Posted on: March 7, 2011 1:37 pm
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)
Posted on: February 13, 2011 4:31 pm
As a loyal Syracuse fan since the mid-1980's I can say that 2011 has not brought much joy to the Orange basketball team. If one only rewinds back to early January they would find a much different outlook for the team that was 4-0 in the Big East including victories over Notre Dame and St. John’s to start the New Year. However, then as the schedule and the teams got tougher the Orange got squeezed. The overall results were as gaugy as the snowfall totals with SU concluding January with four straight losses; the futility continuing to spread into February. No one was prepared for this drastic shift downward in both team moral and gameplay with the exception of Jim Boeheim. The Hall of Fame Coach reiterated the fact that this year’s team hadn’t been tested and weren’t as good as their record would seem to indicate. Despite his team's impressive 18-0 start which saw them rise as high as #3 in the Nation, Boeheim was quick to dismiss thoughts of a #1 Seed or the notion that this year's team was better than last year’s. According to Jim the expectations placed on SU's team last season were warranted and deserved. Fans and critics alike strongly believe that barring a key injury (Onuaku) that they would have reached the Final Four, and possibly even played for a National Championship. He was wary of their early season success and knew that the Big East would provide the barometer as to how good they really were, and then those questions about the team would answer themselves. The 2005 Basketball HOF Inductee knew that the Big East would be a monster conference again this year, and that parity would reign supreme further blurring the line between the top and bottom tiers of the league. Boeheim almost seemed to predict his own team's collapse or rather a crash back to reality. However, I doubt he expected things to get this bad so quickly. There’s little doubt that the Syracuse Orange have struggled lately, and the loss on Saturday to Louisville 73-69 just added insult to injury. The psyche of this team is at a low point, and they haven’t been able to find the answers. This latest loss made it their 6th L in their last 8 games, and yet the team doesn't seem to be responding to Boeheim's challenges in the same way that SU teams of the recent past have. These players seem too caught up in their own media hype and seem more preoccupied with their dunk or pass being a highlight on ESPN’s SportsCenter. They also tend to display their emotions more visibly than past teams whether they are positive or negative and it is impacting the decision making ability often in key moments. Their opponents seem to be feeding off the general lack of enthusiasm that has seemed to plague the ‘Cuse during this losing streak. There have been too many uncharacteristic mental lapses, lack of focus, and overall effort plays to list. These sudden hiccups tending to occur at the most inopportune portions of games, and unfortunately there isn’t one culprit to blame. The entire team has to take the blame and learn from their mistakes so they aren’t repeated. One of these reasons has to lie in the lack of experience in certain players positions in the 2-3 Zone. The biggest issue in this Zone right now lies in the middle, where they have asked Freshmen Fab Melo and Baye Moussa-Keita to replace one of the great defenders in Senior Arinze Onuaku. Fab Melo doesn't have the conditioning nor experience at this time to be effective in the middle and his lack of activity and discipline has shown. Boeheim doesn't trust Fab at this time for more than a handful of sparse minutes. I feel that the fan expectations on the big man are unfair and unrealistic. His conditioning will improve, but not until the Offseason, and he will develop into a force if he stays in College for several years. This year is definitely a development year as far Jim and his coaching staff is concerned, but the trouble also lies at the top of the Zone. Keita is a threat defensively with the ability to alter shots, but his lack of offensively skills has stalled the offense on occasions where he needs to keep a defense honest. The guards are not as active and the zone lacks the fire and intensity of last year's team. They often defend with their hands down making it easy for opponents to shoot over them and hit a high percentage of their shots.