The scene is etched in Eric Mobley’s memory.
One moment, Hank Gathers was soaring up for a two-handed alley-oop slam dunk, and the next, he was slumped over onto the court, gasping for air as a once-raucous Gersten Pavilion fell eerily quiet.
“It feels like it was yesterday,” said Mobley, currently an assistant coach at USC. “It was crazy to see happen. Someone doing an amazing highlight and then to just fall down and be gone. It was like it happened in super slow motion. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I was the closest person to him when he went down and could see his face the whole time. I’ll never get that out of my head.”
Wednesday, March 4th, marks the 30th anniversary of Gathers’ tragic passing from a heart condition at the age of 23 in the early minutes of a West Coast Conference tournament game between Gathers and the Loyola Marymount Lions and Mobley’s University of Portland team.
As a junior the previous season, Gathers had become only the second player in the history of Division I men’s basketball to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding.
Led by innovative coach Paul Westhead, LMU had become one of the most entertaining shows in all of sports, with a fast-paced, run-and-gun style that encouraged players to bomb away from three-point range at will and allowed the Lions to often run opponents right off the floor.
Playing way out west for a school most sports fans had never heard of and in a conference many hoop heads didn’t pay much attention too, Gathers and the Lions became a cultural phenomenon.
This writer was a hoop-crazed teenager living in the Midwest and came to love seeing LMU pop up on late-night ESPN games and the nightly highlight shows.
The 1989-90 Lions averaged a still-record 122.4 points per game with a style of ball every kid dreams of playing, and Gathers was the driving force.
There was a memorable regular season game against a loaded UNLV team in 1989, and in 1990, an unforgettable contest against Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Jackson, and LSU — a game that ended with a 148-141 LSU overtime victory — in which the scorekeeper’s electric typewriter malfunctioned.
Shaq and the Tigers got the win, but Gathers finished with 48 points and 13 rebounds. He recorded this stellar performance despite having his first seven shots blocked by the towering O’Neal.
For insight into who Gathers the player was, consider that before the overtime tip, Gathers stared down O’Neal. He said: “It’s gonna be five more minutes of war. You better be ready.”
After the game, Gathers told the Los Angeles Times: “We missed some key shots. I think we more or less beat ourselves. We couldn’t have asked for a better game. I love that kind of game.”
The game is on YouTube and remains a sterling example of how great college basketball can be.
“All these years later, people will come up to me in the damndest spots and say, ‘Coach, that is the greatest college game I ever watched,’” LSU coach Dale Brown once said. “It really was. It was like gladiators going after each other in the Roman Coliseum.”
Gathers was a 6-foot-7, 220-pound ball of muscle and energy whose rim-rattling dunks and monster rebounds were reminiscent of a leaner Charles Barkley.
Paired with guard Bo Kimble and flanked by hot-shooters like Jeff Fryer, LMU had the ideal personnel for Westhead’s “System.”
Players from that squad gathered on the LMU campus on Feb. 29 as the school unveiled a Gathers statue. He was inducted into the school’s Hall of Fame in 2000. The entire team, which advanced to the school’s lone Elite 8 appearance, was inducted in 2005.
Memories of Gathers’ time at LMU and the team’s memorable run in the NCAA Tournament remain strong. It was highlighted by a 149-115 beatdown of defending national champion Michigan.
“The players performed on the one hand to honor Hank Gathers, but on the other hand to forget for two hours the pain and suffering that they were going through,” Westhead said of how the team responded to the tragedy and prepared for that NCAA Tournament. “Playing the game gave them some relief from their sorrow. They played not necessarily trying to win. You get in the tournament, it’s win or you’re out, but that wasn’t their concern. They just wanted to play and perform.”
From Philly with love
Kimble and Gathers originally came to Los Angeles from their native Philadelphia in a bit of a package deal to play at USC.
But after a coaching change following their freshman seasons, the former high school teammates needed a new home. Following a brief community college stint, they found one at LMU.
They also landed in an ideal situation under Westhead. His basketball philosophy revolved around training his players to be in the best physical condition possible. This would enable them to execute his up-tempo, full-court pressure game. This offense stood out at a time when so many programs ran traditional half-court systems.
“Playing those guys, whoa man, if you did break that press and score, you had better have one foot going back on defense because they were coming and coming FAST,” Mobley said with a chuckle. “They put so much pressure on you because even if you scored, they were trained to get it out of the net and go and it wasn’t just guys looking for the first good shot either. That is a bit of a misconception. They’d swing it with three or four passes to an open shooter and then Hank was a guy who was always running in behind you to get a lob pass. He’d also grab a rebound on one end and go coast-to-coast on you. They were explosive.”
