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Hank Gathers lives on in his house

BILL PLASCHKE

Twenty years after he collapsed and died during a game, the Loyola Marymount star is remembered during a ceremony at the school.

January 31, 2010|Bill Plaschke
  • A photo shows Hank Gathers, left, and Bo Kimble together as Loyola Marymount teammates during the 1989-90 season. The two close friends also played together at Dobbin Tech in Philadelphia before heading west.
A photo shows Hank Gathers, left, and Bo Kimble together as Loyola Marymount… (Douglas C. Pizac / Associated…)

Twenty years later, grown men still grab Bo Kimble's hand and cry.

"They won't let go," he says.

Twenty years later, Paul Westhead plays the videotape for his Oregon women's basketball team and they howl.

"They can't believe what they are seeing," he says. "Sometimes I can't either."

Twenty years later, the mother of the late Hank Gathers can finally smile.

"My son's memory has become such a strength to so many people," Lucille Gathers Cheeseboro says.

In an era of sports cynicism and strife, the saddest, sweetest college basketball story still lives.

You can see it in the chills of those who witnessed it and the sad smiles of those who lived it, the sorrow and joy of the 1989-90 Loyola Marymount basketball team.

"It was just one moment in time," Kimble says. "But that moment has been strong enough to last forever."

Even now, looking back through the lens of a sports landscape filled with an upset a minute, the moment remains nothing short of a miracle.

Twenty years ago, a raggedy group of playground stars from a tiny Catholic college watched their best player collapse and die of a heart ailment during the first half of a game in the conference tournament on their home court.

Twelve days later, the team began a run through the NCAA tournament that fell only one game short of the Final Four.

On the way, they set records for scoring and symbolism, for three-pointers and tears, a bunch of grieving but gripping kids providing a transfixed nation with lessons of the heart.

In short, it was about a left-handed free throw.

In choosing to honor the fallen Gathers, who had been trying to perfect a left-handed free throw at the time of his death, teammate and best friend Kimble decided to shoot the first free throw of every tournament game left-handed.

This is even though Kimble is right-handed, and even though the Lions were such big underdogs that every point would matter.

Do you remember now? In my 23 years at The Times, I have never seen a more compelling moment on a basketball court.

Four times Kimble threw up the left-handed shot. Four times fans would openly weep. Four times he made the shot.

It was the perfect symbol for a mournful, magical stretch of basketball that will never be repeated.

"Shot left-handed free throws three times in the NBA," Kimble says. "Missed them all."

The players from that 1989-90 team returned to Gersten Pavilion -- site of Gathers' greatest triumphs and his shocking death -- on Saturday night to be honored by the school.

At halftime of the Lions' eventual 85-67 loss to St. Mary's, fans roared as everyone from Kimble to Gathers' mother was given a replica piece of the old gym floor.

Above them, Gathers' No. 44 still adorns the gym wall. Around them, the students here, some of whom were not even born during the run, still chant Gathers' name.

The memories are chronicled in a just-released book by Kyle Keiderling titled "Heart of a Lion." They can also be found, some say, in the late-night sounds of bouncing balls and spraying showers of a Gersten gym still haunted by his presence.

"We all had the same grief," Westhead says. "We just put it together and played some ball."

It started, of course, with Gathers, a 6-foot-7, 235-pound inside force who, as a junior in 1988-89, worked Westhead's breakneck system to lead the nation in scoring (33.0 points per game) and rebounding (14.0).

"The best [college] player I ever coached was Hank Gathers," Westhead says, smiling. "We know that. We share that. And if we didn't know it, Hank would have told us."

In their senior year, Gathers and Kimble led the Lions to a 23-5 regular-season record that included 122.4 points per game and 28 games over 100 points, both still NCAA records.

Gathers had collapsed earlier in the season with what was diagnosed as an abnormal heartbeat, but finished the season strong, even scoring 48 points against Shaquille O'Neal and Louisiana State, leading the Lions into the postseason.

Then on Sunday, March 4, 1990, with 13 minutes 34 seconds left in the first half of the Lions' second-round West Coast Conference tournament game against Portland, their world changed forever. Shortly after he scored on an ally-oop dunk, Gathers staggered and collapsed and died at age 23 of what was later diagnosed as a heart muscle disorder.

"It was something that changed all of us forever," teammate Chris Knight says. "To witness the death of our leader affected all of us in ways that we probably still don't even know."

But who would have thought it would immediately affect them as it did?

The Portland game and the tournament were canceled, and the Lions were given the NCAA tournament bid on the basis of their regular-season championship, but they were seeded 11th with expectations that they would succumb to their grief.

"The players had just lost their leader, the center of everything on that team," then-athletic director Brian Quinn says. "Nobody knew what was going to happen."

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