25 years ago, Hank Gathers died, but his memory hasn’t left those close to him

Hank Gathers led a Loyola Marymount team that played at a tempo unlike any other in college basketball.

It was one of the most public tragedies in American sports history: March 4, 1990 — somehow, almost impossibly it seems, 25 years ago this week, while at the same time seeming like it happened yesterday.

Loyola Marymount University, one of the highest-scoring, most exciting teams college basketball had ever seen, was rolling through the West Coast Conference tournament, en route to what was expected to be a high seed in the NCAA tournament. One of the highest-scoring duos in college basketball history, Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, had taken advantage of head coach Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun system to turn this no-name basketball school into a national power.

It was a packed house at Gersten Pavilion on the Los Angeles campus on March 4 for the team’s semifinal game vs. Portland in the conference tourney.

Then came the halfcourt alley-oop pass from point guard Terrell Lowery and the thunderous dunk by Gathers, and then the scene that anyone who saw will never forget: Gathers — the 23-year-old who called himself the "strongest man in America," the absurdly gifted athlete his coach called a "walking thunderbolt," the soon-to-be NBA lottery pick who was larger than life — stumbled on the basketball court, fell to the floor and never got up.

It’s one of those moments in American sports a fan can’t erase from his brain. It’s like Dale Earnhardt’s fatal crash at Daytona, or, to a lesser extent, Kevin Ware’s gruesome leg injury in Louisville’s Elite Eight game in 2013. No matter how hard you try, no matter how much you cringe at the memory, it’s still there.

Brian Berger has tried to forget. Believe him, he’s tried.

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"I still have dreams, 25 years later, of that night," said Berger, who was a student radio announcer for Loyola Marymount’s radio station, KXLU. "In my dreams, I’m begging Hank not to play."

Berger was on the sideline during that game. He knew the players, shared meals with them, played cards with them, rode with them on the buses and the planes. The images still reappear in his mind: Gathers collapsing, then sitting up and gasping for breath. He remembers the look of horror on Gathers’ face as he seemed to be reaching toward the bench. He remembers the trainer rushing out with the defibrillator he’d brought to games ever since Gathers had collapsed at the free-throw line during a game in December. And he remembers following the family to the hospital, seeing when Gathers was pronounced dead, hearing his mother scream, watching Gathers’ brother put his fist through a wall.

"It was like this Greek tragedy taking place right before your eyes," Berger said. "When you’re a college kid, everyone thinks they’re immortal. You hang with these guys, these amazing basketball players, and you really, really think you’re immortal. And then here’s Hank, the strongest guy in the world. I keep seeing the image of him looking toward the bench. I remember it like it was yesterday. You don’t forget something like that."

The jolt of realization that this tragedy happened a quarter-century ago is a jolt of mortality to all of us who remember that day. For many of us, it does feel like yesterday. A young and promising life ended before it should have. A hopeful and inspiring story of a kid who made it out of the Philadelphia projects, but the second half of the book is missing. A larger-than-life person, in stature as well as personality, whom the public remembers more for the way he died than for the way he lived.

But that’s not so to the people on the court that day. Those people had their lives changed forever, in small ways and large, in what might be seen as Hank Gathers’ legacy. For Brian Berger, what he remembers most from the aftermath of Gathers’ death was the experience of seeing a group of young men use their shared tragedy to bind the team together in one of the most feel-good stories in sports. Berger marveled as Loyola Marymount became the nation’s darling, going all the way to the Elite Eight as an 11-seed, with Gathers’ close friend and fellow Philadelphian Bo Kimble shooting his first free throw of every game left-handed in Gathers’ honor.

For Jeff Fryer, the three-point maestro who set an NCAA tournament record after Gathers’ death with 11 made 3-pointers in one game, the legacy of Hank Gathers in his own life is this: Hank Gathers is the reason he believes in God.

Fryer had been Westhead’s first recruit at Loyola Marymount. Westhead sold him on his system: a structured sort of chaos, where every player ran to a certain spot on the floor every time down, where the goal was to get a shot within seven seconds, where the team aimed to be the best-conditioned team in the sport, luring teams into its run-and-gun style, then running away with games in the second half. When this team came to town, it was like the circus had landed.

