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Twenty Years After: Hank Gathers Stirs Memories for His Family

Mar 2, 2010 – 1:00 PM
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Clay Travis

Clay Travis %BloggerTitle%

Hank GathersTwenty years ago, on March 4, 1990, a mother watched her son take flight.

"He was so high," says Lucille Gathers Cheeseboro, two decades later. "And then when he came down, he was so low."

Taking flight was Hank Gathers, a soon-to-be NBA multimillionaire, who she'd already pledged to follow to whichever NBA city he called home when his career at Loyola Marymount ended. And why wouldn't she follow the second oldest of her four sons, the son who'd gone all the way across the country to play basketball at USC and left her in their hometown of Philadelphia?

"I cried for a couple of weeks," she said, "because I missed him so much and he was so far away."

But now, in Gathers' senior year, all was well with the decision. Her son Hank's Loyola Marymount team was 23-5, averaging 122.4 points per game and had scored over 100 points 28 times behind the controlled chaos instituted by head coach Paul Westhead. On Feb. 3, 1990, Gathers had dominated Shaquille O'Neal and LSU, posting 48 points and 13 rebounds in an overtime road loss at Baton Rouge.

Now, 29 days later, it was March, and time for a West Coast Conference quarterfinal game game against Portland. Time for Gathers and the Lions to make their run.

Sitting in the stands alongside Hank's mom on that March day in Los Angeles were two other sons, Derek and Chris, Lucille's sister, Carol Livingston, along with other family members and friends. "We had burgundy and red towels that the minister's wife had made for us. We were holding them up and cheering," says Lucille. The towels are emblazoned with slogans, "Hank," says one, "The Bank Man," says another, a nickname Westhead had given his star player.

Still standing from Hank's alley-oop dunk, the family crumbles as he hits the floor.

"I couldn't move," Lucille says.

Twenty years later, there are still some days when Lucille can't move. "I feel good this morning," she says, on a late February day when snow blankets the city of Philadelphia and keeps her indoors. "But some days I can't talk about it, can't mention his name. They say you don't get over a child dying, you get through it."

Her voice cracks, tremors.

"I'm still not through it."

******

Hank was Lucille's second child. Named Eric at birth, he acquired the nickname Hank from his father. Born on Feb. 11, 1967, Hank was closest with his brother Derek, who was born just 10 months later, on Dec. 30, 1967. The two would attend school in the same grade, closer to twins than brothers.

Hank was not a natural on the basketball court. In fact, according to high school and college teammate Bo Kimble, Hank didn't play much on their JV or freshman team. "He worked twice as hard as most players," Kimble said. "Nothing came easy to him."

One day in high-school practice, Kimble drove to the basket and attempted a windmill dunk. Hank jumped, met him at the rim, and blocked the shot so hard that Kimble feared he'd hyperextended his arm. Kimble was furious. "We played basketball the Philly way," Kimble said. "That meant that when we were between the lines, we were not friends. If I'd tried to windmill dunk with the other hand, he'd have hyperextended that one too."

Furious, Kimble was ready to fight. As calm as could be, Hank approached him after practice. "Don't forget we've got a meeting at 6," Hank said.

"He'd left it all on the court! Already!"

Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble

While in high school, Hank also developed a reputation as a prankster, once lighting Kimble's sneakers on fire after practice. "We'd just had practice," recalls Derek Gathers, "and Hank disappeared. Next thing you know he's under the [locker room bench] and Bo's sneaker is on fire."

As Kimble recalls, "He should have lit them on fire. They were horrible sneakers, the cheapest shoes. The soles were so bad, I felt like I was playing in skates." As Kimble watched his shoes smolder, Gathers said simply, "You ain't wearing those sneakers again."

By his senior season, wearing number 44 on the basketball court for Dobbins Tech, Gathers blossomed into a major college prospect, winning a Philadelphia city basketball title alongside Kimble. He and Kimble committed to play together in college at USC.

After the coaching staff that recruited them to USC was fired following their freshman year, Gathers and Kimble transferred to Loyola Marymount, a small Catholic university in Los Angeles with an undergraduate enrollment of less than 5,000.

Basketball success followed rapidly. As a junior, Gathers led the nation in scoring with 33 points, and rebounding with 14 per game, a feat that only two players have managed in the history of major college basketball.

But in December, something scary happened, Gathers collapsed while attempting a free throw at UC-Santa Barbara.

