Every year as March rolls around, stories spring anew about Loyola Marymount's most legendary player, Hank Gathers. He was a true phenomenon on the court, sporting the ability to score on anyone with the range and to collect prodigious amounts of rebounds every day. He lit the NCAA ablaze with his prowess until the day it suddenly came to a tragic end.
Growing up in the projects of Philadelphia wasn't easy, but Hank Gathers had two things going for him in life that kept him motivated: basketball and a younger brother, Derrick. Along with Bo Kimble and Doug Overton, the brothers led Dobbins Tech to the Philadelphia Public League title game in back-to-back years, losing to Benjamin Franklin High School in 1984 and beating South Philadelphia the following year.
With a Public League title in hand, Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble looked west to further their education. They were enticed by USC but warned that the area was dangerous. Upon further review, they realized that they had grown up in a tougher environment and should have no problem as Trojans. But after their freshman year, coach Stan Morrison was fired, leaving both Gathers and Kimble to reconsider their futures. After failing to respond to new coach George Raveling's request that they give an answer promptly, Raveling revoked their scholarships, leaving Gathers and Kimble in limbo.
But something special was happening down the 105. Ever since taking over the Lions' program in 1985, Paul Westhead had implemented a fast-paced attack that was set to revolutionize basketball at all levels. Intrigued by the flow of the program, both Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble decided to transfer to Loyola Marymount, with Derrick following them the following year.
Due to NCAA regulations, Hank Gathers' sophomore year was quite boring as he had to sit out a year due to transferring. By 1987-1988 he was ready, having freshened up after taking that redshirt year. It took a few games for the Lions to adjust to their new weapons as they went 2-3 in their first five games. After losing to Long Beach State 117-113, LMU went on a tear, winning their next 23 games. Many of those victories were high-scoring affairs, with the Lions imposing their will on the rim as well as the opposing team's defense. they destroyed Brooklyn 123-72 and outscored both Pepperdine (142-127) and San Diego (141-126). With fewer truly elite players on the floor, college basketball is not typically that high-scoring.
In many ways, LMU was running teams out of the gym using an NBA system. It makes sense too as Paul Westhead had won an NBA championship with the Lakers using the same system. Armed with players such as Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, his squad stunned the 76ers in the 1980 NBA Finals. Now with the Gathers brothers and Bo Kimble at his disposal, Paul Westhead's offense was running roughshod over NCAA defenses. After surviving Wyoming 119-115 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, LMU was blown out by North Carolina 123-97. Despite the disappointing finish, Hank Gathers had impressed the NCAA community, averaging 22.5 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. Clearly, he was in a class of his own.
Record-wise, the following year was a bit of a downer. LMU never had a winning streak as they enjoyed in 1987-1988, but they did continue to dominate the rim. They scored 130 or more points on seven different occasions, including both wins over U.S. International where they won respectively 162-144 and 181-150. After winning the WCC Tournament over Santa Clara for the second straight year, the Lions lost to Arkansas 120-101 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Despite the disappointing finish, Hank Gathers had played even better than the year before, averaging 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds per game, becoming the second player in NCAA history to lead the nation in both scoring and rebounding in the same season.
The following year was Hank Gathers' senior year and expectations were high. But circumstances took a darker turn very early in the season. In a game against UC Santa Barbara, he began to feel light-headed with a warmness upon his feet. All of the sudden, he collapsed in the middle of the court. While he got up like it was nothing, tests later proved that it indeed was a big deal. An enlarged heart threatened his life and the medications that he subsequently took slowed him down considerably. Irritated with how his new meds affected his play, Hank Gathers decided to stop taking the meds, knowing the risks.
Against the University of Portland in the WCC semifinals, he threw down a vicious dunk, took a few steps and collapsed. Again, he thought it was nothing and immediately tried to get up. Urged to lay back down by an alert trainer, Hank Gathers would never regain consciousness. He was pronounced dead at the hospital
They canceled the rest of the WCC Tournament, giving LMU the regular season title. Entering the NCAA Tournament, Westhead told his players that they could bow out of the tournament. That no one would think any less of them. Bo Kimble immediately stood up and announced that they would play. They had to honor their friend and teammate. In the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Bo Kimble was fouled and went to the line. All his life, Hank Gathers had shot foul shots left-handed, despite being right-handed. Kimble wanted to shoot one shot with his left hand to honor his friend. He made the shot and the crowd went wild.
After their 111-94 destruction of New Mexico State, LMU went up against the defending national champion Michigan Wolverines. Still inspired all that had transpired, the Lions destroyed the Wolverines 149-115 to move on to the Sweet 16. Alabama proved to be stiff competition for LMU. It was a low-scoring game from start to finish in Oakland Arena but the Lions ultimately prevailed 62-60. They ran into their mirror images in the Elite Eight, losing to UNLV 131-101.
It was a hugely disappointing way to end the season. After all that they had been through, the team felt that they deserved more. Shortly after the season ended, the powerhouse that Paul Westhead had built crumbled to the ground. Lawsuits from the family and personnel investigations within the university caused Westhead a great deal of stress and the team an unending amount of heartache. Before the next season began, despite being dropped from the family's initial lawsuit and f0und non-culpable of Hank Gathers' death, Paul Westhead resigned from LMU.
Hank Gathers' legacy lives on in LMU. The Lions retired his jersey number 44 in 2000.