Wednesday marked the 25th anniversary of the death of Hank Gathers, the former Loyola Marymount All-American who collapsed on the court and died during the semifinals of the West Coast Conference Tournament against Portland on March 4, 1990.
Doug Gottlieb, who revered Gathers, saw it happen live. He was 14 years old.
“People ask me all the time, ‘Why’d you wear 44?’” Gottlieb began. “Now’s your chance to find out. Ernie Davis wore 44 . Famous number at Syracuse. My mom went to Syracuse. My grandma went to Syracuse. My grandpa went to Syracuse. My cousin went to Syracuse. Ernie Davis and that No. 44 is synonymous with greatness in many sports – football and basketball, and I think lacrosse as well – at Syracuse. Jerry West, the logo, wore 44. Pete Maravich, one of the numbers he wore . . . was 44. And Hank Gathers wore 44.”
So did Gottlieb.
“Every year on March 4, when I would play in college, I would write ‘Hank the Bank’ on my socks,” Gottlieb said. “I would pay homage to a guy I met once in person and I saw play several times.”
If you don’t know much about Gathers, well, Gottlieb does – and he’ll gladly tell you about him.
“Hank Gathers was from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania,” Gottlieb said. “He and Bo Kimble went to play at USC. They played there as freshmen. SC was put on probation. They transferred, stayed in L.A., went to Loyola Marymount. They played for Paul Westhead, who is a former head coach of the L.A. Lakers, among others, and they had this incredible system where they would just run and shoot and press and score over 100 points a game. And it was awesome.”
Gottlieb remembers when Loyola Marymount played Gary Payton and Oregon State. The Beavers scored 72 points in the first half – and lost.
Why? Because they were gassed in the second half.
“You play that way once a year; they play that way every day,” Gottlieb said. “What’s the old expression from Vince Lombardi? Fatigue makes cowards of us all, right? It really makes mortals of superheroes.”
And that’s what Gathers was for Gottlieb: a superhero.
The year before he died, Gathers led the nation in scoring and rebounding, becoming just the second player in Division I history to achieve that.
“Hank Gathers, as good a scorer as he was, he was a terrible free-throw shooter,” Gottlieb recalled. “He was so bad, they told him first try and bank it in. That’s how he got the name ‘Hank the Bank.’ Then they (taught him to) shoot it left-handed, so he did.”
Gottlieb remembers Gathers passing out against UC Santa Barbara December 1989. Gathers was found to have an abnormal heartbeat and was put on medication.
Less than three months later, he was gone.
“I was 14 years old, and I came home from practice,” Gottlieb recalled. “We had two TVs in my house when I was a kid. Two phone lines, two cable boxes. Old school, right? It’s 25 years ago. It’s 1990. My dad was watching probably Cheers in the other room. So I go into my brother’s room where we had the other TV. He was a high school senior. Flip on his TV to watch Prime Ticket. Because back then, Prime Ticket used to carry the West Coast Conference semis and finals – maybe even the whole tournament. And I was watching Loyola Marymount play, and Hang Gathers went down and he never got up.
“And I didn’t know what to do.”
One year earlier, one of Gottlieb’s childhood friends, Don Clark, collapsed and died after playing basketball. And now, so did Gathers.
Is this what happens when you play basketball? Gottlieb wondered. Am I going to die?
Loyola Marymount didn’t play in the final of the WCC Tournament and opened the NCAA Tournament in Long Beach.
Gottlieb went to the game.
“It was just incredibly emotional,” Gottlieb said. “And here’s Bo Kimble. He’s coming up the court. Early on in the game, he’s fouled, and the place goes silent. And he dribbles three times with his right hand, switches to his left hand and – in honor of his fallen friend and his former teammate who had just died a week before from a heart arrhythmia – he shoots the ball left-handed. And he made it. And there wasn’t a dry eye in the place.
“I’v never been to a sporting event – and I’ve been to a lot: I’ve been to Super Bowls, I’ve been to over 20 Finals Fours, I played four years of college basketball, I played in European championships, I’ve been to soccer matches, I’ve been to World Cup matches, I’ve been to the Olympics. I’ve gotten a chance in my 39 years of life to be at a lot of different events. I’ve been at upsets (and) incredible finishes. I’ve never seen anything like (I saw that day in Long Beach). And Bo Kimble held up four fingers on each hand, and so did everyone else in the crowd. It was like it was out of a movie.
“In that moment, I was just in love with the NCAA tournament – with the emotion of it, the bond of it, the cohesiveness of it. That one singular moment, all the stuff that goes on in your regular life, you’re just kind of locked in. It wasn’t even about the bracket. They went all the way to the Elite Eight without arguably their best player. That’s what emotion can do. Twenty-five years ago today. Rest in peace, Hank the Bank.”