In one of his fantastic ‘What If’ installments leading into the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Jon Washburn hypothetically wondered what would had become of Loyola Marymount basketball and coach Paul Westhead had Hank Gathers not collapsed and died during the semi-final round of the West Coast Conference Tournament at Gersten Pavilion.
My first response, to quote a phrase that Tony Soprano shrink Jennifer Melfi might say, was: ‘But Hank Gathers did die…’
To this day, the night of March 4, 1990 remains the most shocking and chilling sports moment in my lifetime and an occurrence I had always feared.
Chilling Sports Moments
In 1979 the Chicago Bears won a Thanksgiving Day game versus the Detroit Lions. After the contest Brent Musberger came on-air and noted that it was the Bears first win in Detroit in eight years, then alluded to ‘that tragic afternoon’ where Detroit wide receiver Chuck Hughes died of a coronary event in the game’s waning moments.
This was something I personally could not comprehend: an athlete dropping dead on the field of play in front of thousands, with countless more watching on TV. And I couldn’t imagine teams continuing a game under such circumstances – the Bears/Lions game was near its conclusion when Chuck Hughes fell, and in 1971 there was a different mindset; the show always seemed to go on, no matter what.
Thankfully, these types of moments remain rare.
Umpire John McSherry on Opening Day in Cincinnati one year, a college football referee working a game at the University of Illinois once, volleyball legend Flo Hyman, a soccer player in a backwater European league (notoriety thanks to YouTube), the Detroit Red Wings Jiri Fischer a few years back (who survived), and just last year a high school player just moments after the euphoria of scoring the winning basket to complete an undefeated regular season for his team.
The Rise of LMU
The Hank and Bo Show actually ran at Loyola Marymount for three years. Both Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble were recruited out of Philadelphia to attend the University of Southern California, but they left after their freshmen years once the head coach was ousted.
The two eventually fell into the lap of Paul Westhead at nearby Loyola Marymount University. Westhead already had a resume by winning a World Championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980, but he was run out by owner Jerry Buss two years later after being publicly criticized by Magic Johnson, who had just signed a 25-year/$25 million contract. Westhead then coached the Chicago Bulls and was let go after a 28-54 season.
Westhead eventually matriculated back to the Los Angeles area with LMU, and for three seasons the stars aligned with Hank and Bo (along with 3-pt specialist Jeff Fryer) on board, and a revolutionary style of offense that simply ran most opposition teams off the floor.
In the 1988 tourney, the #10 seeded Lions upset a highly regarded Wyoming team 119-115 before falling 123-97 to second-seeded North Carolina. The next season LMU earned a #12 seed but was ousted by Arkansas 120-101 in the first round.
By the time the 1989-90 season rolled around, LMU had gotten the attention of America and got several dates on national television, beginning with an opening game at UNLV in which LMU led at halftime. LMU also got a nationally televised game on CBS with Dale Brown’s LSU Tigers during the season.
Loyola-Marymount lost that wild game 148-141, in overtime. In addition to Hank/Bo/Jeff Fryer on the LMU side, the game also featured a raw but promising freshman center for LSU. A certain sports talk host in Los Angeles suggested the next night that the Los Angeles Lakers might want to take a look at drafting him. It took a while, but Shaquille O’Neal did eventually migrate to Lakers-land.
Despite being ranked in the top-25 all-year, there was a cloud over the LMU team. During an early season game, Gathers fainted while shooting free throws. After an extensive battery of tests and being given medication, Gathers was cleared to return to the lineup, but his production had gone down somewhat from the previous year.
All of this led to the event of 3/4/90.
Tragedy Strikes College Basketball
Gathers was on the receiving end of an alley-oop dunk, and then moments later he collapsed. The LMU radio call remains surreal, the crowd going wild as Gathers scored, followed by the collective screech as Hank fell.
At first, the episode appeared to be another scare, and Gathers appeared ready to get back on his feet, but then started convulsing while slumping back onto the floor. Moments later a lifeless Gathers is stretchered off towards the locker room area where a defibrillator (which the team had purchased after Gathers first episode) was applied. Hank reportedly raised his head briefly, then closed his eyes and remained unresponsive until being pronounced dead at a local hospital.
