Chip off the block

Jason Hasson doesn’t make it back home much these days.

“Probably a few times a year,” Hasson said. “We were back for Thanksgiving. We weren’t able to get out for Christmas because we were in a tournament.”

Basketball might be keeping Hasson away from Altoona more than he’d like, but the sport has been taking him places, figuratively as well as literally.

After a half-dozen years as an assistant at a couple of the top scholastic programs in the nation, Hasson now is in his fourth season as head coach at Pope John XXIII High in Sparta, N.J. There, he has taken a school known more for prowess on the football field and turned it into one of the heavyweights in New Jersey’s always-thriving parochial school ranks – last week the Lions were No. 14 in USA Today’s national rankings, and they also were in the MaxPrep’s top 25.

A 2001 Bishop Guilfoyle graduate and the son of current Altoona Area High School coach Paul Hasson, the younger Hasson got to stop with his team for a workout at the Altoona Area Junior High on Thursday en route to the Burger King Classic tournament at Gannon University in Erie.

“It was great to practice in my dad’s gym,” Hasson said. “He was very excited about it. My wife and I were very excited. I think it was great. Our players like to see him. He comes around sometimes to our practices, so they know him, too. It was nice for the players to get to see him and get some pictures. It was a great experience.”

The elder Hasson felt the same way. Paul Hasson understandably is proud with how things have turned out for his oldest son.

“I knew he wanted to be a coach since he was in the locker room as a little kid. He grew up in a locker room, as did my other son,” said Paul Hasson, whose son, Jonny, is one of his Mountain Lion assistants. “He’s just so knowledgeable. He’s been around such knowledgeable people.”

Also a social studies teacher at Pope John, Jason Hasson cut his coaching teeth as it were getting in the circles of some of the finest minds the game has to offer. In addition to growing up under the same roof with a coach who has won more than 200 games in stints at Bishop Guilfoyle, Tyrone and Altoona, Hasson worked around great coaches – and the great talent they were recruiting – at Five Star Basketball Camps, spent a year with the American Christian powerhouse led by current New Orleans Pelican guard Tyreke Evans and then apprenticed under legendary St. Anthony’s coach Bob Hurley before landing the Pope John job.

He also was a graduate assistant at Manhattanville College for two years.

“He has no hobbies but basketball,” Hurley told Dan Leary of the Sussex County Sports Blog after Hasson was hired at Pope John in April of 2011. “I think this is a great hire for Pope John. I hate to lose Jason because he has been very helpful to the school and the program.

“He has been great with scouting and working with the individual players. He will bring great energy to Pope John and we will miss him.”

Hurley’s intuition was right on target.

“Coach Hasson is very full-on,” Lions senior guard Damien Rance said. “He’s dedicated to us and the program. He’s hard on us. He expects us to work hard every day. He’s hard on us, but he loves us.”

The Lions play an up-tempo style, and Hasson’s roster is oozing with talent this year. All four seniors have Division I scholarship offers, and he has two dynamite junior guards who are expected to join them in a couple of years at the next level. Moustapha Diagne, a 6-foot-9, 240-pound forward, is headed to Syracuse.

“Pope John has been a great experience,” Hasson said. “We were able to take it from basically a football school – no one had ever heard of it for basketball – in four years to a national power. It’s been a really great run, and we hope to continue it.”

Hasson said the time leading up to his arrival at Pope John was great preparation.

“The coach at American Christian was Tony Bergeron. I met him at Five Star and through basketball camps. He’s a really good friend of mine, and he’s really influenced the way I coach,” Hasson said. “I learned a lot from my dad, but he’s never coached the talent I’ve been able to coach. Being with Coach Bergeron, I was able to learn how to coach high-level players, how to deal with Division I coaches. Coach Hurley is just an excellent tactician. And I’ve been able to develop relationships with other great high school coaches in New Jersey, like Kevin Boyle. I have a good relationship with John Calipari. I use a lot of his stuff, too.”

Of course, nothing quite prepares a coach like actually doing it. When Hasson arrived at Pope John, there was a lot of hype. Then the Lions lost their first two games.

“With that first team, it was just so intense just knowing how much there is to do. I’d been assistant for so long,” Hasson said. “The amount of thinking a coach does during a game is unbelievable. Then just running the program, we had to basically start from scratch, everything from team meals to our travel to our Adidas sponsorship or our Reebok sponsorship. It was something that I was kind of expecting, but it was a lot.”

Ironically, although his infatuation with coaching began hanging out watching his dad coach Tyrone’s boys, the younger Hasson’s career took off when injuries derailed his playing career at St. Vincent’s, when he started working with the staff there. He said it’s the little things about coaching that mean the most to him.

“I think it’s great to work with kids and to see them develop over the course of their career,” Hasson said. “That’s what I enjoy most, seeing guys reach their potential.”

Hasson’s coaching potential seems pretty high. He’s only 32, and he has all kinds of connections. It might not be out of a question that he’ll be walking the sidelines on an ESPN televised college game someday.

“I really like Pope John, and I think it’s a great place,” Hasson said. “At the same time, if an opportunity would present itself, as a competitor, as a former athlete, you’re always looking for something that might challenge you. I don’t know what the future holds. But I really like it at Pope John. I think we are building something really special.”