Knights leaving mark off court | Prep sports feature

Newport assistant coach Jeff Hansen looks on during a recent practice.  - Josh Suman, Bellevue Reporter
Newport assistant coach Jeff Hansen looks on during a recent practice.
— image credit: Josh Suman, Bellevue Reporter

When Newport takes the court tonight in the opening round of the 4A KingCo boys basketball tournament, they will do so coming off three straight losses and with their playoff lives on the line.

But after a season around individuals with their actual lives on the line, the pressure should be manageable.

Being part of a great community

As a Newport alum himself, Haizlip has more than a working knowledge of the dynamics his players face in school and their home lives. For nearly all the players in his program, that means a stable upbringing in a safe community.

For Haizlip, it presents an opportunity to show them a new perspective on the neighborhood they call home.

"There are people out there not as fortunate," Haizlip said. "When we think we have it hard, we don't have it that hard."

That message sunk in loud and clear earlier in the season when Haizlip took his team to Andrew's Glen, an affordable housing community that serves several military veterans and happens to be located directly across the street from Newport. Players and coaches shared a meal with residents and more importantly, shared in one another's life experiences.

"I think every one of us learned something about underprivileged people and what we can do to make an impact on their lives," senior Billy Sahlinger said. "We wouldn't be here if it wasn't for other people so it's time for us to give back as well."

Haizlip said the initial trepidation wore off once the residents arrived and his players began to implement the motto he has imparted on them throughout his time at Newport: respect everyone.

"You never know when the tables will turn," junior Isaac Dotson said. "We're extremely fortunate to be out here playing, living in a great community and going to a great school."

Dotson said he spent much of the evening talking with a resident who identified himself as "Alonzo Evening". Hearing the man's tales of rising through life's hardships through spirituality left a lasting impression on Dotson, who is widely considered one of the top football prospects in the state for the class of 2013.

"He pretty much laid it all out there," Dotson said. "It was really inspiring to hear what he had to say and definitely made me more thankful."

A lifelong underdog

Jeff Hansen can't see himself coaching anywhere else.

A 1993 graduate of Newport, Hansen was good friends with one of Haizlip's brothers during his youth and has known the head coach's family for decades.

In 2004, at the age of 28, Hansen was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. He was told he would eventually need a transplant and had a pacemaker installed in the interim.

The next two and a half years were full of prescription medications to mitigate the heart trouble and learning to adapt to a lifestyle drastically different from the physical, active one Hansen had known before. Eventually, the disease began to outrace the medication and in 2006, Hansen underwent a heart transplant.

"I was doing great for about three years," Hansen said. "And then they did some routine blood tests and found out my kidneys were going south."

So in 2010, Hansen was again dealing with a life-threatening illness. This time it was Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, the same disease that forced NBA superstar Alonzo Mourning into retirement.

"With that disease, it's a pretty fast decline," Hansen said. "Mine was worse because of all the medication I was taking for my heart."

The Newport assistant has been on kidney dialysis since the diagnosis and is hopeful a transplant is in the near future. After a handful of others were unable to donate because of their own medical problems or other physical factors, Hansen has found a match in his sister, who he said is nearly through the process of donating the organ.

Taking care of family

Like many prep programs around the state and country, the Newport hoops team prides itself on considering one another family.

But with the inspirational Hansen on hand and a head coach who is dedicated to making his players part of the communities beyond their contributions on the court, the Knights have given it a face.

"Some of the stories we've listened to, its real," Dotson said. "Getting out in the community and actually talking to people that have experienced those setbacks and being around coach is a testament to that."

Newport players were not made aware of Hansen's precarious medical state until late in the 2010-11 season and due to his demeanor in the gym, it came as quite a shock.

"It hit everyone pretty hard," Sahlinger said. "When you're out here with him on the court you don't notice it. He never makes an excuse."

Hansen said he never has to put on a brave face for his players as a facade, instead drawing a considerable amount of tangible energy from being around the program he grew up with.

"I don't know if it's the adrenaline of being around these guys or basketball or being in the gym, I used to play in," Hansen said. "It flips a switch for me. I don't feel good most of the time but when I come here, I feel great. I look forward to it every day."

When the postseason opens for the Knights tonight at Garfield, Hansen will be where he has been for the previous two seasons, on the sideline.

From heart disease patient to heart transplant survivor, from "a pretty skinny kid" on the Newport roster in the 90s to a respected coach that both players and peers look to for inspiration.

Sahlinger, Dotson and Haizlip all said Hansen has given them a new appreciation for the over-recited sports meme of "play each game like it's your last."

If the kidney transplant from his sister falls through, Hansen said he will simply resume his place on the waiting list and look eagerly to the day he can get back on the court himself. The disease has squeezed out his ability to be active or participate in anything where physical contact is a possibility.

But there is no chance Hansen is giving up now.

"I've learned to just deal with stuff the best you can and not to dwell on it," Hansen said. "That's another reason I like coming here. It takes my mind off of the other stuff."

And for Newport players, it's just another way to take care of the family.


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