The tragedy of Hank Gathers and triumph of Loyola Marymount

Hank Gathers, who was being treated for a publicly known heart issue, died after collapsing in a game on March 4, 1990. Doug Sheridan/AP Photo

This excerpt of "Miracles on the Hardwood: The Hope-And-A-Prayer Story of a Winning Tradition In Catholic College Basketball," by John Gasaway, is presented with permission from Twelve Books. For more information or to order a copy, visit Twelve Books, Amazon or Barnes & Noble.

Loyola Marymount easily captured the regular-season title in what was now called, as of 1989-90, the West Coast Conference. The conference tournament was scheduled to be held that year on the Lions' home floor, where Paul Westhead's team was bracketed with Gonzaga in the quarterfinals. After LMU won by 37 points, Bulldogs coach Dan Fitzgerald was asked if an early 10-0 run by Loyola had been the game's turning point. "The turning point may have been breakfast," he answered.

Gathers had accounted for 28 of his team's 121 points. "I'm the most doctor-tested man alive," he liked to say. His mother was in town for the tournament, and that Friday, Gathers told a reporter from Channel 2 in Los Angeles, "I feel great. I'm in the best shape of my life. My mom's out here, and I'm looking forward to some good home cooking." Gathers also informed a different reporter that his medication by this point was "almost down to nothing."

In the semifinals to be held the following day, Sunday, March 4, 1990, the Lions would face Portland. The game tipped at 5:00 p.m. Loyola Marymount was already ahead 23-13 in the opening minutes when, on yet another fast break by the Lions, Terrell Lowery delivered the platonic ideal of an alley-oop assist from just across half-court. Gathers was on the receiving end of the pass, and he elevated effortlessly to slam home one of his most thunderous dunks. Even in Westhead's system, plays this spectacular could not happen every minute. This would be what would stand out to the 4,000-plus people who would, inevitably, carry with them for the rest of their lives the memory of having been in Gersten that day: the fact that pandemonium could ever be enveloped and extinguished completely within a matter of seconds by silence.

Trotting back to take his position in the pressing defense, Gathers slapped Lowery's hand in acknowledgment of the assist, and, as he reached midcourt, turned to face Portland's inbound pass. He took two lateral steps to his right. Then he collapsed. Gathers had been unable to make any effort to break his fall, and the impact of a 220-pound man hitting the floor was loud. A spectator later said that even if you hadn't been watching Gathers at that particular moment, everyone heard him fall. Play stopped instantly, and players from both teams, including Lowery and [Bo] Kimble, instinctively went toward Gathers. He struggled to get up from the floor and was on his hands and knees, attempting to stand. By this time, he was surrounded by medical personnel who were telling him to stay down. Gathers went back down to the floor, on his back, and appeared to lose consciousness. The game clock was stopped with 13:34 remaining in the first half. It was 5:14 p.m.

Gathers's mother and his aunt were both at the game, and they came down out of the stands and stood above the doctors attending to Gathers. One of Portland's players that day was future NBA coach Erik Spoelstra. Decades later, he was still shaken. "The absolute silence in the gym after he fell," he would say, "it's something I'll never forget."

After a few minutes, Gathers was lifted onto a stretcher and taken out of the arena as the team physician began cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

Lucille Gathers clung to her son's friend, former USC assistant coach David Spencer, who appeared dazed. The public address announcer informed the crowd that the players had gone to their locker rooms for 10 minutes, but 10 minutes became 30. A second announcement was then made that the rest of the game, as well as the evening's second semifinal, which was to have been between San Diego and Pepperdine, would not be played at that time. The crowd filed out silently. Gathers was pronounced dead at Daniel Freeman at 6:55 p.m.

That same evening in Albany, New York, Gathers's friends from Philadelphia, Doug Overton and Lionel Simmons, were playing for La Salle against Siena in a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament semifinal. The Explorers had the game put away and led by 16 with 1:20 remaining in the contest when word of Gathers's death reached the sidelines at Knickerbocker Arena. Stunned and distraught, La Salle head coach Speedy Morris reflexively called time-out. As described by a reporter covering the game, Morris then brought his players to the bench and informed them of what he had just learned.

Junior guard Doug Overton, who seconds earlier had been wildly grinning and waving a "No. 1" finger, suddenly slumped into his chair. Unsteadily, Overton stood up and headed down the corridor that leads to the locker rooms at the Knickerbocker Arena. He was sobbing. Teammate Lionel Simmons cried in his mother's arms. The announcers working the game had not yet learned of events at Loyola Marymount, however, and could tell viewers only that "Simmons has suddenly become very emotional, and we don't know why."

WCC commissioner Michael Gilleran announced that night that the rest of the league's tournament had been canceled. "We're just trying to focus on what ought to take precedence," he said, "something more important than winning or losing a ballgame."

As the regular-season champions, Loyola Marymount would be awarded the league's automatic bid for the NCAA tournament. The next day, Westhead said his players had not yet made a decision on whether to continue with the season but that he would honor whatever course of action they chose. Kimble was already saying that Gathers would want the team to play in the NCAA tournament, and, indeed, in short order the players confirmed their intention to continue the season. Kimble would further announce that, as a tribute to Gathers, he would shoot his first free throw of each game left-handed.

