In light of the recent tragedy and Wesley Leonard death I am reminded of another tragic loss now over 20 years later. Below is the an article that I wrote back in 2009 as a tribute to Hank Gathers one of my favorite college basketball players growing up who also died of heart-related issues. May both Wes and Hank's memory continue to live on.
“I have the heart of a lion.” - Hank Gathers to Bryant Gumble on the Today Show (1990). Those resounding words will haunt anyone familiar with his tragic death. It's hard to imagine that Hank Gathers has been gone for nearly 20 years, and yet his spirit and love of the game still lives on.
Eric Gathers, known as "Hank" to friends and family was born on February 11, 1967 in Philadelphia,PA where he later attended nearby Dobbins Technical High School. He was teammates with Bo Kimble and together they led Dobbins prep school to the 1985 Public League City Championship. But this was only the beginning of an everlasting friendship and eternal bond that Gathers and Kimble would share. Hank and Bo also decided to play their college basketball together as both were recruited by then Head Coach of University of Southern California Trojans Stan Morrison and his top assistant, David Spencer, however once Morrison and Spencer were fired following the 1985–86 season, Kimble and Gathers decided to transfer to Loyola Marymount University Lions.
While attending LMU Hank became a stand-out player and experienced great success. In the 1988–89 season he became only the second player in history to lead NCAA Division I in scoring and rebounding in the same season. Gathers averaged 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds per game that season and was on the fast track to super stardom. He was garning national attention even in the smaller and relatively unknown West Coast Conference (WCC). But at that time he was a diamond in the rough and was poised to again be amongst the leaders in college basketball in scoring and rebounding for the 1989-1990 season and there was even talk of Gathers as an out right player of year the candidate. Hank had a bright future waiting for him in the NBA as a sure fire lottery pick that year, but ultimately fate intervened.
On Sunday, March 4th, 1990 Gather's team was to face Portland for a chance to meet in the WCC Championship game. The Lions appeared headed to an NCAA berth and were going to be a headache to deal with for any team that drew them in the first round. This team was talented and with their leader Hank had a chance to shock the World. However, to the shock and horror of fans in attendance Gathers collapsed with 13:34 left in the first half of a West Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinal game against Portland. He had just scored on an alley-oop dunk putting the Lions up 25–13, with perhaps the most exciting play in college basketball. The ultimate highlight reel cut short in a split second as a moment of triuphm turned to horrific tragedy before everyone's eyes. Gathers was frantically rushed to a nearby hospital, however it was too late and he was declared dead on arrival, he was only 23 years old. A later autopsy found that he suffered from a heart-muscle disorder known as hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. Few realized that day as he was rushed to the hospital that this would be the last time that Gathers would ever step foot on a basketball court again, and that he had died playing the sport that he loved and gave so much too.
Ironically the keys to the Lions' success that season and since Gather's arrival could be attributed to Head Coach Paul Westhead's up-tempo style of offense that relied heavily on three point shooting and limited time of possession. As a team they often shot the ball within 10 seconds of gaining possession, and then would counter their scoring flurries with full court pressure defense which would often force many opponent turnovers. According to NCAA records Loyola Marymount still holds the record for being involved in five of the highest scoring games in Division I History.
Later on many critics felt that this fast-paced style of play doomed Gathers to his fate, however it was not the first time he had collapsed on the basketball court. Unfortunately Gather's had previously experienced breathing or heart-related issues on the hardwood during a home game against Santa Barbara (UCSB) on Saturday, December 9, 1989, where he collapsed at the free throw line. Gathers was diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat or exercise-induced ventricular tachycardia, and was prescribed a beta blocker to help combat this dangerous condition. However, Gathers felt that the medication adversely affected his play, and he soon cut back on his dosage.
After learning of Gather's death the 1990 WCC tournament was suspended and the Lions were given the league's automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament based on their regular season championship. Despite the tragic loss of their team leader and with emotions running high the #11 seeded Loyola Marymount Lions made the most of their NCAA Tournament and never gave up hope. LMU made one of the most improbable runs to the Elite 8 that year and perhaps in college basketball history other than George Mason's recent Final Four run in 2006. The Lions shot lights out from beyond the arch in defeating defending 1989 NCAA champs Michigan in the 2nd Rd. by an incredible margin of 149-115. They went on to squeak by a tough Alabama team 62-60 before losing to eventual National Champions the UNLV Runnin' Rebels 131-101.
In honor of Hank, Bo Kimble, who was a right-handed player shot his foul shots left-handed in the ultimate sign of respect for his fallen friend and teammate. He carried on the memory and legacy of Hank Gathers in the minds of college basketball fans across the country who were still mourning his passing. Kimble made all three attempts he took during the NCAAs that year in honor of Hank, and it was truly a touching moment not only for college basketball, but for Sports. It showed that human spirit can stir up some magic and when emotions are involved anything can happen. The team never gave up on themselves because Hank wouldn't have wanted them too. When asked about the team's amazing NCAA run Paul Westhead proclaimed “There’s something other than basketball going on here.”
Today Hank Gather's memory is alive and well and the Gersten Pavilion or LMU's on-campus athletics facility, is known to Lions fans as "Hank's House". Perhaps Westhead said it best at Hank's funeral, "Goodnight sweet Prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
#44 ERIC "HANK" GATHERS [Feb. 11, 1967 - March 4, 1990]
Here is the original article - Written 4/17/09:
Interview with Hank Gathers & Bo Kimble (Today Show)
Bo Kimble Free Throws (Tribute to Hank Gathers)