It was March 4, 1990 when the college basketball world was shaken up after Loyola Marymount’s senior leader Hank Gathers collapsed and died on the basketball court during a WCC tournament game against Portland.
Hank had just caught an alley oop pass and slammed it down like he had done so many times during his career. He was getting set up in his spot for the full-court press – then it happened in an instant.
Hank collapsed at midcourt and everyone in the gym froze and got completely silent. Everybody in the gym was absolutely dumbfounded and didn’t know what was going on.
Hank didn’t want anyone to see him like this so he tried to get up immediately, but the team trainer urged him to lie down. Shortly after that, he stopped breathing. The ambulance came and took Hank out of the gym on a stretcher. When he arrived at Daniel Freedman Hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival at the age of 23.
The autopsy revealed that Hank died of a heart-muscle disorder called cardiomyopathy.
This wasn’t the first time that this happened to Hank though. He had collapsed once before during a game on December 9, 1989 against UCSB while he was at the free-throw line.
During the week following that incident, Gathers was observed by doctors to see what had caused this to happen. The doctors concluded that he had an abnormal heartbeat. The doctors prescribed Hank with some heart medication and told him that he could continue to play, but only if he takes the medicine as prescribed. Hank soon came to realize that the medication was affecting his play, so many believe that he had cut back on the dosage.
At 6’7’’ and 210 pounds, Hank was an athletic freak and always wanted to be in tip-top shape. He often bragged about being the strongest player in all of college basketball. Every single player had to be in their best shape to play in that system and they were. That is why their team was so good. The medicine may have caused his production on the court to diminish because he looked sluggish on the court. Nobody really knew how serious this condition was until the day he died from it.
Hank is best remembered for thriving in Paul Westhead’s “gasoline on fire” offense, which made sports fans around the nation recognize that LMU was a big deal. Hank, along with his best friend and teammate, Bo Kimble, resurrected the basketball program at LMU and turned the team into a powerhouse program for the three years that they played there from 1987-1990.
The LMU teams from ’87-’90 set so many offensive records and will be remembered as one of the top offensive teams in college basketball history. LMU would lead the nation in scoring in 1988 (110.3 points per game), 1989 (112.5 ppg) and 1990 (122.4 ppg). The 1990 record still stands as the highest team scoring average in the history of the NCAA. In my opinion, that is one of the most unbreakable records in all of sports right there.
As a junior during the 1988-1989 season, Hank would become only the second player in NCAA Division I history to lead the nation in scoring (32.7 ppg) and rebounding (13.7 rebounds per game) in the same season. In his first two years on the team, he led LMU to consecutive WCC Championships where he was named tournament MVP both times.
After his death, Kimble and the team decided to play out the rest of the season to honor Hank. In the team’s first round game against New Mexico State, Kimble decided to shoot his first free-throw left-handed in honor of his good friend (Hank had such a tough time shooting free-throws that he actually tried shooting them left-handed at one point in his career). Kimble actually made his left-handed free-throw and the whole arena went nuts. The team made an emotional run to the Elite 8 where they lost to the eventual national champion UNLV.
It was such a shame to see something this tragic happen to a young man who had a promising pro career like Hank Gathers. It was also ironic to see a freak accident like that happen to such a physical prototype like him. All these years later, basketball fans around the world still remember the legacy that Hank Gathers left behind.
It’s sad to say that the same heart that made Hank be the best player he could be was the same heart that cost him his life. R.I.P. #44 Hank Gathers (2/11/1967 – 3/4/1990).