A SPIRITED PRESENCE
He was new on the job, working after midnight, sweeping through the Gersten Pavilion dust.
“Then I saw him,” Shelton Lorick said.
It was a shadowy figure in the upper deck. Lorick shouted for it to leave. It silently refused.
Lorick, a longtime Marine, dropped his broom and jogged upstairs. When he arrived, the figure was gone.
A couple of days later, again after midnight, Lorick had locked up the gym and was walking away.
“Then I heard somebody bouncing a ball inside,” he said.
He unlocked the doors and hurried back in. There was nobody there.
The assistant facilities manager at Loyola Marymount thought somebody was trying to haze him.
“You know, test the new guy,” Lorick said.
He had no idea of the history ingrained in the floor that he’d waxed.
He had no clue that, in 1990, during one of the most important games in the season of his life, a young basketball star had collapsed and died there.
He had no understanding of how the horror had become an inspiration in a gym considered both haunted and hallowed.
He did not know that more than a dozen credible people had independently reported similar sightings.
Lorick went to his boss, Rudy Ramirez. He told him of the strange occurrences. He pointed a finger.
“That’s you,” he said.
“That’s not me,” Ramirez said, smiling. “That’s Hank.”
Fifteen seasons after Gersten Pavilion was filled with sobs, it is blessed with a spirit.
If you see only one game this college basketball season, you should see it there, in the cozy hardwood den on a marina bluff where the ocean breeze outside is no match for the chill within.
As Hank Gathers died there, so he now lives there, his banner on the wall, his jersey in the rafters, his No. 44 on the backs of students, his presence flowing as smoothly as that last roaring dunk before his midcourt collapse.
“We’re a Catholic institution, so we believe in the Holy Spirit,” said Bill Husak, the school’s athletic director, choosing his words carefully. “Let’s just say, we believe that Spirit is working through the memory of Hank.”
As Gathers once did, the spirit works odd hours.
His presence has been felt by the women’s basketball team at 5:30 a.m., as the players sat on a Gathers commemorative bench in a hallway outside the trainer’s room.
They were the only ones there, yet all of them, independently, saw a figure reflected in the doorway glass.
“We all got goose bumps,” said Jacquelyn Woods, senior forward. “At first, we didn’t know what it was. Then somebody said it was Hank. It had to be Hank.”
His presence has also been felt by a student manager, after midnight, while he was working on game films in a back hallway.
“I had been shooting baskets, and I put the ball down to go back to work,” said Tim Collins. “Then I heard it bouncing again. I thought, ‘Who could that be?’ I walked into the gym, and the ball was right where I left it.”
Michelle Stabile, former cheerleading captain, remembers late one night when the gym was filled with a loud thumping sound while Gathers’ jersey flapped in a strange cold wind.
“I was a freshman,” she recalled. “We didn’t know anything about Hank Gathers. We all screamed and ran out.”
By her senior year last season, when she locked the doors after a late practice and still heard showers running in an old men’s locker room, she knew. When she turned off the showers, only to hear them running again moments later, she did not panic.
“I just said, ‘Hey, Hank’ and walked out,” she said. “You let him go about his business. He doesn’t want to hurt anybody.”
All of these late sightings would sound crazy, except for one thing.
“That is when Hank and I used to play there, after midnight. We were real gym rats,” said former teammate Bo Kimble. “I’ve never experienced anything myself, but I’m not shocked by the stories I hear, even the ones that are fairly bizarre.”
Midnight madness, indeed.
If the Spirit is there, it couldn’t be in better hands, the giant ones belonging to a 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward who once soared through the winter, carrying the crazy hopes of a tiny college basketball team.
For those who weren’t around for Hank Gathers and the fabled Lions of the 1989-90 season, imagine the glitter of Showtime mixed with the fundamentals of the Pyramid.
Imagine a dozen Davids with supersonic slingshots and a swagger.
Imagine a backyard track meet and a playground summer league under a single scoreboard that blinked like all of Las Vegas.
When Gathers and the Lions played host to Portland on March 4, 1990, in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament, he was a certain NBA draft pick who one year earlier had led the nation in scoring and rebounding.
He was averaging 29 points and 11 rebounds for a team that had won 23 of 28 games.
He had just thrown down a dunk to give the Lions a 25-13 lead with 13:34 left in the first half. Running back to play defense, he collapsed at midcourt and died, the official pronouncement coming nearly two hours later.
