Hank Gathers’ legacy endures 20 years after tragic on-court death
Kimble couldn’t recall his name or where the exchange occurred, but like countless handshakes and encounters of this kind, Kimble says he understood this was a chance for a person to touch a part of Hank Gathers.
It’s been 20 years to the day since Gathers, a 6-7 forward and senior at Loyola Marymount, collapsed on the court and died of sudden cardiac arrest.
He was 23 years old.
“It feels about 10 years,” Kimble remembers, looking back on that heartbreaking night of March 4, 1990, during a West Coast Conference tournament game at Gersten Pavilion in Los Angeles.
“I’ve had grown men in a full cry. People come up to me all the time and remember what we’ve done. That’s been happening non-stop.”
Back then, Kimble and Gathers headlined coach Paul Westhead‘s high-octane LMU offense of three-point barrages and full-court presses, an up-tempo system that captivated a nation during the Lions’ amazing run to the Elite Eight in the NCAA tournament 12 days after losing Gathers.
“I can sense the distance and time, but that season and those moments kind of get frozen in your body,” says Westhead, now women’s basketball coach at Oregon.
Sadly enough, this has become the lasting memory of Gathers.
“Hank is mostly remembered for the way he died, but the way he lived is really an inspiring story,” says Kyle Keiderling, author of the newly released Heart of a Lion: The Life, Death and Legacy of Hank Gathers.
“He had a dream, but it cost him his life. Hank knew the risks he was taking.”
Raised in the Raymond Rosen Projects in North Philadelphia, Eric “Hank” Gathers was 12 when he had visions of making it to the NBA. After one year at Southern California alongside Kimble, they transferred to the small Catholic college across town where the Hank and Bo Show became a double feature.
As a junior, Gathers led the nation in scoring (32.7 points a game) and rebounding (13.7). As a senior, he was a candidate for player of the year.
With roughly 13 minutes left in the first half against Portland in the WCC quarterfinals, sophomore point guard Terrell Lowery threw an alley-oop pass to Gathers for his trademark tomahawk dunk.
Running back on defense, Gathers slapped hands with Lowery before falling to the floor around midcourt.
With his mother, Lucille Gathers Cheeseboro, and other family members standing by, Hank died.
Gathers had been projected as an NBA lottery pick. He never saw that part of his dream come true.
“When I think of that moment, there really isn’t much sadness or sorrow. There is joy, but sadness and pain is usually last,” adds Kimble, who played three years in the NBA with the Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks.
“People identified with his greatness on the court, but he was even greater as a person.”
Five days after Gathers was laid to rest at Sharon Hill cemetery in Philadelphia, LMU began an improbable run through the tournament before falling to UNLV one game short of the Final Four.
“It was all a blur to me,” Kimble says softly. “When that ball went up in the air, guys were playing for the love and respect of Hank.”
For Westhead, basketball provided an escape from grief.
“Our team wanted to do something different than feel the hurt of Hank’s passing away,” Westhead says.
“I certainly sensed that he was ever present in our thoughts. That’s for sure.”
Known as one of the most memorable moments in sports history, Kimble chose to shoot the first free throw of every tournament game left-handed to honor Gathers; he made all four.
“That was my selfish time to honor my fallen friend and brother,” Kimble says. “There was no better tribute.”
That was the last time the Lions made it to the NCAA tournament. The program has yet to see the success it had under Westhead, who departed the school in 1990 after five seasons, a 105-48 record and three tournament berths. Since, LMU has struggled under seven coaches, posting four winning seasons. After finishing 3-28 overall and 2-12 in the WCC last season, the Lions are 16-14 overall and 7-7 under second-year coach Max Good.
Today, through his non-profit Forty-four for Life Foundation (44forlife.org), Kimble continues to honor Gathers’ legacy. The foundation raises money to donate defibrillators and educate people around the world about sudden cardiac arrest.
“It’s all about giving back to save lives,” Kimble says.
“It’s a sign of respect for Hank.”
Source: USA Today
By Wendell Maxey, Special for USA TODAY