Back in Philadelphia, Lucille received a phone call that woke her in bed and informed her of her son's collapse. "I thought they were kidding," she said, "because he always had trouble at the foul line."

Doctors found he had an abnormal heatbeat and prescribed a beta blocker. Gathers missed two games in December and returned for a Dec. 30 contest against Niagara.

A shocked Lucille didn't know what to believe. "I'm just thinking this thing was going to go away. He's too big, he's too strong, there's no way anything is wrong with him."

Twenty years later, she wishes she'd insisted that an entire battery of doctors examine her son. But that's in the future, when she will have two decades to examine every moment, minutes, hours, and days that stretch onto infinity that can lead her to ask a simple question, "Why?"

Intent on watching her son play in the West Coast Conference tournament, Lucille climbs on a plane and travels to California.

******

There are 13 minutes and 34 seconds left in the first half. Hank Gathers has just dunked off an alley-oop pass and is running up the court. The cheers from inside the gym are still loud and cresting when Gathers falls to the ground.

Gathers' maternal aunt, Carol Livingston, is the first to arrive alongside Hank's prone body. "Somebody do something! Somebody please do something!" she screams.

Lucille, in shock, arrives on the court later. Her son has a pulse, but is incapable of speech. His eyes flutter, doctors attend to him and then rush him to the hallway to use a recently purchased defibrillator.

Lucille's son is rushed to the hospital where doctors work on him for over an hour, attempting to save his life.

Multiple teammates arrive at the hospital still wearing their uniforms.

Just over an hour after his collapse, Hank Gathers is pronounced dead. An autopsy showed he died of a heart-muscle disorder, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.


******

Hank Gathers was funny. That's what his coach Paul Westhead recalls 20 years later. "He had an incredible wit," Westhead says. "On the team bus, he'd take the microphone and talk about every player and coach as we got on the bus." Westhead, now the women's basketball coach at Oregon, pauses for a moment, laughs softly, "No one escaped the humorous wrath of Hank Gathers."

And opponents didn't escape him on the court.

"He didn't have the size of Karl Malone, but he played like Malone could," Westhead says. "He'd get rebounds on anybody and could score on them too. Like Malone at his best, he was unstoppable. Against LSU and Shaq he had 48 points and 20 rebounds."
"When [Gathers] fell down, I wanted them to get him back up. I always thought he would get back up. "
-- Paul Westhead

Westhead is silent for a bit longer, "When he fell down, I wanted them to get him back up. I always thought he would get back up."

******

Lucille flies across the country to bury her son. Thousands turn out for his funeral in Philadelphia. So many people pile into the church that they play the service for an overflow crowd standing outside in the cool air.

"I flew back with his body on the plane," Lucille says, "they didn't tell me he was with us."

So overcome with grief is Lucille that she can't attend her son's burial. Instead, she's at the hospital, being treated for a racing heartbeat.

******

The West Coast Conference suspends the tournament and awards Loyola Marymount, the regular-season champion, the league's automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

Seeded 11th, Loyola Marymount faces a first-round game against sixth-seeded New Mexico State. Just 11 days after Hank's death, Kimble, Hank's teammate and best friend, leads Hank's team onto the court.

In memory of Hank, Kimble shoots the first free throw of that game left-handed. "It just came into my mind," says Kimble of the idea. "Hank had struggled so much at the free throw line that he'd switched to left-handed. His form was better then."

To Kimble it didn't matter if the shot went in. "I didn't care if it ended up like that old Larry Bird commercial, with the ball bouncing over the backboard and going on down the street. The message was to Hank: I love you, I respect you, and this is for you."

Against New Mexico State, Kimble toed the line and lifted the ball with his left hand.

Nothing but net.

Loyola rushes past favored New Mexico State, 111-92.

Back in Philadelphia, Lucille catches a few moments of the game.

"I cried through most of it, but I tried to watch," she says.

******

Remarried since Hank's death, Lucille says that occasionally her second husband finds her crying. "He understands that sometimes I have to cry it out. Sometimes I just miss him more than other times. I don't know why."

In her bedroom, Lucille keeps a photograph of her son in his Loyola Marymount uniform. He inscribed the photo to her, "To Mom, I love you very much."

"I look at that photograph all the time," Lucille says.

After Hank's death hundreds of letters pour into the family from all over the world. Lucille reads them all. She has her pastor get a copy of the photograph and she writes back to every person who sent her a letter.

She signs Hank's name alongside her name, and the name of her other three sons.

"The letters made me feel better," she says.

