Column: 25 years after it happened, Hank Gathers’ death still brings a shudder
On this, the 25th anniversary of the death of Hank Gathers, near midcourt in Gersten Pavilion at Loyola Marymount, before a packed house and during yet another LMU basketball victory rampage, we shall leave it to Erik Spoelstra to summarize the moment.
“Shuddering,” Spoelstra said Tuesday.
The word is defined as follows: “To tumble with sudden convulsive movements.”
Which is what Gathers did and what Spoelstra, standing nearby, saw and felt. It is also what he continues to feel 25 years later, when the subject comes up.
Spoelstra was then a sophomore point guard at the University of Portland. Now, he is among the elite coaches in the NBA, having guided two of his Miami Heat teams to championships, in 2012 and 2013.
Gathers was a 6-foot-7 basketball Atlas. He never shrugged.
“He was an unbelievable physical specimen,” Spoelstra said. “He was Amare Stoudemire before there was an Amare Stoudemire.”
Gathers had led the country in both scoring and rebounding. He was the focal point of coach Paul Westhead’s cavalry-charge offense. The Lions didn’t just beat you in those days, they scored 150 points on you.
All of which makes what happened that March 4, 1990, sadder and more shocking.
The inside of Gathers’ body wasn’t as invincible as the outside. He had an irregular heartbeat that had caused him to faint during a game against Santa Barbara on Dec. 9.
He missed two games and was put on the beta-blocker Inderal by doctors. He didn’t like the drug, said it made him sluggish, allegedly sometimes skipped taking it. He was known to try and get rid of the sluggish effects by attempting to run the drug out of his system.
“We were practicing in the gym one time before we played LMU,” Spoelstra recalled, “and you could look out one side and see the track. There was Hank, running as hard as he could, wearing a parachute.
“Talk about intimidating. We were all thinking, ‘Boy, we’ve got to play that guy.’”
The March 4 game was in the second round of the West Coast Conference tournament. It was also an exercise in the obvious.
LMU had beaten Gonzaga, 121-84, the night before. That made the Lions 23-5 and left little expectation that Spoelstra’s Portland team would stop the run. LMU, with its Gathers-Bo Kimble-Jeff Fryer scoring machine, would unquestionably represent the conference in the NCAA tournament.
Then Gathers, who Spoelstra said would occasionally get a rebound on one end, make an outlet pass and then be on the scoring end of a fastbreak with a slam dunk, did something quite like that.
He took a long lob pass and slammed it home.
“The pass went over my head and a couple of our other guys,” Spoelstra said.
Gathers immediately headed toward the nearest free-throw line. He was also the free safety in Loyola Marymount’s full-court press. But then he staggered and collapsed on his back.
The moment, as Spoelstra described it, was shuddering. Gathers shuddered and went down. Everybody in the place knew about his previous heart troubles, so they shuddered. It had been a big story. Everybody instantly feared the worst. Gathers tried to get up once and sank back down, never to try again.
Again, Spoelstra captured the moment articulately.
“There was piercing silence in the gym,” he said. “Immediately.”
The end brought a beginning of confusion and anguish that went on for years.
Spoelstra and Portland were ushered off the court and sat in the locker room for nearly three hours, not knowing. They eventually were told the game had been canceled. They left, still not knowing, but in their hearts, knowing.
Gathers was declared dead at a hospital a short time later. The WCC canceled the rest of the tournament and made LMU its NCAA representative. Spoelstra said nobody objected to that.
“We all just kind of nodded and said, yes, they should,” Spoelstra said. “Then, in the tournament, we all adopted LMU. For tournament games, we had watch parties. We were all pulling for them.”
So was much of the rest of the country.
The little Lions from LMU, severely wounded, still roared.
They beat defending champion Michigan, 149-115, in a second-round NCAA game that was a huge national story the next day. Fryer had 41 points and Kimble had 37 in that game. Fryer made 11 of 15 three-point shots. Kimble shot his first free throw left-handed, in honor of his fallen friend, who had struggled with foul shooting and had tried that.
They got past Alabama and Robert Horry in a close game and then, one step from the Final Four — with emotional energy slipping away and facing a team that would go on to win the NCAA title — the Lions lost to Nevada Las Vegas in the West Regional final, 131-101.
LMU had opened the season against UNLV at Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas. UNLV won, 102-91, but LMU had been on a great first-half run when the game was stopped for about five minutes by a bomb hoax.
UNLV caught its breath, got back in control, and nobody could ever prove whether Jerry Tarkanian had found perhaps the only effective way to slow down Loyola Marymount.
The aftermath of Gathers’ death disintegrated into a deluge of lawsuits, against the school, against doctors who had treated Gathers, even against Westhead.
On the day of Gathers’ funeral in Philadelphia, his son, Aaron, then 6, had a doctor’s appointment for tests on heart problems that had been found. Aaron Crump survived that and played high school basketball in Philadelphia.
On Dec. 1, 1993, less than three years after Gathers’ death on the basketball court, 17-year-old Joseph Marable collapsed and died on a court where he was trying out for a high school basketball team in Philadelphia. Lucille Gathers, Hank’s mother and the older sister of Joseph Marable’s mother, Gail, was at the hospital when Joseph was declared dead.
Doctors said that Marable death most likely was caused by asthma, but also did not rule out heart problems.
Joseph Marable is buried in Mount Lawn Cemetery in Philadelphia, next to Gathers, his cousin.
Since that 1989-90 Loyola Marymount season, the Lions have had just four winning seasons. Their games draw gatherings now, not crowds.
Spoelstra will be in his coaching chair in Miami on Wednesday night, his main focus on his team. But there always seem to be reminders of what he refers to as that occasional “twinge” of Gathers memories. It can come with thoughts of Loyola Marymount, or even just of Los Angeles.
Wednesday night, his Heat will be playing the Lakers.
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