Taken away in a heartbeat | PostIndependent.com

Taken away in a heartbeat

Mike Vidakovich
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
Mike Vidakovich

It was just over 20 years ago, on March 4, 1990, that Loyola Marymount University basketball star Hank Gathers went up for an alley-oop dunk against Portland University in a semifinal game of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament being held in Los Angeles.

As Gathers trotted back down the court after giving his team a 25-13 lead, he began to stumble, and then, suddenly, he crashed to the floor in a heap.

He would never get up.

After attempts to revive him failed, Gathers was pronounced dead on arrival at a nearby Los Angeles hospital. The man who had dominated the college basketball scene since arriving at Loyola Marymount, a small Catholic college, was gone in an instant, leaving many to question why he was allowed to run up and down a basketball court at the time of his death.

Gathers, a 6-foot-8 power forward who led the NCAA Division I in scoring and rebounding during the 1988-89 season, had collapsed in a game against Santa Barbara a few months earlier, just prior to Christmas.

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Diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat, Gathers was given medication and advised to sit out some games and then to proceed with caution on the court.

There was nothing cautious though, about Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead’s style of play. The LMU Lions were required to run at a breakneck pace, putting up shots within 10 seconds of each possession, and apply full-court defensive pressure the entire game, forcing opponents to play at their frenzied pace.

Gathers, who was a top NBA prospect at the time, was having trouble keeping up with the pace of the game upon his return. He felt the medication was affecting his play, making him sluggish, so he cut back on his dosage.

The rest, as they say, is unfortunate history.

Following Gathers’ death, Loyola Marymount made a spirited run through the NCAA tournament, reaching the Elite Eight.

In his memory, Gathers’ teammate Bo Kimble, who had been friends with Gathers since their playing days at Dobbins Technical High School in Philadelphia, shot his first free throw of every game left-handed, something Gathers had experimented with his senior year to try and raise his abysmal free throw percentage.

Kimble went on to have a nice NBA career, and Gathers would have most likely been equally successful at the professional level, if not more so.

It’s probably hard for many to understand Gathers’ decision to cut back his medication and risk his life in order to continue to play a game. But those who have – or have had – a genuine passion for a sport, realize how hard it is to sit on the sidelines and watch, to be left out of the action.

This rings especially true for someone like Gathers, who was in the prime of his athletic life. He knew the storm clouds could engulf him at any time, but it was worth the risk in order to stay in the arena, playing the game he loved.

• Congratulations to Glenwood Demon track coach Blake Risner, who continues to churn out champion athletes and teams each spring season. Risner is one of the best coaches you will find anywhere and at any level. I always joke with him that he had better take me along as equipment manager when he lands at C.U., or, better yet, Notre Dame.

• A reminder to area runners about the Walk/Run For Their Lives 5K on Saturday, June 5, in Silt. Sandy Burns puts on one of the best races in the area and it all goes to help the animals at the Pauline Schneegas Wildlife Foundation. For race information, Sandy can be reached at 987-3593.

Mike Vidakovich is a freelance sports writer for the Post Independent.

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