On March 4, 1990, he wanted to fly.
Twenty-five years ago, Hank Gathers would boast to teammates and friends that with the right timing and leap, he could snatch a penny off the top of a backboard. They never witnessed the feat, but had no reason to doubt him.
And then that day -- the day he died -- death's indiscriminate methods snatched life from a man who had so much of it.
Loyola Marymount's 6-foot-7, 220-pound basketball leviathan added the gusto and energy that fueled Paul Westhead's offensive blitzkrieg -- a weapon that averaged 112.5 PPG in the 1988-89 season. Gathers led the nation in scoring (32.7 PPG) and rebounding (13.7 RPG) that season.
He had that Philly grit. He'd laugh and giggle with friends and family members until tipoff. But he'd square up to fight those who refused to respect his foul calls in pickup games.
That's because he never played basketball. He believed in it.
The margins of the court offered freedom and a dream. Friends who thought they'd grown up in the hood felt wealthy whenever they visited Gathers' boyhood home at the Raymond Rosen projects in North Philadelphia, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once spoke at a 1965 rally organized by the local NAACP chapter and boxing champ Bernard Hopkins was raised. By the 1980s, gang wars had turned the territory into a haven for danger. Gathers had to lift Lucille Gathers from those difficult circumstances.
The NBA would be a lottery ticket for a single mother and the three young men she'd raised, but only after Gathers had graduated. Lucille Gathers demanded a degree since her son would have been the first in the family to earn a bachelor's.
So he returned to Loyola Marymount for his senior season.
And then he vanished into the clouds on March 4, 1990.
He was a 23-year-old who'd always bragged that he was "the strongest man in the world."
But three months before his death, Gathers had been diagnosed with a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat, after he collapsed the first time in a Dec. 9, 1989, matchup against UC Santa Barbara. Doctors ultimately cleared him to compete after prescribing a beta-blocker called Inderal. The medicine addressed his condition but also sapped his strength. Teammates recall the deep slumber he'd enter on flights to road games after he began taking the medication. He reportedly reduced his intake of Inderal toward the end of his life so he'd have more energy on the court.
Past tense became the present reality for a man who'd seemed invincible until he'd soared for another alley-oop that day. He jogged a few steps up the floor after his final dunk. Then, he looked around the Gersten Pavilion, Loyola Marymount's home venue, and fell, prompted by a cardiac ailment called hypertrophic cardiomyopathy that was identified after his death. He popped up momentarily and collapsed again. Medical personnel and family members who'd traveled from Philadelphia, including Gathers' mother, rushed onto the floor. He was carried outside the gym via stretcher, where he was shocked by a defibrillator that the team had purchased for nearly $5,000 after his original diagnosis. Per the Los Angeles Times, Gathers sat up again, briefly, after he was shocked.
And then he slept. Forever.
"He was our leader," said Jeff Fryer, Gathers' former teammate and friend. "Hank took charge. I'd say he was the life of the team."
Aaron Crump, the son
"He lives in me."
He wanted to know him.
Aaron Crump remembers their brief bond. And he never resented his father for playing basketball on the opposite coast. He was just "at work," while Crump lived with his mother, Marva Crump, in Philadelphia. Crump called Gathers by his first name. Never dad or father, and Gathers rebuked those who had a problem with that.
But his life took sharp turns after his grandmother woke him up in the middle of the night -- he was 6 years old -- and told him the horrible news.
Following Gathers' death, his family reached a settlement with the school and Dr. Vernon Hattori, the cardiologist who treated the Loyola Marymount star, after a messy lawsuit. Crump, Gathers' only child, reportedly received nearly $1.5 million.
He made bad choices with that cash and connected with a troublesome crowd. A father's guidance would have helped, he said, but he doesn't make excuses for his decisions. In 2007, he was sent to Rockview State Prison in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania for aggravated assault with a weapon.
There, he played basketball -- like his father -- on the prison yard. Once he was released in 2012, however, Crump decided to change. He had to.
He has a blue-collar sales job and a fiancée now. His 8-year-old daughter, Dasia, is his jewel. He knows that he and his father would be close if Gathers were alive today. More importantly, Gathers would be proud of his son and his resilience.
That's what Crump has craved his entire life. Hank's approval.
Their time together was limited. But that determined spirit, which Gathers needed to soar on the floor and his son uses to find his footing after prison, is something they share.
"He made it," Crump said. "If he can do that in North Philadelphia with hard work and determination, there's no excuses for anybody."
Derrick Gathers, the brother
"We just wanted to get out of the projects, get out of the ghetto."
He, understandably, wanted to be like him.
In the late 1980s, Derrick Gathers played for Cal State Northridge, just 25 miles from Loyola Marymount, where his older brother, by just 10 months, and idol Hank Gathers starred. By that time, Gathers had gone Hollywood -- the byproduct of his fame and ability, not arrogance.
