Stan Hochman: Hank Gathers still touching friends, strangers 20 years after his death

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Bo Kimble, right, founded a heart disease awareness agency, in honor of his former teammate, Hank Gathers. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)

FLOWERS WILT. Candles melt. Pastel portraits blur in the wind and the rain and the tears. Memories last. Some memories outlast granite. On Jackie Robinson's tombstone it says, "A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives."

Hank Gathers died at 23 on the basketball court at Loyola Marymount 20 years ago today. Caught an alley-oop pass and slam-dunked the basketball so hard and so swiftly it's a wonder it didn't set the net on fire.

Hand-slapped the teammate who threw the pass, patted his backside, started upcourt to apply defensive pressure because that's the way the Lions played, like "gasoline on fire," said one awed coach.

And then, Gathers, 6-7 and 210, built like a Greek statue, toppled to the court. Died moments later, despite the best efforts of doctors and trainers and the use of a defibrillator that had been purchased after an earlier fainting episode involving Gathers.

"Hank achieved more in 23 years," said Bo Kimble, "than some people achieve who live to be 100. And now, Hank is still saving lives."

Kimble, Gathers' high school and college teammate, co-founded Forty-Four For Life Foundation, a nonprofit agency dedicated to spreading awareness of heart disease, the No. 1 killer in America with one victim dying every 37 seconds.

"People ask all the time about the number," said Dr. Tammy Goode, another co-founder of the organization. "It was Hank's uniform number. And for me, there's other significance. My father died of a massive heart attack at 44. That lefthanded free throw that Bo used to honor Hank in the NCAA Tournament, he took four, made four. Lots of fours.

"What we do is try to increase awareness and thus decrease the risk of cardiac disease. We go into churches, schools and encourage people to learn CPR, to learn how to use a defibrillator.

"Obesity is a big factor in heart disease. We support basketball camps, we encourage kids to be active."

Kimble works those camps, talks about Gathers openly and fervently. "People are always asking me about living in Hank's shadow," said Kimble, who played with Gathers at Murrell Dobbins Tech, then Southern Cal and Loyola Marymount. "I have my own identity. I was leading the nation in scoring before Hank died.

"The year before, I missed 18 games with injuries and Hank led the nation in scoring. Collectively, we were stronger together than individually. I'm proud to be associated with him and people ought to realize we not only lost a great player, we lost a great person."

Loyola Marymount became America's team when March Madness began in 1990, making it to the Elite Eight. "From March 4 until March 16, they attended a memorial service, they watched a teammate buried," said Kyle Keiderling, who has written a terrific book about Gathers called "Heart of a Lion."

"I talked to coaches, to writers, no one thought they'd win one game, let alone three."

And the lasting, poignant memory of those three games? The righthanded Kimble making those awkward lefthanded free throws, a tribute to Gathers. "I made sure I let everyone know," Kimble recalled, "that making the shot wasn't important. Taking the shot was. It was a tribute to Hank, who had so much trouble with free throws, he started shooting them lefthanded.

"Other players were writing '44' on their sneakers. Me, I wanted to honor the effort he put in to try to be a better free-throw shooter, even if it meant trying them lefthanded."

Keiderling had similar motives when he embarked on a 30-month "journey" to research and write the book. "Hank was remembered for his passing," the author explained. "A public and ghastly passing. I felt that was unfair, unjust. He had led an exemplary life. He was a role model for kids. He loved his mother, he didn't do drugs, he touched men's souls.

"Here we had Bo Kimble, Hank Gathers, [coach] Paul Westhead, all Philly guys at this tiny Jesuit school, buried deep in the West Coast Conference. All seeking redemption. Westhead wanted to get back to the NBA, Gathers and Kimble wanted to get into the NBA. And they chose this school?"

Westhead preached "The System" that stressed pressure defense, fastbreak offense, getting a shot off within 5 seconds. "So they wind up scoring 122 a game," sighed Keiderling, "and make more three-pointers than anybody in America. Dale Brown, at LSU, said, 'It was like watching your socks in a dryer.'

"Hank was perfect for that school, for that system. He had fought long odds from the day he was born. You're born in the Raymond Rosen projects, you're born poor. And if you die there, you were gonna die poor. Hank never stopped dreaming."

He had help along the way. Rich Yankowitz was his coach at Dobbins. "His senior year," Yankowitz recalled, "he was the blood and guts of that team. A total player, with the desire of a lion.

"He was signed, sealed and delivered to USC. Bo seemed headed for Temple. And then Hank convinced Bo to come out there and check it out. That's the kind of person he was, strong enough to convince someone to come 3,000 miles."

Gathers and Kimble transferred from USC to Loyola Marymount after freshman year.

"They had spats, more like lovers' quarrels. They did fight once, at Dobbins. Flaming Steel game, after the season ended, when I'd split up the sides. Bo's team won. And they got into it afterward. Hank was so competitive, he just hated to lose. He was such a force, so determined, he got everybody around him into the same mind-set."

Kimble, who works with the National Basketball Retired Players Association, remembers it differently. "Only time we squared off was at USC," he said. "In a parking lot. Over $5. We expected to pay $10 to see a play for a class project. It only cost $5. I said I was putting the other $5 in the gas tank. We danced all over that parking lot, big as a football field. Hank wanted to knock my head off, I wanted to fend him off. Nobody ever wanted to get hit by Hank Gathers."

He seemed so strong, so solid. What people didn't realize was that he had been diagnosed with heart problems. Inderal had been prescribed but the medicine made him weak, woozy. He begged to cut the dose. He may have ignored the warnings to take the pill prior to games.

"It tore me apart," Yankowitz remembers hearing the tragic news. "I had just returned from the Public League championship game. A wire-service reporter called and told me. I was in shock.

"The next day, the school was like a morgue. Everybody loved him. He was a leader, a pusher, a driver. The boy's gym at Dobbins is called 'Hank's Place.' "

"I tried to do something to keep his memory alive," said Sonny Hill. "The Hank Gathers College League started after his death. He was a warrior. That's the kind of drive and dedication he had. And the thing that caused him to die was the thing that made him great - his heart."

Westhead has been a basketball vagabond for the last 2 decades. He coaches the women's team at Oregon now. Attended a reunion at Loyola Marymount on Jan. 20, where the team is wearing the same home uniforms worn 20 years ago and a "Hank's Place" banner is prominently displayed.

"The LMU family remembers Hank," he said. "Including the kids, many of whom weren't even born when he died. They sense his impact on the school.

"He was the strongest, most tenacious, aggressive young man you could ever see. Every shot, every rebound belonged to him. And some games he was dead-on right.

"I still feel the sorrow and grief of what a fine young man and a great athlete that we lost. I'm hopeful that even through tragedy we can learn from our mistakes, learn from past events."

The Forty-Four For Life Foundation logo is a basketball, enclosed in a heart with a heart-rate pulsing through the ball. The slogan: "Saving Lives . . . One Heartbeat at a Time."

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