In the mid-to-late ’80s, a young man out of Philadelphia named Hank Gathers took over the college basketball world. Gathers had insane athleticism and a relentless attitude that made him one of the best players in college basketball and a surefire pick in the 1990 NBA Draft. Unfortunately, tragedy stuck weeks before the NCAA tournament. Gathers died on the court after lingering heart issues.
Looking back, the tragic end clouds what was sure to be an exciting, long career for the late forward. The bright spot during this terrible time involved Loyola Marymount’s response to the loss of their leader.
Hank Gathers’ rise to prominence
Gathers spent his first college season at USC. Unhappy with his role on the team alongside his friend Bo Kimble, the pair transferred to Loyola Marymount, where they became a most beloved duo. Kimble had the speed and shooting and Gathers had the athleticism and relentless presence beneath the basket.
Gathers was a scoring machine at Loyola Marymount, raising his eight-point average at USC to 22 during his first year there. That second year, he raised the stakes further by dropping 32.7 points and 14 rebounds per game.
Head coach Paul Westhead’s style meant players were constantly being pushed down the court in the hopes they’d tire out the other team — and it worked. Gathers was the WCAC Player of the Year that season. With a first-round exit in the NCAA tournament, however, he and his team needed to step up the following year.
In 1989, Westhead made Kimble the focal point of the offense during the final season, while Gathers played a major role. As a result, the duo averaged 64 combined points per game. Loyola Marymount went from a must-watch team to a legitimate contender.
In a college game where teams are lucky to score 100 points, Gathers and Co, put up 120, 130, 140, even 150 during games. One particularly notable game pitted Gathers against an up-and-comer named Shaquille O’Neal. Near the end of the season, however, tragedy struck.
The death of Gathers
Months before his death during a game in December, Gathers collapsed in the middle of a matchup. It was later discovered that he had an irregular heartbeat. The power forward received given medication to manage his heart rate. Doctors told Gathers he could play as long as he took the medication. But he reportedly lowered his doses after the drug caused him to get fatigued out on the court.
Gathers was back on the court facing several of the biggest teams in college basketball. Loyola Marymount’s relentless style proved to be too much for the surefire lottery pick. During a WCC tournament game against the University of Portland, Gathers was looking as dominant as always. But he never made it to the other side.
Around midcourt, Gathers collapsed, as the San Diego Union-Tribune describes. After briefly regaining consciousness, the 23-year-old was pronounced dead within two hours. It was later discovered that Gathers had not been taking his medications leading up to the game.
The entire event was caught on camera. With all of this still fresh, the team had to decide what to do in the wake of their teammate’s death. They became the focus of the basketball world. Rather than dwell on the tragedy, they decided to go out and win for him.
Loyola Marymount pays tribute to Gathers
To the surprise of the college basketball world, Loyola Marymount accepted an invite into March Madness. While the team struggled to win while Gathers led them, the Lions wanted to honor him by playing their hardest and winning. The team surprised everyone with a win over New Mexico State in the first round. They followed it up with a record-breaking 149-115 victory over Michigan and an uncharacteristic 62-60 win over Alabama.
Kimble famously paid tribute to his friend and teammate by shooting and making his first free throw against New Mexico left-handed, something Gathers was working on at his death. Eventually, the team fell short of its ultimate goal, losing to UNLV. But what they showed on the court lives on.
The story of Gathers’ death resonates to this day. Like Len Bias before him, Gathers represents just how quickly things can change. Yahoo Sports recently reunited the team, with Gathers’ son taking his place, to reminisce about the good times and the bad during that last year. While his death still haunts many, the positive memories still shine through.
Gathers’ death is one of the most tragic moments in the history of sports. Although he did not get a chance to give fans NBA highlights, the memories of what he did in college linger on.