The coroner’s report would list the cause of death as myocarditis, a treatable inflammation of the heart.
A university’s soul was shattered.
The Lions returned to the court 13 days later to begin one of the most memorable runs in NCAA tournament history, an 11th-seeded team shooting its way into the regional final before falling to eventual national champion Nevada Las Vegas.
Remember Kimble’s symbolic left-handed free throw, honoring Gathers, who also shot free throws left-handed?
Remember the 149-115 upset of Michigan?
It was all very charming and amazing and ... brief.
When it ended, a 23-year-old man was still dead and the university was still in shock, and it took a decade of lawsuits and finger-pointing to end it.
The only thing everyone seemed to agree on was that, over the last 15 seasons, amid much change in the university, Hank was the only one who never left.
Aware of Gathers’ influence on campus, officials have worked hard to foster his memory.
In 2000, surrounded by skeptics, Husak retired the jerseys of Gathers and Kimble, using the occasion to invite Gathers’ family back to Gersten. That same family had earlier sued nearly everyone in sight, winning some large settlements.
“People told me it would be the biggest mistake of my tenure to retire those numbers, but it was time for healing,” Husak said. “The next day, it was like a cloud had been lifted over the campus.”
Into those maroon and blue skies stepped Steve Aggers, an accomplished coach from Eastern Washington who took over the program in 2000 and made his first move a bold one.
He rummaged through storage closets, pulled out all the memorabilia from that 1989-90 team, and displayed it in his office.
You can see a replica of Gathers’ conference championship ring there. You can see several championship trophies.
And if you hang around long enough, you will see Hank Gathers in action, because Aggers has been showing old Lion tapes as inspiration.
“It’s about putting the pride back,” he said. “It’s about knowing and respecting those who came before you.”
Guard Brandon Worthy said, “The coaches constantly remind us about Hank. He is still very much alive.”
Not only in the legends, but in reality, his photos and newspaper clippings hanging at various sites around campus.
Walk through the recreation center during pickup basketball games and you’ll see somebody shooting free throws left-handed.
The winner of a recent students’ shooting contest was a right-hander who, yep, shot his free throws left-handed.
Before every game, fans glare at the opposing team while pointing to the banner and chanting, “This is Hank’s House.”
Pity any opponent who wears No. 44. He is roasted throughout the game with chants that he is not worthy.
Mike Bookey, a senior and founder of a cheering section, “The Roar,” whose members wear Gathers’ number, has his rooters watch old Gathers’ tapes before games.
The only tape that nobody sees is of the game in which Gathers died. It is not in LMU’s library. Nobody knows how it disappeared, or where it went.
“Do I believe in all this strange stuff? I don’t know,” Bookey said. “But do I want to believe in it? Yeah.”
Most want to believe in it, from the former Marine to the shaky female basketball player. Who among us doesn’t want a guardian angel? Who couldn’t use a little help?
In the difficult world of mid-major college basketball and those fans who love it, sometimes the spirit of Hank Gathers is the only thing that makes sense.
“Whether it’s Hank’s spirit or the great Loyola spirit, it’s a presence, a love, that is always there,” Kimble said.
They wanted to believe in it a couple of years ago, on the night the Lions played Portland, their opponent in Gathers’ last game.
Whenever Portland made a run, the scoreboard broke. When the Lions countered, it worked.
More than ever, they want to believe in it this season, when, for the first time since Gathers’ death, their veteran team could finally return to the NCAA tournament. The Lions, off to a 7-3 start -- 4-1 in Hank’s House -- nearly upset 25th-ranked Virginia on the road Thursday night, losing on a last-second shot in overtime, 79-77.
The Lions are not scared. This is no ghost story, because nobody is scared.
“He’s not against us, he’s part of all of us,” Lorick said. “You can feel it. He still cares.”
At the end of his shift, late every night, after putting away his cleaning supplies and locking the door, Lorick says he sometimes feels cold shivers on his shoulder.
He doesn’t run. He smiles, the way any maintenance man would smile to the kindly, distant soul who owns his building.
“I turn around and say, ‘Good night, Mr. Gathers.’ ”
Bill Plaschke can be reached at email@example.com. To read previous columns by Plaschke, go to latimes.com/plaschke.
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