As his death on March 4, 1990, becomes increasingly distant, Hank Gathers has become better known as the subject of bitter and messy litigation than the admired person and basketball player that he was.
But Gathers’ friend and high school and college teammate Bo Kimble is confident that “Final Shot: The Hank Gathers Story,” a made-for-television movie airing Wednesday, will serve as a fitting tribute.
“It’s a pride thing that someone recognized all the good qualities (Hank) had and (they) were able to put together a movie on him with such great passion,” said Kimble, now in his second season with the Clippers. “It’s a great feeling to know that the true Hank Gathers will be presented for those who did not know him.”
Gathers, a Philadelphia native, first became known in Southern California when he, along with Kimble and Tom Lewis, came to USC in 1985, in what was considered one of the Trojans’ best basketball recruiting classes. After Stan Morrison was replaced as coach, Gathers and Kimble made sports page news by transferring to Loyola Marymount.
When the duo first played for the Lions in the 1987-88 season, they were the keys to a fast-break offense that set scoring records and gave the team coast-to-coast exposure.
As a junior, Gathers became only the second player in NCAA Division I history to lead the nation in both scoring and rebounding. Although he considered turning pro, Gathers decided to stay at Loyola Marymount for his senior year, but he took out a $1-million insurance policy in case he sustained a career-ending injury.
On Dec. 9, 1989, Gathers collapsed at the free-throw line during a game at UC Santa Barbara, because of what was later diagnosed as a rapid heartbeat. After undergoing tests, he was placed on medication, sat out three games and returned to action.
After struggling on the court for several weeks and privately complaining about the level of medication, Gathers returned to form in a nationally televised game against LSU, Feb. 3, 1990, scoring 48 points while being defended by future NBA first-round draft choice Stanley Roberts and eventual All-American Shaquille O’Neal in a 148-141 overtime loss. The Lions won seven of their next eight games.
Then, in a semifinal game against Portland in the West Coast Conference tournament at Loyola’s Gersten Pavilion, Gathers collapsed seconds after a slam dunk. He was pronounced dead one hour, 40 minutes later at a nearby hospital emergency room. The cause of death was cardiomyopathy, a heart disorder.
After Gathers’ death, members of his family sued Loyola Marymount; Paul Westhead, then the school’s coach; other athletic department officials and several doctors who treated Gathers, charging wrongful death and negligence in his care in the moments following his collapse. Most of the suit has been settled, with his mother, Lucille Gathers, receiving $895,000 and Aaron Crump, Gathers’ 8-year-old son, receiving $1.5 million. Trial on the remaining emotional distress portion of the suit is scheduled to begin April 27 in Torrance.
Jim McGillen, a retired television executive now living in Pebble Beach, had never heard of Kimble and Gathers until he saw them in a television interview. He then started following their exploits. After Gathers’ death, McGillen set out to make a movie about him.
“I knew someone from L.A. running around town with chains around their neck and a Rolex watch was going to do this story for all the wrong reasons, just so they could put money in their own pockets, so I started going after the story,” McGillen said.
The litigation forced McGillen to overcome “enormous” problems to obtain the rights to the story.
After nine months and many trips to Philadelphia, McGillen acquired the rights from the Gathers family, Kimble and Father Dave Hagan, a priest who coached Gathers on pre-high school youth teams.
McGillen also received permission to film on both the Loyola Marymount and USC campuses, to use the schools’ gyms and arenas and to outfit extras in the teams’ uniforms.
Ed Arnold, a KTLA sportscaster who appears as himself in “Final Shot,” also helped “clarify” the script after “there was more fiction involved” in an early draft.
Among changes that Arnold suggested was correcting the impression that Stan Morrison, Gathers’ coach at USC, had been fired. Morrison was reassigned to an administrative position.
“They didn’t try to make Hank into something he wasn’t,” said Arnold, who worked with Gathers and Kimble when they were interns at KTLA during their final season at Loyola. “They showed he was a delightful young man. They tried to show his human side, and I think they reached it.”
Bruce Fagel, the attorney for the Gathers family, said the family “has some real problems” with the movie because of the emotional difficulties in reliving the tragedy.
Derrick Gathers, Hank’s younger brother and a former player at Cal State Northridge, declined an invitation to attend a screening of the movie last month. Fagel said he doesn’t think Gathers’ mother will ever be able to watch “Final Shot.”
But Fagel said he ended up impressed with the final product.
“I thought it was very well done,” he said. “I was very pleasantly surprised that they did a reasonably good job at portraying such a complex story. How do you tell a story that there is currently active litigation in?”
While praising the movie for its accuracy, Fagel also pointed out flaws, citing a scene near Gathers’ final game where Gathers and Kimble hugged in the locker room.
“That didn’t happen, but maybe it should have,” Fagel said. “That is a little editorial license, but permissible. McGillen did a reasonably good job at staying away from the controversy (surrounding Gathers’ death) and focusing on the story of Hank growing up.”
Viewers familiar with the story will notice some omissions and what could be considered gaffes without explanation.
Because McGillen did not get the rights to depict either of Gathers’ college coaches, neither USC’s Morrison nor Loyola Marymount’s Westhead is mentioned by name.
Without the rights to depict Morrison and Westhead, McGillen then decided to go “to the opposite extreme on the physical appearance, so there would be no misunderstanding.”
In Morrison’s case, that meant Ken Foree, who bears more than just a passing resemblance to current USC coach George Raveling, Morrison’s successor, was cast as the “First USC Coach.” Morrison is white; Raveling is black. The Loyola Marymount coach is referred to as having coached the Lakers to the NBA championship, a feat Westhead accomplished in 1980.
Morrison, now coaching at San Jose State, said he did not recall being asked for permission to be portrayed. He said, however, because his role in Gathers’ story was a minor one, he had no objection to a black actor depicting him.
“Final Shot” traces Gathers’ life from an 11-year-old in Philadelphia in 1978 until his death at 23. Victor Love, who had the lead role in the movie “Native Son,” and has appeared on “L.A. Law” and “Miami Vice,” stars as Gathers; Duane Davis portrays Kimble; Nell Carter plays Gathers’ mother Lucille, and George Kennedy is Hagan.
To Arnold, “Final Shot” seemed all too real during one instance.
“When I was at the gym for the scene of the memorial service I had some problems with that,” Arnold said. “It brought back a lot of sadness.”
“Final Shot: The Hank Gathers Story” airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. on KTLA and Sunday at 8 p.m. on KTLA, and Saturday at 1 p.m. on KUSI