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Hank Gathers was one of the most dominant college basketball stars throughout the late 1980s. He averaged an incredible 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds per game in his junior season at Loyola Marymount, leading the entire NCAA in both categories. Gathers was on pace to become a high NBA draft pick in 1990 until a tragic on-court incident ended his life at the young age of 23. Gathers had an extremely bright NBA future ahead of him, and he proved in college that his professional career could’ve been similar to Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal’s.

Hank Gathers outplayed Shaq when the two met in college

Shaquille O’Neal is one of the most dominating forces to ever play the game of basketball. Most fans remember him most from his days on the Lakers, but he was just as powerful and skilled in college at LSU.

In 1990, Shaq led his LSU squad to an electrifying win over Hank Gathers’ Loyola Marymount squad. However, Gathers actually outplayed O’Neal in the game, scoring more than double his total points.

Shaq finished the game with an impressive scoreline of 20 points, 24 rebounds, and 12 blocks. It’s hard to put up a triple-double like that and still be the second most dominant player in a basketball game, but that was exactly the case that infamous night.

Gathers countered Shaq with a whopping 48 points and 13 rebounds in the contest. The Loyola Marymount forward shot 20-35 from the field and 8-11 from the free throw line.

Not many players could hang with Shaq down low in college. Gathers did just that and dominated him in the process.

Hank Gathers collapsed and died on the court during his senior season

At the start of his senior season, Gathers collapsed on the court against UC-Santa Barbara. He got up quickly and walked off the floor, but he was later diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat.

Gathers missed three weeks of the season while he recovered, but he returned later that season. Soon after he returned, he exploded for the 48-point game against Shaq and LSU. He seemed to have recovered well from taking medication to treat his heart condition.

That was until Loyola Marymount’s WCC Tournament game against Portland in March. Shortly after a dunk, Gathers stumbled across the court and collapsed again. This time, it was different. Gathers didn’t arise like he did the first time. His body shuttered while he lay on the court, and a stretcher came to carry him out of the gym.

Gathers died that day at the age of 23, just a few short months before he would’ve heard his name called during the NBA draft.

Gathers could have had a similar NBA career to Shaq’s

Before his tragic death, Gathers was projected to be a top pick in the 1990 NBA draft. He had the size, speed, rebounding ability, and scoring prowess to excel at the next level, but he never even got the chance to prove it.

Gathers proved when he went toe-to-toe with future Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal that he could’ve been one of the all-time greats. Shaq went on to become one of the greatest centers ever. Gathers could have been right beside him in basketball history if not for his tragic death.

Hank Gathers represents one of the greatest what-ifs in all of sports. Basketball fans craved a Gathers-O’Neal rivalry in the NBA, but we sadly never got it.

All stats courtesy of Sports Reference


30 Years Later, the Hank Gathers Story is Still Heartbreaking