- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

Thirteen-plus minutes remained in the first half when the All-American basketball player soared through the air, snatched an alley-oop pass from a teammate and dunked to give his team a 12-point lead over Portland University as the crowd roared.

Seconds later, the same spectators were deathly silent — literally, as it turned out. Rushing back down the floor after scoring, the player collapsed with an ominous thud and lay on the court, his body convulsing, at Loyola Marymount’s Gersten Pavilion in Los Angeles.

One hour and 41 minutes later, at 6:55 p.m. Pacific Standard time, Hank Gathers of Loyola Marymount, age 23, was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. It happened 17 years ago this week on March 4, 1990, and no one who was there will ever forget it.

Three months earlier, Gathers fainted while shooting a free throw in a game. That time he walked off under his own power. Subsequent tests revealed an irregular heartbeat supposedly controlled by medication, and doctors cleared him to play once again.

If that was a mistake, it proved a tragic one. Convinced the medication interfered with his game, he cut back on it without seeking medical permission. Was that a factor in his demise? Who knows? Dazed after collapsing against Portland, Gathers sat up briefly while the team doctor and trainer rushed to his side and players from both sides stood around helplessly. Then he fell back down, still twitching. Resuscitation was attempted on the scene to no avail. Gathers, a partner in offensive devastation with Bo Kimble and Jeff Fryer on a powerhouse team that averaged 122.4 points a game for the season, never regained consciousness.

What made Gathers’ death especially poignant was the fact he seemed a good person as well as a great player. Eleven months earlier, after leading the nation’s Division I players in scoring (32.7) and rebounding (13.7), the 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward announced he would stay in school for his senior season rather than leaving early. The NBA’s big bucks still would be there a year later. Besides, he didn’t want to leave Kimble, a friend since the two were children in Philadelphia.

“I’ll remember Hank Gathers as a one-of-a-kind human being,” columnist Randy Youngman wrote in the Orange County (Calif.) Register on the 10th anniversary of the player’s death. “He seemed to have a quick smile and a kind word for everyone — always outgoing, cooperative and polite. … That’s why it hurt so much when he left us.”

The previous season, Gathers, Kimble and their team had caught the imagination of fans across the nation. Coach Paul Westhead, formerly of the Los Angeles Lakers, believed teams should run, run and run some more. Westhead, who also taught a class in Shakespeare at the university, often quoted Willie to his players, and his team seemed to embody a dictum from “Macbeth”: “If it were done when ‘tis done, then ‘twere well it were done quickly.”

Before Gathers’ death during a semifinal game in the West Coast Conference tournament, the Lions had seemed a strong contender for a national title. Now … did it really matter? The rest of the conference tournament was canceled. Marymount’s players voted to play in the NCAA tournament but lost to equally potent UNLV 131-101 on March 25 after defeating New Mexico State, Michigan and Alabama as fans everywhere applauded their pluck.

Kimble honored his fallen teammate’s memory at the foul line during the NCAAs. Because the right-handed Gathers had been a poor free throw shooter, he began taking aim left-handed during his final season. By way of dramatic tribute, Kimball shot his first free throw of each tournament game southpaw — reducing some teammates and Marymount fans to tears.

“It wasn’t about making the shots,” Kimble said later. “It was a way to deal with the grief.”

Bo tried four southpaw foul shots during the tournament.

He made all four.

Kimble was a lottery pick by the Los Angeles Clippers but lasted just three lackluster seasons in the NBA before becoming a real estate developer in Philadelphia. Looking back to the 1990 NCAA tournament years later, he described playing as “therapy” after losing his best friend.

“Otherwise [Gathers’ death] would have been 10 times more horrifying,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I probably would have lost my mind.”

Medical experts at the time could not agree on the cause of Gathers’ death. The autopsy report cited myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. Another examiner blamed cardiomyopathy, an incurable condition that scars the heart and interferes with its electrical current.

Whatever.

Unfortunate controversy followed the tragedy. The Gathers family filed a $32.5 million lawsuit that named seven doctors, Westhead and the team trainer as being responsible for Hank’s death. The suits eventually were settled, with Gathers’ young son, Aaron Crump, grossing $1.5 million that was placed in trust. Hank’s mother, Lucille Gathers, later said she permitted the suit only because “I was not in my right mind.”

Even worse, the family stopped speaking momentarily to Kimble, apparently resenting the national spotlight that fell on him during the NCAA tournament. The estrangement did not end until Kimble played years later in the annual Hank Gathers Game at their old high school in Philadelphia. Both he and Gathers were inducted into Loyola Marymount’s athletic hall of fame in 2005.

Now Bo Kimble is 40, but the pain and sorrow of that sad night in 1990 are as strong as ever.

“A lot of times when people come up to me, they’re a little hesitant because they don’t want to bring up a sad moment,” he says. “But when I think of Hank, I don’t really think of the sad part of him not being here. If anyone wants to reminisce, that’s OK with me because I’m in tune with one of the greatest memories of my life. I actually embrace and love it.”

Once Lucille Gathers was asked whether life had cheated her son. Her reply serves as a lesson in courage and acceptance.

“Hank was a flower that was picked,” she said. “It was time for him to go. He was mine for 23 years.”

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