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Fryer remembered a road trip to LSU, where a big guy named Shaquille O’Neal was playing. The team was exhausted after playing several games in a short period. They were in a team bus in Baton Rouge, and Gathers went up to the front and grabbed the microphone. He pretended like he was giving a campus tour — even though he’d never been to Baton Rouge before — then he went up and down the rows, ragging on every single member of the team.

Then, all in one moment, during a basketball game in the gym where Gathers had become a star, the larger-than-life Hank Gathers was gone. And Fryer was lost.

"That got me thinking about life and death a lot," Fryer said. "The meaning of my own life, why I’m here and what life is all about and when will I die. It caused me to think about that and think about God. I didn’t have God in my life at that point. Now I have hope for a future in this life and when I die."

"It set me on the road toward faith, and now the most important thing in my entire life is my faith in God."

For Westhead, the brains behind Loyola Marymount’s system, he met Gathers when Gathers and Kimble had announced they were transferring from USC. The two stopped by campus for a visit. Westhead showed some game film of the fast-break offense. Gathers and Kimble thought he was messing with them. Clearly, this was an edited tape. No team does this.

There’s way too many great things about Hank’s presence to just think about the sorrow and the way he died. I think of everything but how he died. I think of how he lived.

"We walked outside with Bo," Westhead recalled, and Hank said, ‘Come on now, coach. I’m from Philly, you’re from Philly. I know you’re lying to me. No one plays that fast, as fast as you played in that film."

Actually, yes, Westhead said. And the two friends signed on the spot. By the time they were seniors along with Fryer, they were well-acquainted with the up-tempo system. This was a team that felt it could have beaten anyone — and if Gathers hadn’t died …

"To quote Charles Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times," Westhead said. "It’s really hard even now to separate it. The death of Hank Gathers is the worst of things that could happen to anyone, to any team, to any coach. And yet the celebration of the team that rallied around Hank and played so marvelously for the NCAA tournament, that’s the best of times. That’s something that happens once in a lifetime. It makes you realize you need other people around you. They just seemed to play above themselves …

"It was a tribute to Hank Gathers," Westhead said, "but it was also a way to avoid thinking about him."

And then there’s Bo Kimble. You can’t say Bo Kimble without saying Hank Gathers; you can’t say Hank Gathers without saying Bo Kimble. They were both archetypal Philly ballers: physical, aggressive, always finishing after contact. They came to Los Angeles together from Philly, transferred from USC to Loyola Marymount together and were on the court together that day 25 years ago.

Kimble hardly goes a day when someone doesn’t mention Hank Gathers’ name. He’s been to 40 countries; in every single one, people ask about Hank Gathers. He’s formed a charity in Gathers’ memory, to get free heart tests for children and to get defibrillators in every gym in America. And he still says to this day, despite the fact that the UNLV team that won the title in 1990 was one of the greatest teams in college basketball history: "We would have won the national championship if Hank were alive."

How’d Gathers’ death change Kimble? It made him live every day like it’s his last. It made him realize you can live a great life in a short life.

But here’s the thing: So many of the rest of us think of Hank Gathers and think of the end. Kimble doesn’t. He thinks of everything else.

"When I think of Hank Gathers, I don’t think of sorrow," Kimble said. "I think of all the great laughter, all the funny memories, all the times on the court and off the court. There’s way too many great things about Hank’s presence to just think about the sorrow and the way he died. I think of everything but how he died. I think of how he lived."

Since that awful moment, we’ve all moved forward in life. Twenty-five years later, we notice how much time has passed since this seminal moment in college basketball history, and it makes us realize our own mortality. Time has passed us by. We’ve gotten older. But Hank Gathers did not. In our minds, he’s always 23 years old and slamming down that tomahawk dunk, a man whose inspiring life ended before the truly amazing part — the NCAA tournament, the NBA fame, the riches — could ever begin.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.