COMMENTARY : Hank Gathers’ Star Shone Bright On and Off Basketball Court
What impressed me most about Hank Gathers was his heart. That may seem strange, considering that it stopped functioning during Loyola Marymount’s semifinal game Sunday in the West Coast Conference basketball tournament. Gathers, who turned 23 last month, was pronounced dead 1 hour and 41 minutes after collapsing on the court despite desperate attempts to revive him.
“The main thing I want to do is go out a winner,” Gathers said last year after deciding against entering the NBA’s draft and remaining at Loyola for his senior season. Gathers certainly reached his goal, helping the Lions to a 23-5 record and surpassing Bill Cartwright as the all-time scorer in the conference.
Gathers, sleek at 6-foot-7 and 210 pounds, could have taken the easy way out. As a poor youngster from the drug-infested projects of North Philadelphia, he could have gone for the gold and skipped his senior season. Surely, he didn’t have much more to prove after leading the nation in scoring (32.7) and rebounding (13.7) as a junior.
Gathers stayed in school in part because he wanted a degree and in part because of a responsibility to his teammates and to Coach Paul Westhead, whose high-powered offense was the perfect vehicle to showcase Hank’s talents. He wanted to share the joy with a healthy Bo Kimble, his boyhood chum from Philly, who was injured during the 1988 season.
Caring and committed--that’s the type of guy Gathers was. He was a star in every sense, yet there was no arrogance or cockiness in his game. He was a blue-collar worker in shorts, straining for every rebound and giving every ounce of energy whether the Lions were ahead or behind.
This admirable work ethic accompanied by an engaging smile stamped Gathers as an extremely popular athlete. He made time for others and was genuinely liked, not merely respected for his physical talents. Hank was a great college basketball player, but he may have been an even greater person. Determination and hard work stamped him as something special.
I sensed that the first time I spent any time with Gathers. It was Dec. 30, 1988, and the Lions were about to play Nevada-Reno. Gathers led the nation in scoring and rebounding at the time, so we chatted for about an hour at the Lions’ hotel.
“Anybody can score, especially the way we play,” he said. “You’ve really got to work to go after rebounds. Scoring is nice, but I want the rebound title. If I rebound the way I should, given my jumping ability, foot quickness and the knack of being in the right place at the right time, we’re going to win a lot of games. My only goal before a game is to get double figures in rebounds every night.”
True to his word, Gathers went out that night and posted possibly the most impressive double of his career. Playing in the high altitude of Reno, Gathers connected on 24 of 37 shots for a career-high 49 points and 26 rebounds in a 130-125 victory.
It was remarkable that Gathers was as strong and energetic at game’s end as he was when it started. UNR players were exhausted despite being accustomed to such heights, but Gathers played above the rim, a man among boys.
The Lions finished 20-11, and the season belonged to Gathers, who didn’t merely pick on patsies. He had 34 points and 17 rebounds against Oregon State. Facing Stacey King at Oklahoma, he had 27 points and 18 rebounds. When the Lions were eliminated by Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament, Gathers flourished with 28 points and 17 rebounds.
As a youngster, he idolized Julius Erving. As a collegian, he patterned himself after another 76er, Charles Barkley. “The guys call me Baby Barkley,” Gathers said proudly. “He goes all out, and that’s the way I like to play. I’m more power than finesse, but I can play both ways.”
One year ago, however, there was doubt about Gathers’ pro potential. “There are a lot of 6-7 guys who can jump,” observed one NBA scout, noting Gathers’ lack of range. Hank was aware of the skepticism, but it merely served as motivation. He had come too far to quit now. He had to make something of himself. Too many boyhood pals were on drugs, in jail or dead.
“I remember being a kid in North Philly,” he recalled. “I’d look up to the sky and say, ‘I’ve got to get out of here. There’s got to be more to life than this.’ Then I came out to L.A., and it was all sun and fun. I made up my mind that I was going to be a professional basketball player. That’s why I work so hard. I want to be into the game mentally and physically for 40 minutes.”
Despite Kimble’s return to good health, Gathers didn’t slow down. He scored 38 points in the third game of the season and had 37 points and 27 rebounds in the fifth game against U.S. International. Then he suffered a fainting spell against UC Santa Barbara. He was grounded by heart arrhythmia and had to miss games against Oregon State and Oklahoma.
But Gathers’ determination--and a medical clearance--didn’t keep him out of action long. There was a triumphant return to Philadelphia for games with St. Joseph’s and La Salle, and by February he appeared to be at full strength, especially while scoring 48 points and adding 13 rebounds against LSU. He also had a career-high 30 rebounds against St. Mary’s.
Gathers was on a roll. He had become the NCAA’s 11th all-time scorer and one of the few collegians to amass 2,500 points and 1,000 rebounds. He was a few games away from the big money of an NBA contract.
Then it all came crashing down on a Sunday in L.A., when the sun and fun turned to grief and gloom. Gathers’ sudden demise revived thoughts of Len Bias and Ricky Berry, struck down in their prime. But Bias did it with cocaine and Berry with a bullet. Hank Gathers didn’t have a choice.
All he wanted to do was play basketball. He probably knew the risk involved, but he was on a mission and wasn’t going to be denied. Appropriately, his last conscious act was a devastating dunk off an alley-oop pass. Seconds later, he tumbled to the floor, dying while doing what he loved most.