Posted 03/04/2010 at 04:34 PM
Twenty years ago today, the sports world was rattled by the stunning death of Loyola-Marymount senior power forward Hank Gathers (1967-1990). During the quarterfinals of the WCC Tournament, Gathers caught a lob pass from halfcourt and flushed down a thunderous dunk.
Within a few seconds, he collapsed on the court and was pronounced dead an hour later. Gathers had fainted during a game in early December, but he got up and walked off the court that night. He couldn’t do so this time around.
At the time, Loyola-Marymount was the nation’s most enjoyable team to watch – by far! Paul Westhead, formerly of the Lakers during Magic’s early years in L.A., had installed a run-and-gun style that made Rick Pitino’s pressing teams look pedestrian. LMU was re-writing the NCAA record books for scoring, averaging more than 120 points per game.
Westhead had a pair of lightning-fast point guards in Terrell Lowery and Tony Walker. He also had one of the country’s premier 3-point shooters in Jeff Fryer and without question, Westhead had the nation’s leader in floor burns in Tom “The Human Bruise” Peabody.
Per Stumer did the dirty work, hitting the boards and taking charges. But most importantly, Westhead had Gathers and Bo Kimble. Gathers was the best rebounder in America and Kimble was the most explosive scorer.
With Gathers and Kimble, two Philadelphia products that transferred to LMU from USC, ESPN and CBS had the Lions featured in several games that season. On a Saturday afternoon, Feb. 3 of 1990 to be exact, CBS televised LMU’s trip to the Pete Maravich Assembly Center to take on LSU.
The Tigers had Chris Jackson, some dude named Shaq, Stanley Roberts and Vernel “Band-Aid” Singleton. Going against Roberts and Shaq in the paint, all Gathers did was score 48 points in a narrow defeat. That’s right, he dropped 48 on Shaq and Roberts, who at the time was a better player than O’Neal.
After being held out for several weeks following his first collapse in December of ‘89, Gathers eventually returned to the court with full medical clearance. And he went right back to dominating, instantly returning to the form he flashed during the 1988-89 season when he became just the second player in NCAA history to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding.
With Gathers, LMU was considered a serious sleeper for the 1990 NCAA Tournament. After his death, the WCC Tournament was cancelled and it was unclear for several days which school would represent the conference in the Big Dance.
After Gathers’ funeral in Philly, the team voted to play on and by virtue of winning the WCC’s regular-season title, was given the league’s automatic bid. The Lions were matched up against New Mexico St. in the first round.
They dealt out woodshed treatment that night. In honor of his fallen teammate, Kimble decided to shoot his first free throw in every Tournament game left-handed. You see, free-throw shooting was the only hole in Gathers’ game. He struggled so much at the charity stripe that prior to his senior campaign, he decided to go southpaw at the free-throw line.
When Kimble drained his first free throw left-handed against the Aggies, I remember the chill bumps I had all over my body. Hell, I remember everything about LMU’s run to the Elite Eight in the unforgettable 1990 NCAA Tournament.
After waxing New Mexico St., the defending national champs were up next. Not just Michigan, but all of its integral parts – except for Glen Rice -- from the 1989 champs who beat Seton Hall in Seattle (thanks to John Clougherty’s terrible blocking call on Gerald Greene against Rumeal Robinson). Robinson was back, along with Terry Mills, Loy Vaught, Mike Griffin and Sean Higgins.
But once again, it was all LMU against the Wolverines. And I’m talking about a blowout – early and often. Jeff Fryer was raining down 3-balls from everywhere – the corner, 30-feet deep on the right and left wings. On that Sunday afternoon, Fryer set the NCAA-Tourney record for treys with 11, a record-setting mark that still stands to this day.
Up next, LMU was set to face Alabama in the Sweet 16. In the week preceding the game, the nation was captivated by this gripping story of a team engulfed in tragedy and mourning, yet on the cusp of a trip to the Final Four without its best player.
The Tide, coached by Wimp Sanderson, had a ton of studs like Robert “Big Shot Bob” Horry and Melvin Cheatum. Sanderson had studied the Lions for a solid week and was convinced his team had to slow the pace rather than run with LMU. That strategy had backfired on Steve Fisher the week before.
Sanderson, more known as a recruiter than a tactician, might’ve coached the best game of his career that night. But it still wasn’t enough. Horry would go on to hit countless game-winning shots during his NBA career, but his fadeaway jumper in the lane with two seconds left that would’ve sent the game to overtime was off the mark.
Fittingly, Peabody, the least-athletic player on the floor, pulled down the rebound to seal the deal. Peabody wrapped the ball in his arms and his LMU teammates stormed the court. For 48 more hours, one of the greatest, yet tragic, sports stories ever lived on.
Later that night on the same court, Ball St. nearly pulled a stunning upset against top-seeded UNLV. Had the Cardinals come through and knocked off the Rebels, who knows how the ’90 Tourney would’ve played out?
Unfortunately for the Lions, nobody was beating Jerry Tarkanian’s team in this Tournament. Larry Johnson was unstoppable in the lane. Stacey Augmon was the best perimeter defender in the country. Greg Anthony was the consummate point guard with a nasty streak defensively. And Anderson Hunt was lighting it up from 3-point range. Lastly, who could forget Moses Scurry? The dude brought screaming for a rebound in style and like Anthony, had a nasty streak that would make all Tarkanian recruits proud.
UNLV was too much for LMU from the get-go. However, there was one instance late in the first half in which the Lions showed some life and if only for a few moments, seemed capable of pulling off anther improbable victory.
Although trailing by double digits for nearly the entire first half, LMU made one of its vintage runs. These surges usually featured a long three by Fryer, followed by a steal off the press and another score, and then anther steal. A similar sequence ended with Kimble being fouled after LMU had cut the deficit to six.
For his first free throw of the games against NM-St. and Michigan, Kimble went to the line and caught nothing but nylon with a smooth left-handed stroke in honor of Gathers. In the Alabama game, Kimble never went to the charity stripe.
So with LMU in the midst of its strongest run of the game against UNLV, Kimble made his way to the line with a chance to pull his team to within four. Again, for a third time, it was all nets on Kimble’s left-handed attempt.
Again, for about the 50th time since Gathers’ death, the 1990 LMU Lions gave me chill bumps. Twenty years later, the story of this team and Gathers’ tragic passing, still does the chill-bump trick for this guy.