Friday, March 4, 2011

March 4, 1990: Gathers

LOS ANGELES - You're watching TV with a friend, catching up on highlights from the day's college basketball games. The next game they show features the Loyola Marymount Lions, a high-flying, defense-be-damned team from the West Coast. The highlight shows Hank Gathers, their all-world star forward catching an alley-oop pass and dunking it home. He jogs back up court, ready to play defense. Then he gets a weird look on his face and collapses.

"Woah. That doesn't look good," you say.

"No, it doesn't," your friend says. "Wait, doesn't he have that heart condition?"

"Yah," you say. "He does."

There's silence now as your heart goes into your throat. Nothing that is shown next can possibly be good. You don't want to watch anymore. You know how this story ends.


Hank Gathers and the Loyola Marymount Lions took the college basketball world by storm in the late 80s and into 1990. They didn't have an offensive gameplan, per se, unless "shoot as soon as you get the ball" counts as a strategy. As a result, their scores often seemed like misprints when they appeared in newspaper box scores the next day, with the losing team often getting into triple digits.

The focal point of their offensive machine was Gathers, a 6-foot-7 forward with the speed of a guard and the strength of a center. He was a physical freak akin to LeBron James, and he led the Lions in scoring and rebounding for three straight seasons. Playing with his childhood friend Bo Kimble, he seemed destined for the NBA.

But first, he had to finish his college career. After two straight conference championships, Gathers and the Lions seemed poised to make a run in the NCAA tournament in his senior season.

That dream almost got derailed, though, when he collapsed at the free-throw line during a game on December 9, 1989. Diagnosed with an irreglar heartbeat, he was prescribed a beta blocker and cleared to return to play. But Gathers didn't like how the medicine made him feel, believing it hurt his play, so he cut back on the dosage.

And then March 4 rolled around.

As the regular-season league champions, the Lions got home-court advantage throughout the West Coast Conference tournament. The quarterfinal matchup against Portland wasn't supposed to be anything resembling a challenge to Loyola. When Gathers dunked home that alley-oop with just seven minutes into the game, the Lions were already up by 12. And then he collapsed.

After initially falling to the floor, Gathers tried to sit up, saying he didn't want to lay down. Shortly thereafter, he stopped breathing. Trainers and paramedics tried desperately to revive him, transporting him to the nearby hospital, but he was declared dead on arrival. He was 23 years old, in peak athletic condition, and was gone in an instant.

The college basketball world went into shock. Here was the best player on the most entertaining team in the country, and suddenly he was gone. The Loyola Marymount campus was devastated, as Gathers was extremely popular not just for his athletic exploits but because of his friendly, easy-going attitude. The West Coast Conference cancelled the tournament, giving its automatic berth to Loyola Marymount by virtue of its regular-season championship.

Gathers' death could have easily destroyed the Lions' morale, but instead it inspired them. The Lions won their first-round game against New Mexico State 111-92, then annihilated Michigan, the defending national champion, 149-115. They eked out a victory over Alabama, scoring only 62 points - the only game all season in which they didn't reach 100. The Lions' magical run finally ended in the Elite 8 as they ran into UNLV, one of the best college basketball teams ever assembeled and a team used to playing the up-tempo style at which Loyola excelled. UNLV beat Loyola 131-101, putting an end to the dream run.

Hank Gathers left a permanent legacy at Loyola Marymount. The home court where he played his games - and where he played his final game - is unofficially called Hank's Place. He is still remembered as one of the greatest college basketball players of all time, and his sudden, shocking death serves as a reminder of man's fragility. For both good and bad, Hank Gathers will never be forgotten.

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