To an Athlete Dying Young
Another March Madness is over. We saw a few Davids slay some Goliaths along the way (nice job, Dayton!), but the N.C.A.A. Men’s Basketball Final Four this year remained the home of perennial powerhouses. Not since Villanova knocked off Georgetown almost 30 years ago has a true long shot taken home the title.
It has been almost as long since the most thrilling, inspiring and emotionally wrenching run of all time in the N.C.A.A. tourney, that of the 1990 Loyola Marymount Lions.
I was a true believer in those days but not yet a student at L.M.U., a teenager who listened to their games on KXLU-FM in my parents’ living room, following the breathless announcers who could barely keep up with L.M.U.’s fast-break style. I had other reasons to cheer for L.M.U.—three of my siblings were undergraduates at the time, and four more of us would follow in the coming years—but my real reason was simple: there was no more exciting team on earth.
Paul Westhead, former head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, had installed a system that privileged speed and scoring above all else. Typical offensive plays resulted in a shot within seven seconds. “See How They Run at Loyola Marymount” read a New York Times feature on the Lions that year, and run they did, averaging 122 points per game in the 1989-90 season. Westhead’s success was also due to two Philadelphia playground legends who provided the perfect inside-out punch: Hank “The Bank” Gathers, a charismatic 6-foot-7 (well, maybe) power forward, and Bo Kimble, a reserved 6-foot-2 (not by a long shot) swingman. Hank led the nation in scoring and rebounding in his junior year, and would have done the same again had he not been slowed by medication he took after fainting in an early-season game. Instead, Kimble led the charge, averaging 35 points a game to lead the nation, and L.M.U. steamrolled into their conference tournament with a 23-5 record.
Seven minutes into a game on L.M.U.’s home court against the Portland Pilots, Hank took an alley-oop pass on a classic L.M.U. fast break and threw it down for a monster dunk. Slapping hands with his teammates, he ran back to midcourt and turned to face the defense. Moments later, he collapsed.
With a crowd instantly around him, Hank tried once to get up, then sank back to the floor. He was taken outside on a stretcher. After an eternity of waiting, the news came in: a heart attack, later diagnosed as the result of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.
And just like that, Hank was dead.
Traumatic doesn’t begin to describe it. L.M.U. was a tiny school then, barely more than 3,000 students, and Hank was as visible in the school cafeteria as he was on the court. A community wept along with Hank’s family and teammates. His funeral was held later that week in the gym where he had died. The upcoming N.C.A.A. tournament seemed like an afterthought.
But wait. L.M.U. was seeded 11th in its region, but destroyed New Mexico State in the first round, even without Hank, setting up a game against the defending national champions, Michigan, a team with five future N.B.A. players on its roster.
And maybe you already knew the outcome: sheer physical size and talent are no match for the human spirit. A stunned Michigan squad found itself gasping for air at timeouts. L.M.U. never stopped running, and L.M.U. couldn’t miss. Jeff Fryer poured in shots from 3-point range, hitting 11 of 15 (still a tournament record). Bo Kimble fired in another 37 points. The final score was 149-115, the game concluding to thundering chants for L.M.U.
Suddenly a nation was watching. The little team from nowhere was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with the perfect headline: “For You, Hank.” They won again the next week, beating the Alabama Crimson Tide and setting them up for a showdown against the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. The winner would go to the Final Four.
Alas, U.N.L.V., with four future N.B.A. players on their roster, destroyed the fairytale. They won 131-101 on their way to the championship.
Kimble went eighth in the N.B.A. draft to the Los Angeles Clippers. Paul Westhead was hired to coach the Denver Nuggets. L.M.U. soon returned to basketball obscurity. But the true believers remember a March Madness that can never be forgotten.
For you, Hank.
Thanks, Jim -- Thought I'd point out that Hank Gathers's nephew, Jordan, is currently a D1 basketball player too, at St. Bonaventure University, following in his uncle's footsteps. Check out this awesome last-second play from this year's A-10 Tourney: http://ftw.usatoday.com/2014/03/jordan-gathers-saint-bonaventure-atlantic-10/