Mobley’s teammate at Portland was a sophomore guard named Erik Spoelstra.
Now best known as the successful, championship-winning head coach of the Miami Heat, Spoelstra recalls being on the LMU campus. He would see Gathers and other Lions running on the school’s track with parachutes strapped to their backs.
“You had to be in as good a shape as they were and that was easier said than done,” Spoelstra said. “Not many teams ran the way they did and those guys worked hard to be physically capable of doing it. They made basketball feel like a track meet and it was revolutionary at the time. I remember that our philosophy was: If two go for an offensive rebound, three guys sprinted back on defense and even then, it felt like it was not enough. And they all pretty much had the green light so the normal idea of protecting from the paint out kind of went by the wayside. It kind of predicted the style we are seeing today where teams at every level have four or five guys on the floor who can shoot it from any distance.”
Westhead, who coached the Lakers to the 1980 NBA title, had always wanted to push the limits of fast break basketball.
Kimble and Gathers, along with players like Fryer, Peabody, and Lowery, were the ideal guinea pigs for his experiment.
“It has never been hard to get players to buy into the concept of playing fast and attacking from all angles,” Westhead said. “The key though was making sure they were in shape to do it and willing to totally max out physically. My pitch to Bo and Hank when they were considering LMU was hey, ‘Come here and you can play totally free and open.’ It was music to their ears and once we got rolling, everyone was having so much fun, it just kind of snowballed.”
Mobley, who played high school at San Diego’s Helix, was intimately familiar with the Southern California hoop scene. He said Portland players regularly were on campus at LMU or UCLA for intense summer pickup runs. These games included the likes of NBA stars such as Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Reggie Miller, and others.
The LMU players proved to be gracious hosts.
“We used to hang out with those guys all the time, playing pickup and then just kicking it in LA in the summertime,” Mobley said. “Hank was such a good person. Just an outgoing, warm personality. He wanted everyone to be as happy as he was. Even though he was a star nationally after his big junior season, he didn’t carry himself like he was bigger or better than anyone else. He just fit in with the guys. It was hard not to like him even though we knew we had to compete against those guys in season.”
A life cut short
It was no secret that Gathers had been dealing with a heart condition heading into the 1990 WCC tournament. He fainted on the court during a game against UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 9, 1989. Gathers was put on a medication he did not enjoy taking.
Called Inderal, the medication left Gathers feeling drowsy, and he tried to reduce his intake on several occasions, according to a piece published by The Athletic.
Still, there was no way for anyone to predict what was going to happen on that fateful night 30 years ago.
“When you are that young, you feel indestructible and that is what I remember most about Hank,” Spoelstra said. “He was so physical. Just a specimen. It is weirdly fitting that his last basket came on an alley-oop dunk because that’s what he did so well. To see a guy like that go so early was really hard. It is a painful memory but I am glad he is being honored.”
The unveiling of Gathers’ statue brought members of the 1989-90 Lions back together for one of the few times.
There was laughter and tons of stories about those teams and Gathers specifically. There was also sadness about a life cut short. Gathers never did get to realize his NBA dream. We can only speculate over what kind of career he may have had.
Along with names such as Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, we are left to wonder about what may have been.
“Oh, he would have made it,” Westhead said. “He may not have been a star but just off his energy and rebounding ability, he would have had a nice career for sure. Maybe average 15 a game and 10 boards. Something like that. Maybe win a rebounding title or two. I have no doubt about that.”
Kimble, who formed the “44 For Life” organization in honor of his best friend, will always be closely linked with Gathers and he is 100% comfortable with that.
“I think about Hank every single day,” Kimble said. “I’ve been to 53 countries. In every one of them, someone has asked me about Hank.”
For his part, Mobley regularly talks about Gathers to his highly recruited sons, Isaiah and Evan, as well as the players he has coached over the years.
In that way, a life cut tragically short has continued to have an impact on others.
“For me, looking back, the main takeaway is how precious life really is and how it can be taken away so quickly,” Mobley said. “That is something I really emphasize with my kids and the young people I coach. One minute you can be doing what you love to do, the next it can be over. You never know. So take advantage of every opportunity and approach life and basketball with joy and passion the way Hank did. To me, that is his enduring legacy.”