Hank Gathers and a Son He Left Behind : Tragedy: Gathers' son, Aaron, might also have a heart defect. The test results will be known today.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The day had long since given way to darkness at the Raymond Rosen project, causing the rows of two-story brick houses to appear even more gloomy and the high-rise flats even more scary. But there is an even greater darkness that lives in this project, one that has nothing to do with time but the stifling of spirit.

In an upstairs bedroom of one of these houses, Aaron Kevin Crump was peacefully asleep when his father, Hank Gathers, collapsed while playing basketball last Sunday.

Soon, he would be awakened by his grandmother.

"Grandma came upstairs and woke me up and told me that Dad had been a little bit sick, and he was dead," said Aaron, 6.

"At first I said, 'He can't be dead.' Then I just started crying. Then Grandma said I should come downstairs and help Mom quit crying, so I did."

Aaron went downstairs and watched the television replay of Gathers' death. He saw his father collapse and go into convulsions.

"I didn't like it when he fell," Aaron said, shaking his head.

"Sometimes I cry too, and Mom cried a lot. So when it comes on (the television) I say, 'Mom don't look at it.' "

Marva Crump, Aaron's mother, says that Aaron has had little to say since his father's death. Instead, he has been writing letters to his father and drawing pictures.

The letters vary and are usually written 'To Hank,' and to a few of Hank's friends. But the pictures Aaron draws are all the same.

"Aaron's been drawing pictures of stick figures of himself, only he gives himself a heart," Crump said.

On the chest of each stick figure, Aaron has drawn a Valentine heart and next to it has written, "This is me." This same stick figure is also on the bottom of his letters.

"I used to make just stick figures, skinny ones," Aaron said. "But I love my dad and myself. I worry about both my heart and my dad's heart."

In a cruel twist of fate, or perhaps genetics, Aaron also may have a heart problem.

Hank Gathers will be buried today. He died from an apparent heart condition. First, there will be a ceremony at a Baptist church a few blocks from where Gathers grew up, and where his son still lives. Aaron, who was born to Gathers' and Marva Crump out of wedlock, might not be able to attend.

Today is the day that Aaron learns if he has a heart problem.

The funeral is at noon. Aaron's doctor appointment, made several weeks ago, is at 10 a.m.

"I took Aaron in for a regular check-up in February, and the doctor said he heard a second beat in Aaron's heart," said Crump, 25, with whom Aaron lives. "He called in three other doctors to listen. Then they sent me to a pediatrician, who sent me to a children's heart center. There, they did an electrocardiogram and told me Aaron had to wear a heart monitor for 24 hours."

Doctors asked Crump if she had any history of heart problems in her family. She told them her great-grandmother had died of a heart attack. She didn't know that Gathers, after fainting during a game Dec. 9, had been diagnosed as having an irregular heartbeat. Gathers never told her the diagnosis, only that he was fine.

She also didn't know Gathers had to wear a heart monitor during basketball practice for a few weeks or that he was on medication. He never told her the details, even though they talked frequently by phone.

"At the same time Hank was trying not to worry me about him, I was trying not to worry him about Aaron," Crump said.

"Hank didn't tell me everything, because he wouldn't want to worry me or Aaron."

And for those same reasons, Gathers never knew about the concern over his son's heart.

"Even if they (doctors) say Aaron is fine, I'm going to stay on top of it," Crump said. "I'm not taking any chances, not after what happened to Hank.

"I always wanted to believe Hank was fine, but I don't think I ever really did."

Marva Crump was 15 when she met Hank Gathers at the local project hangout. He was 13.

"He was always a comedian, such a delight," she said. "He was always tall, so he was a basketball player. And he always said he was going to play basketball. I never doubted he would."

Crump was 19 when she was pregnant with Aaron. She remembers that Gathers was at her side when their son was born, and that he continued to be there for both of them until he died.

Gathers picked the name for his son, choosing Aaron because he thought it had a good ring to it.

"In the hospital Hank kept repeating, 'Aaron, Aaron, it rhymes with Hank--Hank Aaron,' " said Phyllis Crump, Marva's mother. Marva, Aaron and Marva's other son, Chris, 3, live with Phyllis Crump.

When Aaron was 2, Gathers went away to college at USC. He and Crump had broken off their relationship, but Gathers never stopped being a father. He continued to call Aaron, and would take him with him whenever he returned to Philadelphia.

The last time Aaron saw his father was when Gathers came to Philadelphia in January for Loyola's games against St. Joseph and La Salle. He took Aaron to both games and spent the off-day with him. It was Gathers' hope that after he became a first-round pick in this year's NBA draft that Aaron would come and live with him.

"After Hank and I broke up, nobody knew how we felt," Crump said. "We remained good friends, special friends, and I wanted him to take Aaron to live with him. But it's not because it's a ticket out of here. I wanted Aaron to go with Hank because they loved each other so much. I wanted that for Aaron and Hank."

Not only would Gathers buy presents for Aaron, but he also acted as a father to Crump's other son, Chris.

