As college basketball teams across the country participate in their respective conference tournaments it serves as a reminder that March Madness is among us.
Before the Madness, yours truly takes a moment to reflect on the memory of Hank Gathers as it reminds us of how precious life is.
Each March for the past three years, I’ve taken it upon myself to tell the world about Hank Gathers and what he’s meant to me. I’m not sure if it’s because we’re both from North Philadelphia. Maybe it’s the connection I felt with him through basketball. Whatever the case, I know that his death touched me. And I feel the need to keep his memory as a point of reference in everyone’s mind.
There’s a summer league named in his honor, the recreation center where he honed his skills now bears his name and there is a beautiful mural of Hank at 25th & Diamond Sts. For some reason I feel not enough has been done to secure his legacy and that’s where I want to make my contribution.
I’m sure across the country many share my same sentiments in regard to Benji Wilson, Len Bias and Reggie Lewis.
After winning the High School Public League Championship in 1985, Hank Gathers along with his teammate and friend Bo Kimble enrolled at USC. At the end of their freshman year, head coach Stan Morrison was fired, Gathers and Kimble decided to transfer to Loyola Marymount University coached by Paul Westhead.
Their next three seasons together would move at warp speed.
Westhead implemented a run and gun system that had the Lions launching a shot within 10 seconds of their possession. Defensively LMU used full-court pressure to cause turnovers leading to easy baskets. Loyola’s games resembled a track meet that just happened to take place on a basketball court.
The prime beneficiary of the system was Gathers who in the 1988-89 season became only the second player in NCAA Division I history to lead the nation in scoring (32.7) ppg and rebounding (13.7 rpg.). LMU’s scoring was one of the biggest stories that season. After the Lions loss in the NCAA tourney, the lure of the NBA would be calling for Gathers to forgo his senior season but instead he opted to stay another year.
In the 1989-90 season there were three standout games that I remember vividly, I have two of them on tape (Am I the only person in the Western Hemisphere that still uses a VCR???)
Game 1: November 15, 1989 LMU vs. UNLV, NIT Opening Round
I was excited about this game for one reason, it was the debut of Larry Johnson and I wanted to see L.J. and Hank go head up. I’m a huge Rebels fan, but on this night I was torn. Although I was excited about Johnson, I wanted Hank and Bo to do well. Hank held his own (18pts. 11 rebs.) but the Rebels would pull it out 102-91. The night belonged to Bo Kimble who established himself as an offensive force on his way to leading the nation in scoring that season.
Two things in this game stood out to me – there was a moment where the conditioning between the two teams showed, midway through the first half the camera focused in on Johnson bent over, hands on his knees sucking for air. Although a bomb threat that delayed the game, it would allow Johnson to recoup. Westhead had his team conditioned well enough to run the Rebels out of the Thomas and Mack Center, but it just wasn’t their night.
The second came when Greg Anthony began to talk trash to Bo Kimble, when Gathers comes from out of nowhere and steps to Anthony, Johnson comes over and calms things down and play resumes. Moments later Gathers would score on a three point play and yell out “WAR!!!” that was his mentality in between the baselines.
Game 2: January 4 & 6 1990 LMU vs. St. Joseph’s/LaSalle Philadelphia, Pa.
This marked the homecoming for Gathers and Kimble who would return to Philadelphia as collegians for the only time in their careers. This game would be the third since Hank’s first collapse on December 9th against UC Santa Barbara. Gathers played a subpar game (11 pts. 7 rebs.). Kimble, the nation’s leading scorer would pour in 54 pts. including a running shot from near half court at the buzzer to seal a Lions win 99-96. Two nights later they would face an old friend in Lionel Simmons and the LaSalle Explorers in a 121-116 thriller. The Lions were led by Kimble’s 32 points. Gathers would rebound by scoring 27 points and grabbing 12 boards. The more I think about it I believe Hank was pacing himself saving his best homecoming performance for last.
For many of us in Philadelphia, it would be the last time we saw Hank alive.
Game 3: February 3, 1990 LMU vs. LSU Baton Rouge, La.
I wouldn’t have been surprised if seatbelts were fastened to the seats prior to tip-off. This game featured four All-Americans (Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Jackson, Kimble and Gathers) as well as three Naismith award finalists (Jackson, Kimble, Gathers).
This was by far the most entertaining college game I have ever seen. If you wanted a wide open game this was for you. Collectively, the two teams nearly scored 300 points in an overtime classic LSU won 148-141. The freshman “Diesel” tallied a triple-double 20/24/12, Chris Jackson was fire as usual with 34 points and 9 assists. Even Stanley Roberts showed up with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Bo Kimble would dump in 32 point and add 11 boards.
But the day belonged to the 6’7″ Gathers, who played the game of his career, scoring 48 points and 11 rebounds – he even made 8-11 free throws (Hank struggled notoriously from the free throw line throughout his career) Any doubts that I had about Gathers heart condition that day were gone. Sadly enough fate wouldn’t have it to be, that game was Hank’s last nationally televised game. One month later Hank would collapse for the second time in the opening round of the West Coast Conference tournament. Hank never regained consciousness. In an ironic twist LMU’s game against LSU was played in the Maravich Center named for LSU great “Pistol” Pete Maravich would died two years earlier from a heart condition.
To my surprise my mom let me stay home from school to attend the funeral, anyone who was someone was there, it was unusually warm that day, I remember the preacher saying that “Hank brought the heat from California with him”. Loudspeakers were placed outside for us to listen to the services because the church couldn’t hold everyone. It was an emotional day for everyone, I saw grown men regardless of their status weeping. I would never question the Hand of God – but it didn’t seem fair. We grieved because we lived vicariously through Hank – we knew that once he got to the league we had someone who we could place on our shoulders and call our own. He was our Champion.
Three years ago as the calendar approached 15 years since Hank’s death I contacted a basketball publication with a story to commemorate to Hank, I had people who knew Hank willing to contribute including Dawn Staley, who grew up in the same neighborhood as Hank credits him for being very influential in her development as a basketball player. Well the story was shot down. My next move was to work on a book that would have those that knew Hank best tell stories involving Hank. I didn’t want the book to focus on his death; I want it to be a celebration of his life. Two years ago I ran into Bo Kimble at a club, we talked for a good five minutes about Hank and life and basketball. I told him that I was 17 when Hank passed and I’ve never forgotten it. Nor did I forget the way he carried himself in the wake of the tragedy. He was appreciative that I even remembered who he was.
About six months ago I had the pleasure of speaking to Hank’s mother Lucille Gathers Cheeseboro for her permission to begin to work on the book she respectfully declined. I felt bad because I could sense that the mention of Hank and all brought back memories and that wasn’t my intention.
I can’t promise that there will ever be a book by me (Although Mizzo is telling me not to give up on it) but I will show my appreciation for Hank Gathers in some way. Even if it’s writing this annual tribute, hopefully it will touch enough people to look into who Hank Gathers was.