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.

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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.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Daniel Horan
3 years 6 months ago

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/

Stephen Rochford
3 years 6 months ago
I was at that game when Hank collapsed and died, after the crowd realized he was down you could hear a pin drop in the gym and it felt like the air had been sucked out of the space. We had to wait till later in the evening to hear on the radio that Hank had died. I attended all four of the NCAA playoff games with a group of friends and it was thrilling to watch the inspired Lion's play in those games. The Alabama game was a bit excruciating to watch as they employed a slow down tactic making it difficult for the Lion's to play their run and gun offense (the score of the that game was 62-60 while all the other games were in the triple digits). Even though we lost to UNLV my friends and I knew that we had lived through something special and had smiles on our faces while driving back to Southern California from Oakland, though we would have rather been driving to Denver for the final four. I'm sure Hank was smiling from above at how inspired his teammates played for him and how happy that made his fans. Steve Rochford - LMU Class of 1987
J Cosgrove
3 years 6 months ago
Paul Westhead is a product of the St. Joseph's basketball program in Philadelphia which produced such great coaches as Jack Ramsey, Jack McKinney, Jimmy Lynam as well as Westhead, all of who coached in the NBA. Apparently Westhead was still coaching the Oregon woman's team till being let go a couple weeks ago. His record at Oregon was not very good.

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