Former La Salle coach Billy Hahn's message to college athletes: Don't cheat the game

Billy Hahn played with a No. 1 choice in the NBA draft. He was a backup guard on the most talented team in his alma mater’s history. He coached a No. 1 choice. He was on the staff at two schools that made the Final Four. In his 41 years as a college basketball coach, Hahn, 64, has seen everything and experienced everything — sometimes exhilarating, often agonizing.

Now, retired earlier this year from the staff at West Virginia, Hahn, who generally begins to sweat when he wakes, is bringing his rare brand of passion to campuses around America, telling his story to basketball players and coaches, really anybody in college sports who will listen, a cautionary tale he knows so well because he lived it.

A few hours after the Eagles won their season opener at Washington on Sept. 10, Hahn was in a small classroom at Rider University in Lawrenceville, N.J., directly in the faces of the Broncs players and coaches. He held  back nothing, X-rated surely, but the message reverberated powerfully around the room.

“What’s up, fellas?”

The players didn’t know what to make of this man, and Hahn knew it.

“You guys don’t know who I am.”

They didn’t, of course.

So, Hahn told them.

“I played at the University of Maryland,”’ he said.

Well, he thought he was going to play until John Lucas and Mo Howard were recruited after he got there.

“They told me to have a seat,” Hahn said. ” ‘Little —-, you ain’t playing.’ ”

So, he didn’t play, at least not much. Until his final game, when he put himself in near the end, but that’s another story.

Hahn was a two-year captain. He did score 21 points against Georgetown, but he was never going to be as good as Lucas, the No. 1 choice in the 1975 draft; Howard; or Brad Davis. He played with Tom McMillen and Len Elmore, those teams absolutely the most talented in Maryland history.

“I think about those teams, the good teams that weren’t,” Hahn said.

Maryland was no worse than the third-best team in the country in 1973-74 but didn’t even make the NCAA tournament in the era when conferences got to send only one team.

The message was clear: Nothing is guaranteed.

“All you can do is [mess]  it up,” Hahn said. “You guys are good enough. All you can do is [mess] it up.”

Hahn told them he has coached 26 NBA players, including Joe Smith, the No. 1 pick in 1995. He worked for one Hall of Fame coach (Gary Williams at Maryland, where they made the 2001 Final Four together) and just finished working for another who will get there one day (West Virginia’s Bob Huggins). So he knows how this works.

“I got tired of trying to change knuckleheads around,” Hahn said. “I got frustrated.”

Now that he is out of it, Hahn said, “I don’t miss it one bit.”

He did what he could do. Now, he wants to teach the next generation what to do and what not to do.

“Don’t cheat the game,” Hahn told the Rider team over and over again. “It’s too good.”

“Here’s the hard thing about the game,” Hahn said. “There are five guys on the floor. Guys get selfish. … Why can’t you sacrifice for four or five months? Any idea what might happen? You’ll be heroes. … Only reason it won’t be you guys is you’ll get distracted, get in your way. You know when you [mess]  up. I know your coaching staff. You’ve got great coaches here. You think they’re going to tell you the wrong [stuff]? I’ve had 41 years of dudes like you in my office.”

Make eye contact with everybody, Hahn told the players.

“Your eyes don’t lie,” he said. “You want respect, give respect. You want love, you’ve got to give love. The more you give, the more you get back.”

The players seemed mesmerized by the coach who spoke street, but had the wisdom that only time creates.

“If you don’t think there’s such a thing as the basketball gods, you’re out of your mind,” Hahn told them. “They know who’s getting up shots, who’s chasing …”

Hahn was a head coach at two schools — Ohio University and La Salle. He was fired from the first and had to resign from the second after two of his players were charged with raping a basketball player from another school and a third player was charged with raping a player on the La Salle women’s team. The first two were acquitted at trial, and the charges were dropped against the third player.

Hahn got the dreaded 3 a.m. phone call telling him his players had been arrested. The resolution was years away; the reality, immediate. Hahn was out of a job and toxic, unable to get another one until years later, when Huggins rescued an old friend and brought him to Morgantown.

“I got put on the street, but guess what, the basketball gods take care of you,” Hahn said.

Hahn had barely arrived in West Virginia when his wife, Kathi, was found to have ovarian cancer. The treatments caused her to get leukemia, but, after a bone marrow transplant, she beat that, too. She was in the right place to get help, the Cancer Institute at Ruby Hospital. The basketball gods took them to Morgantown, took them to the help, Hahn said.

“We’re staying there,” Hahn said. “We got sent to West Virginia for a reason. The gods take of you.”

They also punish you, Hahn said

“Don’t put yourself in a bad situation in life,” Hahn said. “Don’t cheat the game. Don’t [mess]  it up. Be gentlemen to everybody on campus.”

Hahn spoke for 45 minutes without a single note. He took questions and explained that six years after he left La Salle in 2004, he was coaching in the Final Four with West Virginia after the Mountaineers upset Kentucky with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins in the East Regional final.

It is not always what happens; it is how you react to what happens.

After Hahn spoke to the team, he walked across campus to the gym, where he spoke with all of Rider’s athletes. The message was toned down, but the onetime Indiana farm boy told them: “A long time ago, I was sitting right where you were sitting.”

He shot his baskets in a barn, and when he arrived in College Park, Md., in 1971, he was “scared to death.”

“You will get knocked down many times in your life,” Hahn told them. “You think it was easy to go home to your family to tell them you got fired. I’m not going to tell you not to drink a beer or smoke a joint. I’m not stupid.”

He was them once, explained he made some really dumb choices, somehow came out the other side and ended up in Morgantown, where the doctors saved his wife’s life.

“You guys give me so much spirit,” Hahn told the athletes. “I feel you guys giving me spirit.”

Coaching basketball is over for Hahn now, but coaching is not. Just since August, he has spoken with the University of Connecticut football team, the Villanova basketball staff, the basketball staff and teams at Texas Tech University and Monmouth University, and the basketball teams at Fairmont University and Concord University in West Virginia.

The message is simple, yet powerful.

“Don’t cheat the game.”