Magic Johnson, a 6-foot-9 point guard for the Los Angeles Lakers at the time, called him "Big Hank" during pickup runs at UCLA that featured some of the best players on the West Coast.
And there was the party at the After Midnight Club in downtown Philly where Gathers told his brother about a new acquaintance, a young rapper who'd recently won a Grammy.
"Hank introduced me to Will Smith," Derrick Gathers said.
So the moment that's still stitched into his memory only seems far-fetched for those naïve to Gathers' sometimes grandiose ways.
As Derrick Gathers mingled on the campus lawn at Cal State Northridge one afternoon, a helicopter glided toward the school and landed nearby. Hundreds of students ogled and wondered who was in it. Derrick Gathers was clueless, too, until Hank Gathers emerged from the chopper and walked toward him.
"The helicopter landed right there where we were barbecuing at," Derrick Gathers said. "Everybody was like, 'What the hell is going on?' I don't know if it was rented or what. All I know is he gave me like $800 or $1,000, and then he took off in the helicopter and flew up in the air."
He still has dreams about that day. Yet it's only a glimpse of Gathers' life.
Gathers remained humble. He often spoke of his desire to help youth in Philadelphia after he turned pro and his plan to eventually carry his family out of the ghetto. But he never forgot about the underdogs. And Philly is a city full of them.
The night before he died, Gathers had gone to a popular strip club in Gardena, California, with Derrick Gathers, a few teammates and family members. But he never gawked at the dancers that evening. Instead, Hank Gathers bantered with some gangsters who frequented the same club. He obliged when they asked him to sign their $100 bills. And as his crew was preparing to leave around 2:30 a.m., Gathers told everyone to wait so he could say goodbye again to his new friends.
Derrick Gathers always assumed that was a sign. Evidence that Hank Gathers knew his fate.
"Really, he died before his time," Derrick Gathers said. "I really want them to know that if he had stuck around, he would have blessed a lot of the youth. He was a giving guy."
Ca-Trece Mas'Sey, the girlfriend
"I loved him to pieces. I loved him even more, probably, when he passed away."
She wanted to be near him.
So Ca-Trece Mas'Sey packed her things, left Berkeley, California -- where she'd attended Cal -- and moved back to Los Angeles, her hometown, in 1990.
They were the typical college couple. They dated -- off and on -- for more than two years. But Mas'Sey returned to her hometown for good to close the physical gap between them. They'd joked about marriage, but they never committed to the idea. She had a "joke ring," but Gathers promised her a gem worth 10 times as much once he entered the NBA. That wasn't their focus, though.
They just liked to be around one another.
It began with an encounter at a party. Gathers' friend and future NBA veteran Pooh Richardson had warned him that Mas'Sey refused to date athletes. But he was Hank Gathers. So he wrote his number on a piece of paper that night and told her to call him. She did, and the two grew closer.
Mas'Sey would drive 400 miles, one way, to see him on weekends.
They'd go to baseball games and grab a meal at Fatburger. Gathers didn't drink or smoke, so if she'd booked a room during one of his road trips and they'd decided to chill in the hotel's bar, he'd order a Shirley Temple.
He was "manly" and reliable. Consistent. He was also funny. Hilarious, really. But his sense of humor wasn't for the meek. He'd nudge her about rocking flats over heels whenever they went out. (He was 6-7. She was 5-4.)
He'd tell Mas'Sey how beautiful she looked, and then he'd ask her why she'd picked an unappealing outfit. Those damn backhanded compliments. Not mean-spirited. Just who Gathers was.
"I'm like, 'Did he really just say he didn't like my hair?'" said Mas'Sey, chuckling about his mannerisms 25 years after his death. "He was amazing. He was super great. And he was an a--hole."
And she loved him.
She was no dummy. She knew Gathers would turn pro soon, and she wondered how that would change them.
At that moment, however, they were still having fun. They'd made plans to travel to Hawaii together.
They'd stage dance battles in Gathers' dorm room the night before games. She'd win every time because Gathers only thought he could dance. Those around him wondered why he ever tried.
They'd sing duets together. Their favorite song was "Ain't No Need to Worry," a Grammy-winning track by the Winans and Anita Baker.
That song features the line "Troubles come, but they do pass/Heartaches, hurt, oh but, they don't last always."
A year ago, Mas'Sey packed every photo she had of her and Gathers together, and she shipped the box to his mother, Lucille Gathers. She said she thought it was the only way to get over his death, which arrived at the moment the duo had decided to explore the next stages of their relationship.
"I only moved back to L.A. to be with Hank," she said. "The weekend I moved back to L.A. was the weekend that he passed away. That Tuesday, we were supposed to go back up [to Berkeley] and get the U-Haul and bring all my stuff back down."
Jeff Fryer, the teammate
"I just reflect on the great opportunity I had to be his friend and teammate."
He wanted to see the King of Pop.
