Friday, March 19, 2010
Billy Hahn, Matt Hahn at the center of a very happy family reunion in NCAA tournament
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Only four people understand what the past five years have been like for the Hahn family, and they will all be here on Friday. That, within itself, is an achievement.
"Five years ago, after everything that happened, I never would have fathomed this," said West Virginia assistant coach Billy Hahn, a former Maryland assistant. "I never would have bet any money that this would happen."
Hahn was once a basketball pariah following a controversial exit after coaching La Salle from 2001 to 2004. His wife, Kathi, is healthy enough to travel after overcoming ovarian cancer in June 2008 and recovering from a bone marrow transplant following a leukemia diagnosis two months later.
Their son, Vermont assistant coach Matt Hahn, is blossoming on his own after spending his basketball career with his father -- first as a player at Maryland, and then as an assistant at La Salle. And their daughter, Ashley, is a teacher at Galway Elementary School in Silver Spring; she held the family together while Kathi underwent treatment and Billy and Matt coached. Ashley planned to take the first flight to Buffalo out of Baltimore on Friday morning.
Both West Virginia and Vermont reached the NCAA tournament. They could have gone to any of eight destinations, but they were both sent to Buffalo. They could have been timed to play back-to-back, which would have been taxing for Kathi, who becomes fatigued. Instead, the second-seeded Mountaineers play No. 15 Morgan State at 12:15 p.m. on Friday, while the 16th-seeded Catamounts face No. 1 seed Syracuse at 9:40 p.m.
Kathi and Ashley can both go to the same site, wear blue and gold at noon and green and gold in the evening. The Hahns can come together in the same place, united by basketball and family and second chances.
"It could not have worked out better for us to get them both in the same spot," Kathi said. "It's just a miracle."
Kathi would know.
Both Billy and Kathi are on their second lease in life on entirely different levels. Billy was in the process of rebuilding the program at La Salle when three of his players were accused of sexual assault. Although two were acquitted and charges were dropped against the third, Hahn was forced to resign and the stigma kept schools from hiring him.
He finally received an opportunity at West Virginia in 2007. One year into Billy's tenure at West Virginia, Kathi learned she had ovarian cancer. When she overcame that, the family celebrated, but the high was short-lived. She learned she had leukemia in August 2008. On Feb. 6, 2009, she received a bone marrow transplant and has been recovering since.
Billy and Matt kept coaching. Ashley took a leave from her job and moved to Morgantown, W. Va., to care for Kathi, only getting back to Maryland once a month to see her fiance.
The hardest part for her was "knowing that I was the daughter taking care of my mom. I'm so used to her taking care of me."
Billy called her "the rock" of the family.
"It's really just too hard to explain to anybody what [Kathi's] been through, and unless you're there day in and day out basis, no one could really explain . . . what [Ashley] did and what [Ashley] went through and what [Ashley] sacrificed," Billy said.
"If we weren't a close family, it could have really destroyed us," Kathi said. "But we've always been very close."
That is especially the case with Billy and Matt, who consider each other best friends. Kathi said they're the same person. They talk every day, and have an esoteric empathy rare between a father and son. A lost recruit, a zone to attack, another road trip -- it is all part of the same language.
"I had so many people through the years come up to me and say: 'How do you have that relationship with your son? How do you do that?' " Billy said.
Growing up, Matt was always Billy's kid. He remembers being teased in school when Georgetown thrived and Maryland was beginning to rebuild under Coach Gary Williams, and he experienced the excitement of watching the Terrapins when they returned to national prominence. But Matt embraced this label, calling it a "badge of honor."
He played at Maryland from 1996 to 2000 while his father was an assistant coach, and joined his father's staff when Billy coached La Salle. He said he can never shake the label as Billy's son, but after five years at Vermont, he's at least carving his own niche -- even though among the veteran grinders on the recruiting trail, he's still "Matty Hahn."
"I'm beginning to establish my own identity, and I think I had to get out from under his wings to do it," Matt said. "But I've been able to do it from the lessons I learned from being his son, working for him, playing for him. I'm starting to take what he taught me and I observed and apply it to my job here."
Matt said he works even harder after witnessing when his mother endured. Whenever Billy complains, he stops himself and thinks about Kathi's fight.
When Kathi spoke about the past five years, she emphasized that the family has made it out on the other side. Billy fought tears, crediting the "basketball gods" for looking over the family and making a weekend in Buffalo that existed only in their dreams a reality.
"I've always had faith in the family and in the principles and everything we're all about," Matt said. "But I can tell you now that it's here, it's a dream come true."