Still, she lies awake at night wondering, among other things, how much different Hank's son's life would have been had her own son lived.

"Hank's son, Aaron, is 26 now. He still lives in Philadelphia, but every time I see him I wish he'd have really known his father."

******

First-round winners, Loyola Marymount faces the defending national champion in the second round, third-seeded Michigan.

Once more, Kimble toes the line for the first free throw of the game, the left-handed shot.

Bo KimbleNothing but net -- again.

Heavy underdogs once more, Loyola could not miss, pounding the Wolverines, 149-115.

That's right, 149 points.

In the process, Loyola sets 11 NCAA tournament records.

The team was into the Sweet 16 and the entire nation was rooting for them. Kimble's picture graces the cover of Sports Illustrated. On his left shoulder is a number, 44, an emblem for Hank.

Twenty years later, Kimble, who will be drafted eighth by the Los Angeles Clippers, will have visited 40 countries, including Africa three times. Each time he visits Africa, locals approach him. They know the Loyola Marymount story, they want to talk about the left-handed free throw, they want to touch his hand.

"It's simply amazing," Kimble says.

******

"I have a Hank room in my basement with all his trophies," Lucille says. "I've also got lots of videos that the school sent me. I watch them all the time."

Lucille says she has 20 or 25 videos, but that the one she watches the most frequently is of Hank at an awards banquet.

Her 6-foot-7 son stands before a microphone. He was a communications major and after his death Lucille would accept his degree. "I almost fell because the sun was so bright," she says of graduation day.

In the video, Hank stands before the team and calls out each player's name, number, and where they were from. After each player is introduced he tells a funny story about them.

Hank saves himself for last.

"The tape's faded," says Lucille, "but his voice is so great."

"He says, 'Well, I guess I have to do myself now. This is Eric Hank Gathers and you really don't know it, but I used to be a good foul shooter."

The room erupts in laughter, Hank's troubles at the free throw line are well known.

"He was like that," says Lucille, "even when he was a little boy he could always make you laugh. You could never get angry with him."

******

In the Sweet 16, Loyola faces Alabama.

The Crimson Tide adopts a slower, deliberate pace, attempting to keep Loyola from running. Doing whatever they can to avoid the offensive explosion that doomed Michigan. But Loyola perseveres, gutting out a 62-60 win to advance to the Elite Eight. It would be the Lions' last victory over a ranked team for two decades.

Kimble attempts no free throws in the Alabama game.

"We played for the joy of the game, even though we were filled with sorrow," Westhead says. "There was no expectation of anything further for us. There was just a joy in the game, joy and sorrow in one breath."

Just one game from a trip to the Final Four, Loyola faces UNLV.

Again, Kimble steps to the free throw line and drains a left-handed shot.

It was good. Three-for-three, all for Hank.

The Rebels run with Loyola and, for the first time, the Lions can't keep pace. Derek Gathers is there in person to watch as UNLV captures a 131-101 victory. Just over one week later UNLV will win the national title.

Loyola Marymount's tournament run is over, but already it is legendary.

"If I meet 10 people that I didn't already know, nine of them will mention that team at Loyola Marymount," says Westhead.

******



On Feb. 11, 2010, Hank Gathers would have turned 43 years old. He's buried at Sharon Hill cemetery in Philadelphia. "I used to go a lot," says his mother. "I still do, but not as much as I used to."

She planned to make the trip on his birthday, but a snowstorm arrives in the city, making travel unwise.

So she sits in the basement and watches videos of her son as tears stream down her cheeks.

She's recently returned from a trip out to Los Angeles to honor the 1989-90 Loyola Marymount team. "I didn't cry this time," she says. "I don't know why, but I felt so good inside. Everyone chanted his name and Hank felt alive."

Shortly after her return from Los Angeles, the grandmother of 15 and the great grandmother of five, has surgery on her eye. The eye surgeon scans over her chart, recognizes her last name.

"Are you related to Hank Gathers?" the doctor asks.

"I'm his mother," she says.

The doctor can't believe it, stands slack-jawed, hands on his hips. The Hank Gathers who captivated the nation in 1990? The Hank Gathers who a park and recreation center was now named after in North Philadelphia? The Hank Gathers who had ascended into myth in the generation since his death?

"I used to take him to the park with his brothers when they were little, and now it's named after him."

She shakes her head, sighs, then speaks with renewed strength, "He's alive," Hank Gathers' mom says, "when people remember him."
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