So Gathers, along with teammates Jeff Fryer and Bo Kimble, drove to the Los Angeles Coliseum to watch Michael Jackson perform live.
"He was a big music guy," Fryer said of Gathers. "[The concert] was great."
Like Jackson, Gathers was an icon in L.A. The spotlight seemed to follow him, mostly due to his comedic talents.
Friends, family members, teammates. They all agree that Gathers could have performed in Vegas after his basketball career was done. When a local sportscaster failed to show for an emceeing gig at a Loyola Marymount postseason banquet, Gathers grabbed the mic and filled in. Without any preparation, he dazzled hundreds in the audience with his Johnny Carson bit.
He had that timing and wit that made anyone in the room vulnerable to his quips. He once seized the intercom on a bus ride and targeted Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead's "big ears." Westhead wasn't pleased.
"He was kind of jovial," Fryer said, "just full of life and energy,"
Paul Westhead, the coach
"It feels like 25 days. It's very current in my mind."
He wanted to move forward. Somehow.
Gathers died during a matchup against Portland in the West Coast Conference tournament. And the league agreed to grant Loyola Marymount, the WCC's regular-season champion, its automatic berth to the Big Dance after the conference tourney had been canceled because of Gathers' death.
So Westhead preached to an emotional locker room about approaching the NCAA tournament with the same attitude that Gathers had.
Gathers was tenacious. Hated to lose. Whenever Westhead would pull him from a game -- even if only for a few minutes -- Gathers would snarl at him.
He was happy and friendly and funny. But once the game began, Gathers changed. He played with fury and bravado.
"When Hank walked onto the court," Westhead said, "he had a little prance about him."
In a matchup against Shaquille O'Neal's LSU Tigers, Gathers had his first half-dozen shots blocked, the majority of them swatted by the future Hall of Fame center. That start would have flustered most. But Gathers continued to attack.
"During a timeout," Westhead said, "he came over to me and the team and he said, 'Get me the ball.'"
Gathers finished with 48 points in a 148-141 loss.
Once the players and coaches had navigated some of the emotional roadblocks and returned from Gathers' funeral in Philadelphia, Loyola Marymount rolled through the NCAA tournament. The Lions defeated New Mexico State in the first round. They beat Michigan, the defending national champion, in the second round. Robert Horry's Alabama squad fell in the Sweet 16.
And then the ride ended in the Elite Eight with a 131-101 loss to UNLV, which won the 1990 national championship. Without Gathers, LMU had reached the Elite Eight for the first and only time in school history.
That was the easy part for Westhead and his team.
"After the UNLV loss, we were disappointed," Westhead said. "Now we had to face life. It was like, 'What do we do tomorrow?'"
Bo Kimble, the Loyola Marymount co-star and friend
"Hank's presence and his legacy, his memory is definitely significant no matter what year it is."
He wanted to punch him. That wasn't abnormal.
Former teammates remember the lengthy delays in pickup games. Sometimes, they'd last 20 minutes because Gathers and Bo Kimble were at it again, usually the result of some dispute over a call. It was five-on-five, but it was really one-on-one.
The two met at Dobbins High School in Philadelphia, where they won a Public League Championship together. Then, they both picked USC for college. And after one year, following a coaching change, they both transferred to Loyola Marymount in 1986.
They were tight. And equally stubborn.
"At Dobbins, we both were wanting to be great players and there was a lot of challenging each other and a lot of friction at times, trying to share the ball," Kimble said. "One time we had an altercation, almost squared off [to fight] in practice in high school about 15 minutes before the end of practice. [After practice], Hank just acted like the fight we almost had, he just acted like nothing happened. I'm thinking to myself, 'Man, go to hell.' But he taught me that whatever battles you have on the court, leave it on the court."
When Gathers collapsed on March 4, 1990, Kimble consoled Lucille Gathers as medical personnel treated her son. That's the role he played for the remainder of that season.
They all turned to and depended on Kimble after Gathers' death.
Kimble is remembered for the left-handed free throws he made throughout the 1990 NCAA tournament to honor Gathers, a right-handed shooter who began to shoot free throws left-handed after a slump. He's serenaded throughout the world. In Germany, fans once flocked to an autograph signing for the No. 8 pick in the 1990 NBA draft. They asked about Gathers, and about Kimble and his tribute to his friend.
It's as though Kimble's success preserved the memories of Gathers and extended his legacy. What if he'd missed those left-handed free throws against New Mexico State in the first round? What if the Lions had lost their first game? Well, that would not have changed anything for those who had to reassemble their lives after Gathers' death.
But Kimble made those free throws and LMU reached the Elite Eight, which boosted the program's national profile and made Gathers a posthumous legend.
In life, he was a hero to those who knew him.
So 25 years after his death, the recollections of the man who died scrapping for a dream that only death could defeat still feel fresh for them. All of them.
"I miss his laughter," Kimble said. "I celebrate his life, instead of thinking about the tragedy."