained the ability to talk and walk.

Motivated by the goal of proving his doctors wrong and fulfilling his dream of fulfilling the commitment to Michigan he had made before the second crash, Hatch worked every day with returning to basketball in mind. Everything that was once routine for him became a milestone, from re-learning how to catch a ball or balance on one foot in the weeks after he left the hospital to practicing with his former high school team in Fort Wayne, Ind. in a limited capacity during the 2012-13 season.

Hatch could have played in his first game in Fort Wayne last February when doctors first cleared him to go full speed, but he vetoed the idea since he didn't feel he had sufficient strength, speed or coordination to be worthy of playing time.

"I told my therapists, my doctors and my coach, 'I'm not going to be an asset to my team,'" Hatch said in a press conference in November. "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."

Even after enrolling at Loyola in August after moving from Indiana to his uncle's home in Pasadena, Hatch still didn't want to rush his return to game action. He waited until Loyola's league opener 14 games into the season before assuring Adams he was ready to make his debut.

Adams would love to take credit for calling the play that freed Hatch for his first shot, but the truth is he had little to do with it.

"That was his teammates," Adams said. "The guys on the floor did it. I didn't call anything. My favorite part is the two kids who set the screens, you could have brought the U.S. Army and they weren't going to get to Austin on that shot. They gave him the time to get himself set and he took care of the rest."

The effort was worth it, judging by the response of Hatch's teammates to his first basket.

"Most amazing moment I've ever been apart of," tweeted Loyola guard Max Hazzard.

Added fellow guard Thomas Lapham, "Words, especially in 140 characters, cannot describe how amazing it was to see my brother @ahatch33 make that 3 today. Love you bro."

Perhaps the most telling response was that of Hatch himself. He tweeted, "My three was pretty cool, but, more importantly, we're now 14-0."

In five months at Loyola, Hatch has had a profound impact on his new teammates and coaches.

They've celebrated with him when flashes of his former athleticism return during practice. They've helped him through tough days when his recovery plateaus or his mind isn't as razor sharp. And they've gained perspective from him that there is stuff more important than basketball.

What Adams will remember most from Wednesday night was Hatch's reaction after he sank the shot.

"The guy with the driest eyes was Austin," Adams said. "He had the biggest smile. My favorite part was after he knocked it down, he told me, 'Coach I told you I'm always warm.' In the midst of people hugging and crying, it was business as usual for him."

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