Let’s take to the basketball courts again today, though the occasion is a sad one.
In the late 1980s, the basketball world was blessed with one of the most entertaining teams to ever play the game: Loyola Marymount University. Coached by Paul Westhead, the team’s philosophy (at least from my side of the television) was simple: run the other team to the point of exhaustion. And it was a blast to watch. Their offense featured…well…they didn’t really have a set offense. I watched one game where, if I recall, Loyola’s average time of possession was nine seconds. Find a clock with a seconds hand and count off nine seconds. That’s how long it took Loyola to move the ball up the court and take a shot.
It wasn’t a basketball game…it was a track meet with a ball on a basketball court. Needless to say, it led to some incredibly high scores. In fact, the five highest-scoring games in NCAA history have this team as one of the competitors. And the team? Well, everyone could run, that’s for sure. And everyone could score, there’s little doubt about that. I recall the tournament game (against Michigan, I believe) where Jeff Fryer camped out beyond the 3-point arc and drained shot after shot after shot. But at the scoring center were Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers.
Teammates and friends from high school, Kimble and Gathers presented a one-two scoring punch that was absolutely devastating to opponents. It’s truly rare to have one player on a team average 30 points a game. Loyola’s 1989-90 regular season featured two. And the scores of the games were (and still are) laughable. The fewest points they scored during the regular season was 91, in the first game of the season (against eventual National Champion UNLV). After that they were an unstoppable steamroller. On ten occasions, they scored 130 points or more. Look at the numbers here and be staggered.
They cruised into the WCC Tournament, destroying Gonzaga in the first game. The next night, March 4, 1990, they took the court against Portland…and there tragedy struck. It’s a clip many of us have seen numerous times on TV. Midway through the first half, with Loyola well on their way to another blowout, Hank Gathers scored on a beautiful alley-oop dunk. As he turned to head up the court, he stumbled and collapsed…and didn’t get back up.
Though Hank Gathers was known as a kid with big heart, he also had a heart condition. It had been diagnosed the year before, but Gathers (either on his own or convinced by others) hadn’t been taking his medication properly because of how it affected his game.
He was rushed to the local hospital, but Hank Gathers was dead at just 23 years old. Loyola Marymount would continue its season in honor of Hank (you might remember Bo Kimble’s left-handed free throws), and would reach the Elite 8 before being defeated (again, by UNLV). But one of basketball’s premier talents was gone.