- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 23, 2008

Billy Hahn reveled in the glow of extending his first NCAA tournament trip since 2001 yesterday. And he couldn’t help but to run into plenty of people who appreciated the West Virginia assistant’s turn of fortune.

Players and reporters, family and fans, they all found their way onto the Billy Bus. And as he began to step off the Verizon Center floor after the Mountaineers upended Duke 73-67 to earn a spot in this week’s West regional in Phoenix, a well-wisher shouted, “You beat Duke like a drum.”

“Yeah,” Hahn roared, flashing a thumbs-up and a toothy grin to yet another old friend from the area.

It was only a dozen miles from where Hahn helped Gary Williams build a national power at Maryland on the power of his scrapping, grinding and hustling on the recruiting trail. And despite all the familiar faces reconnecting with Hahn, he seemed far more than seven years removed from helping the Terrapins reach the Final Four.

Comeback stories are often the backbone of the tournament, and Hahn’s might be the best of them all. He spent three years out of coaching, a stigma unfairly attached to his name because he resigned at La Salle when a women’s basketball player accused him of urging her not to report a purported rape involving one of his players.

The charges were later dropped against the player. Hahn, though, could not get a gig. He was so certain he would get a promised assistant’s job he sold his house in three days. A week later, the coach (who Hahn declined to name) called him to say his administration nixed the deal. The unsaid message was clear: too much baggage.

So Hahn, then employed by the Hoop Group, and his wife, Kathi, lived in an efficiency apartment in Sea Bright, N.J., watching the NCAA tournament this time a year ago. She asked whether he thought they ever would return to the tournament. He was certain of it.

“She said, ‘Honey, it’s going to be three years in June. I don’t think you’re going to get a job,’ ” Hahn recalled. “I said, ‘I don’t want to hear it. I don’t want to hear any negative vibes whatsoever.’ ”

Less than two months later, new West Virginia coach Bob Huggins fired a professional life preserver at Hahn. And as the Mountaineers returned to the Sweet 16 for the third time in four years, Hahn’s wife was there. His daughter, Ashley, was there. His son, Matt, an assistant at Vermont, was there.

And — in case it needs to mentioned — Hahn was there, a hoops junkie immersed in his personal nirvana.

“It was obvious he was a different person without it,” said Matt Hahn, who sat with his family and former Maryland teammate Mike Mardesich. “When you get addicted to something, whatever that may be, and his addiction is hoops, you need to get back. He was not a happy person without basketball.”

Yesterday, he was in his element. During a timeout, he stared down official Ed Hightower moments after Huggins was assessed a technical foul. He was as animated as ever on the sideline, shouting out instructions from the seat closest to the scorer’s table.

Decked out as a basketball Man in Black — mock turtleneck, pants, shoes to go with his trademark slicked back hair — he turned to Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese with a minute to play and shared a laugh.

And at he buzzer, there was unadulterated joy.

“What happened to me is you learn to embrace the moment and cherish the opportunity that you have,” Hahn said. “I’m not near as crazy as I was before because there’s so many things you can’t control that are out of your hands. I cherish every moment. … It’s as happy as I’ve ever been in my life. It’s the best.”

The lone sobering aspect of the last year was learning in the fall his wife had ovarian cancer. It was caught early, and Kathi Hahn has undergone a hysterectomy as well as rounds of chemotherapy on the first Monday and Thursday of each month since November.

Hahn walked his wife to the team bus at halftime of the second game, gently teasing her that she didn’t think they ever would be back.

After playing a meaningful March game against Duke — just like the old days — they’re off to the regionals.

And perhaps even more.

“She just told me right now she’s going to change [her last chemo session] so she can go to Phoenix,” Hahn said. “That’s not the first of April is it? That’s next week. She should be able to go. I don’t know why she has to change it unless she thinks we’re going to the Final Four. Maybe she knows something I don’t know.”

Not that he would complain. He’s back in the game, which is all he ever wanted.

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