"He didn't have to do that, but he did," Crump said. "He also wanted Chris to feel good, so he would bring him presents and spend time with him. That's just the kind of guy Hank is."

Chris believes Hank is his father.

"Someday when he gets older, we'll let him know the real story," Phyllis Crump said. "But for now, he's too young and wouldn't understand."

Phyllis Crump says she feels a little slighted for Aaron since Gathers died. She says Gathers never tried to hide the fact that he had a son, and yet, until a Beverly Hills attorney announced his plans to sue on behalf of the Gathers family, there had been little mention of Aaron.

Through Saturday, only Derrick Gathers, Hank's brother, has come over to see how Aaron is doing. No one else from the Gathers' family has even called. Phyllis and Marva Crump don't understand why. Lucille Gathers, Hank's mother, has always been close to the Crumps.

"Lucille is good to Aaron," Phyllis said. Marva agrees.

Still, Phyllis wishes that there would have been more references to Gathers as a good father after he died.

"I had a friend call today and say, 'Hey, I read where you are suing over Hank's death,' " Phyllis said. "I didn't know anything about that. It just seems sad to me that when Aaron is mentioned, it's in a lawsuit.

"Sure, Hank was a great basketball player, and a great person. But he was also a terrific father, and nobody is mentioning that."

Phyllis was referring to reports that a lawsuit will be filed this week against Loyola Marymount University and possibly the doctors who treated Gathers.

Father David Hagan, a close friend of the Gathers family, has been the driving force behind the suit. He has said that it was Gathers' dream to succeed as a professional basketball player so he could care for his family, most of whom still live in the north Philadelphia inner-city neighborhood.

It's just another Saturday night at the Raymond Rosen project. The name of this place sounds planned, but one has to wonder how any place like this could be built on purpose.

Chain-link fencing surround the low-income housing, attempting to separate the dirt lawns from the grimy sidewalks, the residents from the drug users and the drunks who litter the area.

Across the street, patrons of the neighborhood deli spill onto the narrow road, their voices loud and haughty. A turquoise Plymouth blocks traffic. Nearby, policeman sit silently in a patrol car, waiting for a reason to sound.

Inside the fence, neighbors hang out of their second-story windows to chat with those below, while teen-agers cluster beneath a row of empty clotheslines and just hang out.

This is where Hank Gathers grew up. It's where his mother still lives, just around the corner from the Crumps.

"When Hank visited Los Angeles on his first recruiting visit to USC, he asked me to take him to Watts," said David Spencer, the assistant basketball coach at USC who recruited Gathers.

"So I drove him there. But he thought I was joking. He said, 'C'mon Spence, I want to see Watts.' I said, 'Hank, I'm telling you this is Watts.' He couldn't believe it. To him, it looked like a suburb, a lower-middle class neighborhood."

When Phyllis Crump moved to the project in 1964, she had to live in the high-rise flats, located next to the rowhouses.

"Water dripping from the ceiling, it's terrible," she said. "That's where Lucille (Gathers) was when she first moved here, and I got her into a home like ours.

"Nobody should have to live like that in the high rise. It used to be you could leave your door open. But now you can't even go over there without getting mugged or killed."

Inside the Crumps' house, though, it's a different story. Pictures and trophies of Philip Crump, a standout high school basketball player now at San Jose State, line the bookshelves in the dining room. The furniture, though sparse, is neat and clean.

The atmosphere is warm and comfortable. Phyllis Crump is an attractive, articulate woman. Marva, who works full-time for a security firm, is patient and kind.

Aaron, dressed neatly in a polo shirt and jeans, brings out his book of letters and pictures that he has written and drawn for his dad since Gathers' death.

From aaron. march 5, 1990

How do I love? I love hank and I love sub and I love bo and I love Tom the End. Sub is his uncle Philip. Bo Kimble was Gathers' teammate and best friend, and Tom Peabody was another Loyola teammate.

Aaron mixes his references to Gathers--sometimes he's Hank, sometimes Dad. Usually he calls him Hank when he refers to basketball.

"Hey, do you know if, when Hank died, did they win the game?" Aaron asks.

His attention span waning, Aaron leaves the adults sitting on the couch and starts playing with his brother, Chris. He picks up his junior basketball and shoots it around. Then he puts on a skate and glides about the black tile floor.

Soon, he climbs back on his mother's lap and listens as she talks of her friend, Hank. Of how good he was to Aaron. Of how much she will miss him.

Aaron sees the tears start to form in his mother's eyes. He leans back on her chest.

"Everybody has to go sometime," he tells his mom. "Everybody. One day you will have to go, too. Then you'll get to talk to Hank again."

Aaron put on his tuxedo Sunday and went with his grandmother to view his father's body at the church.

He stood next to the open casket, and stared at his dad.

"I don't want my dad to die," he told his grandmother.

Then one of Aaron's uncles picked him up so he could kiss his father. Aaron stiffened a little.

On the way home in the car, Aaron began to cry.

"I asked him, 'Aaron, where is your father now?' " Phyllis Crump said. "And Aaron said, 'He's in my heart, Grandma, he's in my heart.' "

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