This is the first post in our ongoing series of the Top 10 What Ifs in college basketball history.
Some of the greatest conversations in sports are borne out of the simple question, What if?
- What if the Portland Trailblazers had drafted Michael Jordan instead of Sam Bowie?
- What if John Elway hadn’t forced the Colts to trade him to Denver?
- What if Steve Bartman didn’t attend that baseball game in 2003?
Each question leads to an enticing array of scenarios – some good, and some painful. In Portland, fans wind up counting their championship rings. In Chicago, they simply add it to the list of horrific memories.
Every discussion though, without a doubt, is incredibly thought-provoking and fulfilling.
So in order to commemorate March Madness, we here at MSF would like to count down ten of the craziest scenarios in college basketball history.
Each hypothetical, though different, leads to a fascinating conclusion that leaves us wondering that age-old question: What if?
In this post, we lead things off somberly with #10:
Hank Gathers hadn’t died after tomahawking it home against the Portland Pilots?
Let’s start with some numbers:
- 122.4 – The number of points per game Loyola Marymount averaged during the 1990 season. Needless to say, this is still a record.
- 33 and 14 – The numbers of points and rebounds Hank Gathers averaged the year before, becoming one of the only players in NCAA history to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding in the same year.
- 7 – The number of times LMU broke 140 in a game during the 1990 season.
- 331 – The number of total points scored between LMU and United States International on January 31, 1989.
- 12 – The number of times an LMU player broke 40 in a game during the 1990 season.
- 3 – The number of free throws Bo Kimble attempted and made left-handed during a thrilling tournament run.
The numbers are just staggering. Every time I look, they get more and more unbelievable.
The story, on the other hand, is tragic. You know it well.
“The Guru of Go,” Paul Westhead, had created a new style of basketball that was taking the nation by storm. By pressing constantly, jacking up quick threes, and running for 40 minutes, LMU was breathtaking to watch. Led by their two seniors who had played together since high school, LMU was poised to make an exciting run in the NCAA Tournament.
Then, the unthinkable happened.
Hank Gathers collapsed on the court, mid-game, and died. Gathers had collapsed earlier in the year against UCSB, but he decided that the medicine he was given was impacting his game in a negative way.
Current Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra, then a player for the Portland Pilots, was the closest player to him. The world wept for its fallen basketball hero.
Undeterred, Gathers’ best friend Bo Kimble led the #11-seed Lions all the way to the Elite Eight, where they ended up losing to a stacked UNLV squad. And in every single tournament game, Kimble chose to shoot his first free throw left-handed as a tribute to his friend.
Related: Bo Kimble’s free throw tribute to Hank Gathers came in at #9 on our list of the 10 most memorable March Madness moments ever.
Gathers, who had been a terrible free throw shooter, had occasionally shot them left-handed, trying to improve somehow. The nation held its breath and watched with goosebumps as Kimble sank every last try.
The event was indeed tragic, but the possible ramifications are endless.
First, had Gathers not died, LMU’s season would have obviously ended differently.
LMU had been knocked out of the Dance the year before as a 12-seed but had been gaining credibility as the 1990 season progressed. They had given UNLV all that they could handle in a breathtaking season-opener. Kimble and Gathers were both seniors, and Gathers was being projected as a sure-fire lottery pick.
Even without Gathers, LMU made it to the Elite Eight. Could they have been Butler before Butler? The possibility was legitimate.
But it goes further.
Let’s say LMU’s season DID end with a trip to the Final Four. What happens to Paul Westhead?
Remember, Westhead had already won an NBA Championship with the Magic Johnson-led Lakers in 1980. After being forced out by Mr. Buss, he struggled with the pre-Jordan Bulls before heading to LMU where he had success.
So if you are keeping track, Westhead’s career had gone as follows:
- Tremendous success with great players in LA including one championship.
- Failure with terrible players in Chicago.
- Success with great players at LMU.
Did his system work? Could you be successful by playing this new style of basketball? Was Westhead a good coach?
All signs pointed to yes, so long as he had the right players.
Of course, you know that Westhead ended up coaching the Denver Nuggets for two years. His “Enver” Nuggets (no D for defense) ended up averaging 120 points a game…but giving up 130.
He was never given another chance in the pros or major college basketball again.
Looking back now, are we certain that the basketball brains were “right” about Paul Westhead? If he had the right players, would his system have really been such an outright failure?
Would we have given him more of a chance had he been the coach with an NBA and an NCAA Title (or Final Four berth)? We will never know.
But even further than Paul Westhead, what about the system?
Westhead’s teams famously strove to shoot the ball in the first ten seconds of the shot clock. His teams also thrived on shooting the three ball.
Does that sound at all similar to another coach who ended up making his bones in the same portion of the country?
As Mike D’Antoni proved, with the right players, “Seven Seconds or Less” can work. Unfortunately for basketball, especially the NBA, we had to wait ten years to see it.
As the 90s progressed, Michael Jordan fooled the world into thinking that individuals won championships. As soon as he retired, the NBA went into a terrible nose-dive of isolation-based, one-on-one, boring basketball.
It wasn’t until D’Antoni, Nash, and the Suns brought back the fast-paced team-style of play that the NBA finally started becoming watchable again.
- Had Gathers not tragically died, Loyola Marymount may have made the Final Four.
- Had LMU made the Final Four, Westhead may have been given a bigger chance in the NBA.
- Had Westhead gotten the right players, his system may have been successful.
- And had his system been successful, the NBA may not have become unwatchable for nearly a half-decade in the absence of Jordan.
All because Gathers was stricken with an abnormal heartbeat and decided to forgo his medicine on game days.
Rest in peace Hank.
Top 10 College Basketball What Ifs of All-Time Series (All)
10. What if Hank Gathers hadn’t died in the middle of a game?
9. What if Christian Laettner had been suspended for stomping on Aminu Timberlake?
8. What if Houston hadn’t been upset by NC State?
7. What if the NCAA rules had been different for Pete Maravich?
6. What if Chris Webber hadn’t called timeout?
5. What if Gordon Hayward’s shot hadn’t rimmed out?
4. What if Coach K had been fired from Duke after 3 seasons?
3. What if LeBron had gone to college and the one-and-done rule was never instituted?
2. What if Kentucky had beaten Texas Western?
1. What if there wasn’t a snow storm to keep John Wooden from going to Minnesota?