Billy Hahn finds new beginning with Huggins and West Virginia

April 03, 2010|By Bob Ford | The Philadelphia Inquirer (MCT)

INDIANAPOLIS -- Billy Hahn still believes in the basketball gods. His faith has been tested, and he had doubts, but the last trace of those doubts finally vanished Friday on the raised basketball court inside Lucas Oil Stadium.

After a nearly three-year exile from coaching following his dismissal by La Salle, and that followed by two years of helping his wife through a battle with ovarian cancer and leukemia, Hahn found himself on the court at the Final Four. Is that good enough? Is that a sign?

"This is crazy," said Hahn, in his third season as an assistant to West Virginia coach Bob Huggins. "I really do believe there are basketball gods for basketball people. It's like we're supposed to win this thing, because Hugs has been thrown under the bus a few times. I've been thrown under a little bit. The basketball gods are looking out for us. So let's go play."

That begins Saturday evening when the national semifinal games are played, starting with feel-good underdog Butler against Michigan State, followed by West Virginia versus the Duke Blue Devils, who are sort of basketball gods themselves.

Hahn, a longtime Maryland assistant, is a hoops lifer, although that professional life was nearly derailed when three players at La Salle were charged with sexual assault in 2004 and Hahn was forced to resign as a result. Two of the players were acquitted, and charges against the third were dropped, but Hahn was gone, bearing the stigma of the incident.

"The hardest thing was to hear all the false information that was out there and not being able to respond, having to be silent," Hahn said. "I was out of the business. I was radioactive, and my wife said, 'You're not going to be able to get back in.' I told her, 'I don't know where or with who, but I'm going to be back.' I have to hear the ball bounce, hear the sneakers on the floor. I can't live without hearing that."

It took three years to get back. He stayed around the game, working for Hoop Group, a recruiting and basketball-camp service. He went to Philly high school games, attended practices of Big Five teams, and waited.

"I had to stay visible. I wasn't going to hide. I hadn't done anything wrong," Hahn said. "Philly opened its doors for me. Jay Wright was tremendous. I was over there almost every day. Fran Dunphy, John Chaney, it was phenomenal. Even though I was an outsider, not a Philly guy, they knew I was a basketball guy."

It is an amazing circle that is completed this weekend. Hahn is an Indiana native whose first coaching job was at Morris Harvey College in Charleston, W.Va., the beginning of a journey that went through Davidson, Rhode Island, Ohio University, Maryland and La Salle before being revived by Huggins at West Virginia.

"Because he has been beaten up a bit in the business, he's about second chances," Hahn said. "One of the big reasons he hired me was because he knew I needed a second chance. I knew I needed a life preserver, and he threw one out to me."

Huggins has had his own problems, particularly during a 16-year stint at Cincinnati, where the Bearcats suffered through one probation for "lack of institutional control" over the players and where he was finally forced out by the school president. Huggins went through one season out of coaching before one season at Kansas State was followed by his return in 2007 to West Virginia, his alma mater.

Hahn caught the professional life preserver thrown by Huggins, but there was no way to prepare for the family crisis that began in early 2008 when Kathi Hahn was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, which led to leukemia. Kathi Hahn lost her hair, much of her eyesight and nearly her life to the diseases and the radical treatments. Now, more than a year after a bone-marrow transplant to fight the leukemia, she doesn't have a cancer cell in her body, and she recently celebrated the mundane occasion of needing a haircut.

"They assembled a team of doctors at the hospital and the first time the team met, I told them, 'If there's anyone on this team that doesn't think we're going to win this battle, you should leave right now. Don't be on this team,'" Hahn said. "'If you have any doubt at all, I don't want you on this team.' Kathi was saying, 'Billy, shush.' But that's how you have to think. That's how you have to believe."

So, here he is at the Final Four. His wife is in the stands. He is back in Indiana, where he grew up dribbling a ball on the rickety, uneven wood floor in the barn at his family's farm. He is coaching again, working in the same state where he began his career 35 years ago, just another former player who couldn't put away the game.

There probably aren't basketball gods. The game is too random and there were too many good coaches, in town for their annual convention, who sat in the stands on Friday and watched the four teams practice, but will never make it to the floor themselves. This basketball life isn't always fair and things don't always even out in the end.

But don't try to convince Billy Hahn of that. Not here. Not this weekend.

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