Loyola Marymount University
, a Jesuit
school near Los Angeles
, member of the West Coast Conference
never been a basketball power
. They had won just one game ever in the NCAA tournament
, a win the
regional consolation game
- after they had already been knocked out of title contention. In fact, the team had only played in three tournament games . All that changed when Hank Gathers arrived on campus in 1986.
The 6-foot-7 cager from Dobbins Tech in Philadelphia brought an athleticism and skill to the LMU that had never been seen at the school. He and his best friend Bo Kimble had transferred from nearby Southern Cal, and brought an up-tempo NBA-style game to the Lions. By the next year, Gathers and Kimble had helped bring LMU back to the NCAA Tournament. Loyola Marymount won their first March Madness game in almost twenty years by downing the Cowboys of Wyoming 119-115, before dropping their second round game to perennial powerhouse North Carolina.
The next year was a landmark year for Gathers and the Lions. Hank led the nation in both scoring and
rebounding, only the second player ever to accomplish the feat. Overall he averaged 28.5 points and 11.1 rebounds a game. Meanwhile, he had tranformed the team from a small-time mid-major into a feared national powerhouse. The team's athleticism forced their opponents into playing an up tempo game. Despite the team's success, they were ousted in the first round of the NCAA tournament by Arizona State.
In an December 9th game the following year, Gathers bricked a free throw midway through the first half. He stepped back from the free throw line and passed out. After several days of tests at a local hospital, doctors suggested that Gathers stay away from basketball for a while. Hank would hear none of it. Basketball was Hank Gathers' life, and he returned to the court having missed only two games.
Things looked good for the Lions with Gathers back on the court. He and Kimble were again averaging over 20 points each, and the team was ripping through its schedule. The team was nationally ranked and looking to make a serious
run deep into the NCAA Tournament. Gathers was dominating the NCAA in his senior season, was projected as an NBA lottery pick, and looked forward to taking his game to the next level.
Everything would change on March 4th, 1990. Six minutes into the WCC Tournament semifinal game, Gathers rattled the rim with a thunderous dunk, the finishing end of an alley-oop from teammate Terrell Lowery. On the trip back down the court, Gathers collapsed to the floor of Gersten Pavilion and began to convulse. The game was suspended as Gathers was rushed to the hospital. Resuscitation failed, and Hank Gathers was pronounced dead an hour and forty-one minutes after his last basket. Dead at age 23.
Gathers had suffered from hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a thickening of the heart muscle. This thickening, coupled with an abnormal electrical system of the heart attributed to Gathers' sudden death. The team mourned, and plans
for the NCAA Tournament were put on hold. Considering what Hank would have wanted, the team flew to their first round game again New Mexico State.
Bo Kimble scored 45 points that day in a 111-92 win over the Aggies. But the most memorable shot, the one replayed every year when tournament time rolls around, was his first free throw.
You see, Hank Gathers was a lefty, and his friend Bo Kimble was right-handed. Yet when Bo Kimble stepped to that free
throw line to take his first free throw of the game, he cupped the ball with his left hand. He looked almost like a child taking his first shot -- it sat awkwardly in his palm as he pulled his arm back, extended it slowly, and flicked his wrist. The ball sailed up and through the net for a single point. The crowd went wild.
Loyola Marymount played like a team inspired, shellacking defending national champion Michigan in the second round while setting the single game scoring record with 149 points. The Lions squeaked past Alabama to reach the Elite 8 before their run came to an end at the hands of eventually national champion UNLV. It didn't matter. Even in the loss, the team left the court to a standing ovation.
Hank Gathers #44 was retired by LMU on February 19, 2000, in a ceremony honoring he and Kimble. Said his best friend, of the man who gave his life for his love of the game, "If you told me that every time I stepped on the court I had a 50-50 chance to survive, I wouldn't play. Hank would."
February 11, 1967 - March 4, 1990