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Hank Gathers and a Son He Left Behind : Tragedy: Gathers' son, Aaron, might also have a heart defect. The test results will be known today.

March 12, 1990|MARYANN HUDSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PHILADELPHIA — The day had long since given way to darkness at the Raymond Rosen project, causing the rows of two-story brick houses to appear even more gloomy and the high-rise flats even more scary. But there is an even greater darkness that lives in this project, one that has nothing to do with time but the stifling of spirit.

In an upstairs bedroom of one of these houses, Aaron Kevin Crump was peacefully asleep when his father, Hank Gathers, collapsed while playing basketball last Sunday.

Soon, he would be awakened by his grandmother.

"Grandma came upstairs and woke me up and told me that Dad had been a little bit sick, and he was dead," said Aaron, 6.

"At first I said, 'He can't be dead.' Then I just started crying. Then Grandma said I should come downstairs and help Mom quit crying, so I did."

Aaron went downstairs and watched the television replay of Gathers' death. He saw his father collapse and go into convulsions.

"I didn't like it when he fell," Aaron said, shaking his head.

"Sometimes I cry too, and Mom cried a lot. So when it comes on (the television) I say, 'Mom don't look at it.' "

Marva Crump, Aaron's mother, says that Aaron has had little to say since his father's death. Instead, he has been writing letters to his father and drawing pictures.

The letters vary and are usually written 'To Hank,' and to a few of Hank's friends. But the pictures Aaron draws are all the same.

"Aaron's been drawing pictures of stick figures of himself, only he gives himself a heart," Crump said.

On the chest of each stick figure, Aaron has drawn a Valentine heart and next to it has written, "This is me." This same stick figure is also on the bottom of his letters.

"I used to make just stick figures, skinny ones," Aaron said. "But I love my dad and myself. I worry about both my heart and my dad's heart."

In a cruel twist of fate, or perhaps genetics, Aaron also may have a heart problem.

Hank Gathers will be buried today. He died from an apparent heart condition. First, there will be a ceremony at a Baptist church a few blocks from where Gathers grew up, and where his son still lives. Aaron, who was born to Gathers' and Marva Crump out of wedlock, might not be able to attend.

Today is the day that Aaron learns if he has a heart problem.

The funeral is at noon. Aaron's doctor appointment, made several weeks ago, is at 10 a.m.

"I took Aaron in for a regular check-up in February, and the doctor said he heard a second beat in Aaron's heart," said Crump, 25, with whom Aaron lives. "He called in three other doctors to listen. Then they sent me to a pediatrician, who sent me to a children's heart center. There, they did an electrocardiogram and told me Aaron had to wear a heart monitor for 24 hours."

Doctors asked Crump if she had any history of heart problems in her family. She told them her great-grandmother had died of a heart attack. She didn't know that Gathers, after fainting during a game Dec. 9, had been diagnosed as having an irregular heartbeat. Gathers never told her the diagnosis, only that he was fine.

She also didn't know Gathers had to wear a heart monitor during basketball practice for a few weeks or that he was on medication. He never told her the details, even though they talked frequently by phone.

"At the same time Hank was trying not to worry me about him, I was trying not to worry him about Aaron," Crump said.

"Hank didn't tell me everything, because he wouldn't want to worry me or Aaron."

And for those same reasons, Gathers never knew about the concern over his son's heart.

"Even if they (doctors) say Aaron is fine, I'm going to stay on top of it," Crump said. "I'm not taking any chances, not after what happened to Hank.

"I always wanted to believe Hank was fine, but I don't think I ever really did."

Marva Crump was 15 when she met Hank Gathers at the local project hangout. He was 13.

"He was always a comedian, such a delight," she said. "He was always tall, so he was a basketball player. And he always said he was going to play basketball. I never doubted he would."

Crump was 19 when she was pregnant with Aaron. She remembers that Gathers was at her side when their son was born, and that he continued to be there for both of them until he died.

Gathers picked the name for his son, choosing Aaron because he thought it had a good ring to it.

"In the hospital Hank kept repeating, 'Aaron, Aaron, it rhymes with Hank--Hank Aaron,' " said Phyllis Crump, Marva's mother. Marva, Aaron and Marva's other son, Chris, 3, live with Phyllis Crump.

When Aaron was 2, Gathers went away to college at USC. He and Crump had broken off their relationship, but Gathers never stopped being a father. He continued to call Aaron, and would take him with him whenever he returned to Philadelphia.

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