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On This Date in Sports March 4, 1990: Hank Gathers

In collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

Hank Gathers, a star at Loyola Marymount, collapses and dies moments after making a dunk in a WCC Tournament against Portland. Gathers was the two-time WCC Tournament MVP and was projected as a lottery pick. An autopsy determined that Hank Gathers had a heart muscle disorder, which led to his death at the age of 23. The WCC Tournament would be canceled, as Loyola got the automatic big and went on a run to the Elite Eight, playing in tribute to their fallen teammate. 

Hank Gathers was born in Philadelphia on February 11, 1967. Gathers was a top star at Dobbins Technical High School in Philadelphia. He and his best friend, Bo Kimble, were recruited to play at USC. Together with Tom Lewis and Rich Grande, they were among four freshman starters at Southern California. After a disappointing season, Coach Stan Morrison was fired. When George Raveling took over, Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers decided to transfer to nearby Loyola Marymount. 

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After sitting out one year for transfers, Hank Gathers arrived at Loyola Marymount when they were coached by Paul Westhead, who instituted a fast pace frenetic game plan that made the Lions the highest-scoring team in the nation. In 1988, Gathers led the team in scoring and rebounding, averaging 22.5 points and 8.7 boards per game. Hank Gathers would lead the Lions to an NCAA Tournament berth, winning the WCC Tournament MVP in 1988. In 1989, Hank Gathers caught the rest of the nation’s attention as he led the NCAA in scoring with 32.7 ppg and rebounding with 13.7 boards per game. Again, he took LMU to the tournament, winning the WCC Tournament MVP for a second straight season. As a result of Gathers' ability to score, Loyola Marymount played in four of the five highest-scoring games in NCAA history. 

Entering his senior year at LMU, Hank Gathers was projected as a high lottery pick in the 1990 NBA Draft and a candidate for National Player of the Year. On December 9, 1989, the first sign of troubles arose for Hank Gathers as he collapsed on the court during a game against UC Santa Barbra. Gathers was diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat and prescribed medication to treat the arrhythmia. He blamed the medicine and asked for a lower dose. Hank Gathers missed just three games but struggled to find his game. On February 3rd, against LSU, Gathers scored 48 points and 13 rebounds against their star freshman Shaquille O’Neal. 

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When the WCC Tournament began, Hank Gathers was back on track, averaging 29 PPG and 10.8 RPG. However, doctors were worried he was not taking his medication as he often avoided follow-up visits to the cardiologist. Playing against Portland on LMU’s campus in the WCC semifinals, Gathers and LMU were off to a good start. With 13:34 left in the first half, Hank Gathers scored on a dunk from an ally-oop from Terrell Lowery. While getting back on defense, near Portland guard Eric Spoelstra at center court, Gathers collapsed again. It was clear that Hank Gathers was in distress as he struggled to sit up before leaving the court on a stretcher.   

After Hank Gathers collapsed, the WCC suspended and canceled the remainder of the tournament, giving Loyola Marymount, the conference’s regular-season champions, the automatic bid for the NCAA Tournament. Doctors could not save Gathers, who died at the age of 23, in what would later be determined to be caused by hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. 

The LMU Lions would get the #11 seed in the West Regional. They reached the second round in 1988 and were eliminated in the first round in 1989. Determined to play in tribute to their fall teammate, Loyola Marymount went on a thrilling run to the Elite Eight. The run began with a 111-92 win over #6 New Mexico. They reached the Sweet 16 with a 149-115 win over #3 Michigan, the defending tournament champions. In the Western Regional Semifinals, LMU edged Alabama 62-60 to reach the Elite Eight. The miracle run of Loyola Marymount ended with a 131-101 loss to UNLV, who would go on to win the NCAA Tournament. Bo Kimble, a teammate since High School who would shoot the first free throw of each game left-handed, symbolizes the Lions' run and commitment to the memory of Hank Gathers. 

Following the tournament, Paul Westhead left LMU to return to the NBA as coach of the Denver Nuggets. Loyola Marymount has not been to the NCAA Tournament since. Bo Kimble would play briefly in the NBA with the Los Angeles Clippers and New York Knicks. Kimble would shoot his first free throw left-handed as he did in the NCAA Tournament. The Gathers family sued the doctors and the university, settling before the case went to trial. Recently, the school unveiled a statue of Hank Gathers outside the gym, where he played his final game.