Hank’s final moments are relived by those were there in the superb ESPN 30 for 30 documentary “Guru of Go”:
As Twitch mentioned in his piece, one of the Portland Pilots players in that era just happened to be Erik Spolestra, now the Miami Heat head coach. The LMU point guard who threw the final pass to Gathers was a freshman named Terrell Lowery, who would go on to have a nice career as a journeyman in Major League Baseball.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of all that night occurred 3,000 miles away.
Lionel Simmons was another Philadelphia prep legend, where he played against Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers. Simmons elected to stay home to play for La Salle University. That night La Salle was also playing in their conference tourney. Late in La Salle’s game, Simmons broke down in tears, apparently getting word on what had just gone down with Gathers.
At the time, fans attending the game as well as announcers on the television broadcast (who were not aware), were completely puzzled about Lionel’s emotions – this of course was all being played out in the pre-Twitter, pre-Internet days.
With the WCC Tournament canceled at the point of Gathers passing, LMU was awarded the conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament, but the Lions spent several days deciding whether to accept the invitation, which they ultimately did.
An acquaintance who was working on the LMU campus at the time recalled to me just how surreal the first few days in the aftermath of Gathers’ passing truly were. The memorial service was eventually held in Gersten Pavilion, during which Bo Kimble asked the capacity crowd to cheer for Hank one last time, and suddenly the gym erupted to the tune of a basketball game as opposed to a memorial.
In a unique case by the NCAA, LMU was given a #11 seed (despite the top-20 ranking) for the West Regional, but were also assigned to the venue in Long Beach, essentially being able to play at home. As the first-round game versus New Mexico St. approached, it was said that the practices were getting intense with players getting testy and even getting into some scraps. LMU was slowly rounding its focus back to basketball.
12 days after Hank Gathers passing, LMU finally took the floor again versus NMSU. Kimble commited four fouls in the first half, but Paul Westhead was all-in, keeping his remaining star in the game. Kimble never did commit that fifth foul and Loyola eventually won 111-92.
The real-eye opener came in the second round versus third-seeded and defending National Champion Michigan, as LMU won by a shockingly easy 149-115 count. Then it was on to the Regional Semi-Final in Oakland against the University of Alabama. The Crimson Tide succeeded where no other LMU opponent had done previously, drastically slowing down the tempo on LMU. Still, Loyola prevailed in a hard-fought 62-60 win.
The amazing run ended with a 131-101 loss to eventual National Champion UNLV.
Now for my one ‘What if’ regarding the hypothetical of Gathers being healthy and not stricken on the court: they would had been seeded higher, but I wouldn’t had imagined them going to the Final Four. The magical run LMU made in honor of Gathers remains movie-like material, and a shining example on the role sheer emotion can play in sports.
It would have been nice if the LMU story had a long-term happy ending. Since 1990 Loyola-Marymount has mostly been a bottom-feeder in the WCC. Paul Westhead left the school after the ’90 season to make another run at the NBA with the Denver Nuggets. Bo Kimble would be drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers and proved to be a disappointment at the next level.
And not surprisingly, it did not take long for the legal system to be involved, as the Gathers family filed a $32.5 million suit against LMU and other defendants on a number of issues. Among them was Gathers being cleared to play after the first episode and also not using the defibrillator immediately on the court; the decision was made to take Gathers off the court before starting resuscitation efforts in part because fans/students were freaked out and a few were actually fainting seeing the horror unfold. Gathers’ mother eventually settled out of court for $545,000.
There were also revelations that Gathers received payments and other perks from Al Gersten during his time at LMU, which ultimately got the attention of the NCAA.
When all was said and done, the aftermath played a large role in setting LMU basketball back for many seasons.
The 2011-12 LMU Lions finished with by far one of their best campaigns in recent memory, going 11-5 in conference to finish in fourth place in the WCC and 19-12 overall. They stand an outside chance at an NIT berth.
Here’s wishing LMU’s resurgence continues and the Lions once again get to represent in the Big Dance.
In memory of Hank.