Late in basketball practice at Loyola High School this week, Austin Hatch slipped around a 7-foot teammate and hit an up-and-under shot with all the grace and savvy you would expect from a Michigan-bound swingman.
"The celebration caused us to miss about five minutes of practice," coach Jamal Adams said, still beaming at the memory.
Basketball is gradually coming back to Hatch, a 19-year-old straight-A student who spent the past two years re-learning how to breathe, eat, walk and live after surviving a plane crash for the second time in his life.
"The emotional pain is never going to subside," Hatch said Wednesday. "Over time, the way I cope with my loss is going to change."
In June 2011, just 10 days after verbally committing to play for the Wolverines, his father and stepmother were killed in a crash in Charlevoix, Mich., that left him in a coma for roughly eight weeks with a traumatic brain injury.
Incredibly, the Fort Wayne, Ind., native had lived through another fatal plane crash eight years earlier, losing his mother, brother and sister in that tragedy.
Although Hatch realizes he'll never be the same person or the same player, he is determined to thrive in his family's memory. He signed a national letter of intent last week with Michigan, and coach John Beilein has vowed Hatch will be welcome in the program in any role he can play.
"Signing with the University of Michigan has been a goal of mine since I basically woke up from my coma," Hatch said. "Last week, it was kind of surreal to actually see my name on that dotted line. I can't tell you how blessed I feel to be in that position."
Hatch spoke publicly Wednesday for the first time since the second crash, talking clearly and confidently about the next steps in what's likely to be a lifelong recovery.
Hatch moved from Indiana to Southern California to live with his uncle and guardian, Michael Hatch, and to take advantage of superior rehabilitation opportunities.
"Basketball is just a game, and I understand that I have bigger goals in life," Hatch said. "My academics come first. Basketball has always been second for me, but basketball has given me something to shoot for."
Michael Hatch and Adams joined the 6-foot-6 forward in a lecture hall at Loyola, the 148-year-old Jesuit prep school near downtown Los Angeles. Hatch feels comfortable among the weathered brick buildings that lend a distinctly Midwestern flavor to the campus, and he has been practicing with the Cubs since September.
Although Hatch lost almost all of his immediately family, he is with his uncle and grandparents in Los Angeles, and he'll head to Ann Arbor next year with the support of a new extended family at Loyola.
"When you're inches, millimeters away from death, you really understand," he said. "You look at that from a different lens. Every day, the opportunities I have with my family, my friends, all the guys here at Loyola, it's just a great group of people out here."
Hatch averaged 23.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game as a sophomore at Canterbury School in his native Fort Wayne, Ind., attracting immediate attention from major schools. Hatch and his father chose Michigan primarily for its academic reputation, figuring Hatch could follow his father, an anesthesiologist, into medicine.
Beilein and assistant coach Jeff Meyer stuck with Hatch throughout his recovery, speaking frequently and maintain the Wolverines' commitment.
"It's exciting as can be that he's going to have this opportunity to play organized basketball again," Beilein said. "We just have to see how all this develops. ... He makes us appreciate what we have a whole lot more, because this young man is just terrific to talk to, to speak with — to sort of put our lives in perspective sometimes."
Hatch intends to play for Loyola this season, but he won't get back on the court until he's ready to take more than a symbolic step. He could have suited up for Canterbury last year, but declined until he raised his game back to a suitable level.
"I still need to work on my fundamentals," Hatch said. "What was once second nature, as a result of the brain injury, I have to think about stuff on the court that I really shouldn't have to think about. That's just going to take time. I've tried to practice things the right way. I've been working very hard since I could work at anything when I got out of the hospital bed."
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