A memorial Mass was held at Gersten Pavilion on Tuesday, March 6, at noon, and a member of the Loyola Marymount faculty, the Rev. Tom Higgins, told of once having said to Gathers, "You're the only person I've ever met funnier than I am." Gathers had replied, "Definitely, Father." The harmony of the memorial service, however, soon proved to be in short supply, as questions were raised and fingers were pointed with regard to Gathers's death. On Wednesday of that week, the Los Angeles Times anonymously quoted "a cardiologist familiar with the case" who said Gathers had been told to stop playing basketball after the fainting episode in December.

"We told Hank that if he wanted to live the best he shouldn't exercise," the cardiologist said. "Hank Gathers was going to play basketball. It didn't matter what some doctor told him." Yet Loyola swiftly revealed the existence of a letter signed by a Los Angeles internist on December 21, 1989, which had released Gathers for "full participation" in seven to 10 days.

On Selection Sunday, the entire Loyola Marymount team was on a flight en route to Philadelphia to attend Gathers's funeral. When word circulated through the plane that the Lions had received a No. 11 seed and would play New Mexico State, Westhead and the players were surprised at how low they were seeded. On the plus side, LMU would be playing in Long Beach, close to home. Any home area advantage would be welcome, for the Aggies were a tough opponent; Neil McCarthy's team was 26-4, with a win over UNLV to its credit. Loyola started the game by outscoring NMSU 11-1, but an overeager Kimble picked up his fourth foul with 4:45 remaining in the first half.

Westhead nevertheless left his star in the game, triggering boos of disbelief from Loyola fans and causing one New Mexico State player to tell Kimble his coach must be crazy. Asked about leaving Kimble in the game, the coach would explain, "I firmly believe if you have your best player sitting on the bench, he's of no value."

Kimble never did pick up a fifth foul. When he was fouled in the act of shooting for the first time with 14:46 left in the game, Kimble stepped to the line. The Lions had a 64-50 lead. He bounced the ball six times with his left hand, and then, instead of a left-handed version of a normal free-throw motion, he executed more of a one-handed push shot. Once the ball had found the bottom of the net, the crowd in Long Beach erupted loudly and joyously; Kimble had kept the promise he'd made in Gathers's honor. The second, right-handed, free throw also went in, part of the 33 points Kimble would accumulate in the second half alone and the 45 he would score in the game.

In the aftermath of LMU's 111-92 victory, one in which the Aggies committed 24 turnovers, Coach McCarthy said Loyola "went after the ball like a one-eyed dog in a butcher shop." Kimble had also pulled down a career-high 18 rebounds. "You can just call me Baby Hank," he told reporters. Defending national champion Michigan no longer had top scorer Glen Rice, but the Wolverines still had four of their five leading scorers from the previous year. Steve Fisher's team was the No. 3 seed, and the coach said he hoped the game in the round of 32 against LMU would not be "in the 130 to 140 [point] range. We have to make sure fatigue is not an opponent."

In a way, Fisher's hope was realized. Instead of being in the 130 to 140 range, Loyola Marymount's point total was 149 in a 34-point win. As for fatigue, after the game, UM's Terry Mills would describe what he and Loy Vaught had experienced: "[Loyola] kept Loy and myself running up and down the court constantly. It seemed like when we were at half-court, [Jeff] Fryer was shooting a three-pointer." It was a game in which the NCAA tournament record book was rewritten for decades to come. The previous record for most points in a tournament game was 127, a standard set, appropriately enough, by Paul Westhead's Saint Joseph's team in the 1961 third-place game that went to four overtimes. Fryer set a tournament record by converting 11 three-pointers on his way to 41 points. In addition, Loyola as a team set a tournament record, by making 21 shots from beyond the arc.

After scoring 84 points in the second half against Michigan, the Lions put just 22 on the board in the first half of their regional semifinal against Alabama in Oakland. The Crimson Tide took the 45-second clock down under 10 at every opportunity and even passed up precisely the 3-on-1 opportunities that Westhead said no player could resist. Head coach Wimp Sanderson succeeded in forcing LMU out of its preferred style, and, no less, offered a token of respect by slowing Robert Horry and the rest of his major-conference team to a crawl against a No. 11 seed from the WCC. Yet Loyola won the 62-60 rock fight in which it did not shoot well at all, by pounding the offensive glass and forcing Alabama into 24 turnovers.

Loyola Marymount became the first team from its league to reach the Elite Eight since San Francisco did so in 1957. Unfortunately for the Lions, however, their iconic 1989-90 season was fated to both begin and end with a loss to UNLV. For once, LMU gave the ball away about as many times (23) as the opponent (24). When the Runnin' Rebels weren't committing turnovers, they were getting open looks at the rim and converting on 65 percent of their two-point attempts. The result was a 131-101 win for Jerry Tarkanian's team.

Kimble had put 42 points on the board but required 32 shots to so. Still, in this, the final game of his team's historic run, he received not one but two standing ovations from the entire crowd, including fans of the Rebels. The first came when he sank his left-handed free throw. The second occurred when Westhead took his senior out of the game with 1:03 remaining.

Westhead said the three wins that got his team this far were "proof" of the unexplainable. The victories had been "examples of the human spirit rising above occasions," he believed. "But we're not angels, and we can't always rise above."