It was in a hotel lobby somewhere on the road and I was trying to track down my 5-year-old. The lobby was small enough that I could hear clearly a resonant voice call out: "My main man, come on in." That was when I spotted my son peering through the slightly ajar door to a room set aside for the Loyola Marymount basketball team's pregame meal. By the time I reached him, the boy had already been introduced to the entire team, was seated next to his new friend and was being asked his prediction on that night's game. A hero was born.
Two years later, a different lobby, this one in a hospital, and a different voice, telling me that the hero was gone, that he had literally played his heart out. As I walked away, concerned how I would explain such mortal things to a child, my shivering found a momentary refuge as I recalled the warmth of that hotel encounter with Hank Gathers.
Perhaps it is just as well that many who stood to gain the most from his acquaintance will never have to suffer the loss that those who knew him now feel. I think of all the kids in NBA cities who will never have to miss his infectious smile and friendly chatter, who may never have to learn that heroes, no matter how strong, can leave us. Who will never have to learn to accept the realization that when Hank Gathers autographed your program, he also made his mark on your heart, indelibly.