For the last time, Hank Gathers returned to the North Philadelphia streets he spent much of his 23-year life trying to escape.
Funeral services were held Monday for Gathers, the Loyola Marymount basketball star who died after collapsing during a game at Gersten Pavilion March 4. Nearly 5,000 mourners viewed Gathers' body at the Emmanuel Institutional Baptist Church. The church borders a drug-alcohol abuse center and is within walking distance of the poverty-stricken Raymond Rosen projects where Gathers grew up and from which he had vowed to remove his family when he signed a pro contract.
On a brilliant day more befitting Gathers' adopted home of Southern California, mourners stood in line through the morning to view Gathers' body. Many in line wore printed patches that said, "Hank 44," a reference to his uniform number at Loyola.
There were so many mourners that officials had trouble squeezing the family, Loyola team and close friends into the church for the noon service, which lasted until nearly 4 p.m. Police had to close off several blocks to traffic, and hundreds of mourners who couldn't get into the church congregated in the street, listening to loudspeakers.
The estimated 1,000 mourners inside the church included most members of the La Salle basketball team, some of whom were high school teammates of Gathers; former UCLA star Pooh Richardson; former USC assistant Coach David Spencer, who recruited Gathers and his high school teammate, Bo Kimble; Gathers' 6-year-old son, Aaron Crump, and Gathers' father, Eric. Aaron was able to go to the funeral when his Monday doctor's appointment was postponed at the family's request until today. Aaron has undergone testing for a possible heart problem.
Lucille Gathers, Hank's mother, was the last person to enter the church. According to a family member, she had been hospitalized the previous two days because of emotional stress.
Mourners were given a program featuring Gathers' picture in a Loyola uniform. It was called a "Service of Triumph for Eric Wilson (Hank the Bank) Gathers, Jr." As afternoon temperatures rose to a record 83, fans were passed out to the mourners.
Gathers' casket was surrounded by floral arrangements, some in the shape of basketballs, others which read, "Hank MVP 44," and "Hank the Bank."
Father David Hagan, a longtime family friend, read a letter Gathers had sent him while sitting out his transfer year at Loyola. In typical Gathers humor, it started, "I thought USC was the place to be/Now I know it's true blue with the crew at LMU." It was signed, "Coolin' out as always."
"Hank loved us all. . . . He loved North Philly," Hagan said. "North Philly was Hank's house."
Sonny Hill, who has run summer basketball leagues for several decades in Philadelphia, said Gathers "epitomized everything we try to teach our young people. . . . The thing about Hank was he never forgot where he came from. It gave us such pride to see him blossom."
Hill's organization provided many of the flowers.
Kimble, who sat with the Gathers family; Spencer, and Loyola Coach Paul Westhead were among the other eulogists.
Gathers' younger brother, Derrick, choked back tears and said: "He loved his life. He loved himself. More than anything else he loved his son and his family. He was the strongest man alive."
Then he gave this advice to the Loyola team, which opens NCAA tournament play Friday: "It's dedication time. Go out and do it for Hank."
Testimonials were also delivered from across the nation, from the likes of Philadelphia schoolyard legend Earl Monroe to former President Ronald Reagan to the Pennsylvania Senate to the L.A. County Board of Supervisors.
In an impassioned closing sermon, the Rev. Joseph Daniels told the family the community's outpouring "is not a show, it's for real."
He said, "Players change, but the game goes on. Everyone is running in the race of life. Hank played the game well, and he played to the end. Hank was determined. We need to develop the stick-to-itiveness Hank Gathers had."
A huge throng remained in the street as Gathers' casket was removed. Pallbearers included teammates Per Stumer, Marcellus Lee, Jeff Fryer, John O'Connell, Chris Knight, Terrell Lowery and Tom Peabody.
Burial was at Mt. Lawn cemetery in South Philadelphia.
One eulogist noted: "They can take the body, but they can't take the love. As long as any of us breathes, Hank lives."
As the funeral ended, three youths went to the playground across the street--and began shooting baskets.
Times staff writer Maryann Hudson also contributed to this story.