With March Madness comes the excitement of upsets, Cinderella stories, buzzer beaters, and everything else in between. While this might be the most exhilarating time of the year, as a Lion alum from Loyola Marymount University, it serves as a reminder of the devastating loss of Hank Gathers - his unmatched talent, extraordinary athleticism, and what could have been nearly three decades ago.
To say that 1990 was an emotional rollercoaster for LMU would be an understatement. Philly natives and USC transfers, Gathers and Bo Kimble joined the lesser known basketball program under head coach Paul Westhead, and in their second season the new group catapulted the Lions to new heights in the West Coast Conference.
Gathers would solidify himself as one of the top collegiate athletes and NBA prospects among the likes of Shaquille O’Neal and Derrick Coleman. He was named most valuable player of the conference and in the 1988-89 season led the nation in both scoring and rebounding, the second to do so in Division I history. Kimble also made his mark as one of the top offensive players and together they would be an unstoppable duo making their senior year the most promising season for the Lions.
Oh, and there was that one time when LMU went to Baton Rouge to face a LSU Tigers squad that featured three future first-round draft picks in Chris Jackson (who put up 34 points), Shaq (who posted a triple-double with 20 points, 24 rebounds and 12 blocks) and Stanley Roberts (21 points, 12 rebounds). In defeat, Hank and Bo combined to put up 80 points in a 148-141 overtime shootout that put the world on notice that they could compete with anyone. They went on to be the first in the conference to average over 100 points per game and were on track to stride into the postseason as a top seed.
But March 4th would dramatically change that trajectory.
Overflowing with spectators and fans, the Lions faced the University of Portland Pilots led by sophomore point guard Erik Spoelstra (yes, the guy who coaches the Miami Heat) at Gersten Pavilion. Staying true to the fast-break game plan Westhead strategically crafted (and what ultimately drew Gathers and Kimble to LMU), the Lions were poised to take home an easy victory. As it reached the middle of the half, Gathers connected on an alley-oop and threw down an impressive dunk. But as he made his way down the court, Gathers collapsed and a deafening silence overcame the crowd. It was the last time Gathers would ever step foot on the court, succumbing to a fatal heart defect at just 23 years old. LMU went on to represent the WCC in the tournament that season and advanced to the Elite Eight before losing to University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV), who would go on to the take title against Duke.
LMU basketball was never the same. After that fateful year, Kimble was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers and Westhead returned to the professional scene coaching the Denver Nuggets for just two seasons. Despite the memories of what happened during that game, Gathers is remembered as an unbelievable player and cherished teammate. There are few only a few online highlights that truly capture the nature of Gathers’ talents and energy without reliving what happened on March 4th, but the legacy of Gathers and what he means to college sports lives on not only in one of the most historic moments in NCAA history - Kimble taking those emotional left-handed free throws against New Mexico State - but more recently through the Forty-Four for Life Foundation in which Kimble helped establish as a way to bring more awareness and education to heart disease.
According to a recent bet365 sport review, people are gambling on the Final Four like crazy and the debate on who will take the title are rampant. However, March Madness also provides a time to remember the humanity of sports and players like Gathers who left a mark well beyond the court.
There's layers to this. Techie. Politicker. Sportsnista.