Austin Hatch closed his regular playing career on Monday, going from a rising sophomore guard to a role as an undergraduate student assistant with the Michigan basketball program via a medical scholarship. Somehow this seems trifling, like a decision to switch shirts in the morning or to buy a different brand of snack chips. The ability to bounce a ball and consistently float it through an 18-inch rim didn’t define Hatch before he survived two plane crashes that took his parents, a stepmother and two siblings, or before the work to get back to putting one foot in front of another, let alone perfecting a defensive stance. Considering this moment to be important strikes me as almost reductive. Hatch’s life, even outside the tragedy in it, has been about something more than a sport. This hardly feels like the end of anything.
Instead it's part of a remarkable story, which is why everyone noticed the announcement Hatch and Michigan made via email Monday morning. And this remarkable story surely won’t be diminished by seeing Hatch in a collared shirt and khakis on the Wolverines' bench instead of maize and blue warm-ups. In an Indianapolis hotel ballroom on the day of the national title game earlier this month, Hatch received the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association’s Most Courageous Award. A standing ovation followed him along the short walk from his seat to the podium for an acceptance speech, and it’s safe to assume nobody had Hatch’s capacity to drain a three-pointer in mind as applause filled the room.
“Basketball has always been a huge part of my life,” Hatch said as part of his official announcement Monday. “However, it is what I play, not who I am."
Which is all to say: So Austin Hatch won’t play basketball anymore, at least not all the time. So what.
By now, his ordeal has been thoroughly documented: He survived two plane crashes eight years apart, the first of which took the lives of his mother and two siblings. The second, occurring two weeks after he committed to Michigan in 2011, killed his father and stepmother and left Hatch in a coma for two months. He went from having to retrain his brain and his body to walk to taking the floor five times in a Wolverines uniform last season, to hitting a free throw in an official college basketball game three days before Christmas. The tale requires no embellishment.
But it is now a basketball tale in an arguably ancillary way; the game is a vehicle through which Hatch can express what he has learned and endured. Basketball is relevant because of the stage it provides him, but his message resonates well beyond the boundary lines.
So if we’re searching for the important part of Monday’s news, here it is: As long as he is on the bench, as long as he has a locker stall, Hatch has a stage to deliver that message, to testify about his pursuit of becoming the Uncommon Man his late father insisted he be. That’s in fact how Hatch and Beilein in part contextualized this decision. In a video posted on Michigan’s web site, the Wolverines coach recalled that Hatch initially reminded him of a young Wally Szczerbiak; but when the time came to discuss a distant basketball future during the recruiting process, Hatch informed his future coach he was going to school to be a doctor, not an NBA star.
When the strain of balancing basketball and academics began to wear on Hatch, the next move became self-evident, because of the voice that echoes in Hatch’s memory. “I was once a pretty good athlete,” Hatch said in the school’s video. “Obviously I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t. But it was always academics first. If I didn’t have a 4.0 in school, I wasn’t playing in games. Basketball always came second. If I wasn’t performing in the classroom, (my father) said, you will not play. This decision to forgo my eligibility in games and sort of modify my basketball schedule and modify the demands on me is definitely a decision he would agree with.”
At the risk of infusing some cynicism into this, the fine print of moving to a medical scholarship allows Michigan to offer Hatch’s place to a more able-bodied, high-end prospect. We prefer to imagine this as another bit of selflessness: Hatch loses none of the benefits of being a scholarship athlete, but he can rest easy knowing his spot goes to someone who can do more than stand to the side at practices and hone his free throw technique. If you flinch at his athletic opportunity being taken away, let’s give Hatch a little credit and assume he’s realistic about what he can contribute, physically, to a Big Ten basketball program with designs on winning championships.
Besides, surely there will come a day less than three years from now when the Michigan athletic department works around that medical redshirt fine print, when it makes another roster tweak and moves one of its longtime student assistants to the active roster. It lets him slip on a jersey one more time and take the floor for a Senior Night tip-off. Perhaps he even lofts another free throw as time winds down on that evening, a shot that thousands of expectant eyes follow through the iron.
Before Hatch’s speech at that USBWA luncheon in early April, Beilein offered the crowd an introduction. The Wolverines coach cracked that he expected Hatch would be President in about 20 years. This drew the expected chuckles, but shortly thereafter, it sounded as believable as it was laughable. Hatch came forward and eloquently expressed his personal interpretation of courage, one that transcended the limits of a dictionary definition he recited for the audience.
Courage, Hatch said, was the push to achieve goals in the face of insurmountable obstacles, done in a way that others can respect and admire.
On Monday, Austin Hatch put his playing career aside. He had more important things to do.
“I’m still going to make you run sprints,” Beilein told Hatch, at the end of their video interview.
“I look forward to it,” Hatch said, smiling.
No, this didn’t sound like the end of anything at all.