Anyone who's read this site knows that we don't put much stock in the old saw that "sports are an escape from real life." On the contrary: sports are played, coached, and officiated by real people. Fans experience real joy and real despair. And the ugly business of sports is suffused with real money serving real agendas.* * *In a first-round West Coast Conference tournament game -- a laugher in the first half, the #1 seed already up 10 -- Hank Gathers took an alley-oop pass from Terrell Lowery for an easy dunk. Gathers and his senior teammate Bo Kimble were looking to lead their Loyola Marymount Lions to a third straight NCAA Tournament bid; they were well on their way after that dunk, when Hank Gathers ran to mid-court and collapsed.
Still, once the game starts, those ties to the real world fade into an abstract background. Complexities become simple. College enrollments and athletic budgets outline a story of shrewd underdogs competing against well-heeled favorites. The things we love and hate are expressed in color schemes, logos, chants. And, in the confines of a basketball court, 19-year-olds with girlfriends and hangovers and cell-phone bills turn into larger-than-life heroes and villains until they step off the stage.
On March 4, 1990, real life made its presence felt on that stage, in the most devastating possible way.
Instantly, the bubble around the game burst and real-world concerns flooded in. Fans fell silent, players wept, coaches and trainers and staff rushed to Hank's aid. And then the worst: he stopped breathing, pronounced dead at 23 of an exercise-induced cardiac abnormality that rendered the hoariest of sports cliches -- the heart of a Lion -- into a sickening reminder of mortality.
In Hank's memory, the tournament was cancelled, and the Lions, as regular-season champions, won the WCC's automatic bid to the NCAA brackets. Twelve days after Hank Gathers died, they tipped off in the Big Dance. In the following two weeks, they'd come to embody the ideal of "team" on a national stage -- but that ideal developed long before most of the 1989-90 Lions ever stepped foot on campus.
* * *Of course, there's no single definition of team, but we can start with a baseline: you need two people. Ideally, they're two people with compatible drive and complementary skills. And to be truly unified, it would be best if they'd gone through some adversity and come out stronger.
Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, both Philadelphia natives, stepped on their first court together in the ninth grade. That practice ended in a fistfight. It was the beginning of something great.
For the next four years, Hank and Bo turned their competitive focus on common opponents, forging a two-man game in the tough-as-nails Philly Public League and leading Dobbins Technical High School to the 1985 league championship. Bo was a shooter and a slasher, equally comfortable pouring in shots from outside or penetrating and passing. Hank lived in the paint, strength and quick feet and smart positioning letting him play bigger than his 6'7. Together, they were a classic pairing: speed and power; inside and outside; off-court friends and on-court demons who came together to win a title. The movies couldn't write it any better. And, as if they knew it, the pair from Rocky's hometown headed to Hollywood to make it big.
After a freshman season on a Southern Cal team that never quite clicked, the inseparable tandem found their opportunity a few miles closer to the coast, at Loyola Marymount. And they weren't the only Philly natives on the small campus. Lions coach Paul Westhead had gotten his start at suburban Cheltenham High and coached for nine years at Big 5 stalwart La Salle -- neither campus more than a half-hour drive from Dobbins Tech. He'd come to California for a job with the Lakers and seen his own Hollywood ending, leading them to a title in his first year (at the Spectrum against the 76ers, no less).
But the success faded, as it does. Westhead was pushed aside in favor of Pat Riley, and he was about to leave California for good when Loyola Marymount came calling. Six years after winning an NBA title, he was back on campus, teaching English to undergrads and quietly implementing a hell-for-leather brand of hoops he called The System.
* * *If a team needs at least two players, it also needs a purpose, an identity, a reason. For LMU, Westhead's run-and-gun System was it. The System wore defenses down and poured points into the basket. It was fast, glitzy, exacting and exciting basketball. It required speed. Even more, it required intense mental and physical toughness. And Westhead's new transfers -- Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, fellow Philly guys in the California sun -- turned out to be the perfect System players.
In Bo and Hank's first season at LMU, the Lions vaulted from the bottom of the West Coast Conference to the top. Their presence made The System click: the pair's nearly identical 22-point-per-game averages put them among five players in double digits, and the team chalked up its first NCAA Tournament win. The next year, The System picked up where it left off, but Hank made a great leap forward. With 32.7 PPG and 13.7 RPG, he became only the second player ever to lead the NCAA in both scoring and rebounding.
The '88-'89 season would end with a disappointing first-round tournament loss, but Bo and Hank were set to return for an encore tour of the WCC and the NCAA before the pros came calling. The '89-'90 season would be their last, best chance to do something special together.
* * *"The Hank and Bo Show." That was their nickname on the late-night highlight shows, but it wasn't the whole story. Sure, the team's heart was the Philadelphia pair who'd come so far together, but the beauty of The System was the way it relied on all of its components, and the way Bo's drives and Hank's boards invariably found someone on the other end.
Senior three-point specialist Jeff Fryer was a crucial figure at the perimeter, turning Hank's outlet passes and Bo's drive-and-kicks into open threes at a 40-percent clip. Guard Terrell Lowery, a future Major League Baseball player, came off the bench 32 times in the '89-'90 season, ensuring the frenetic pace didn't flag for a second. Swedish import Per Stumer anchored the middle, giving the Lions a solid third rebounder (and opposing coaches matchup headaches). Everyone on the roster could run for days and fling up shots from nearly anywhere. The team was primed to become something much bigger than the sum of its parts.
To prove it, LMU tipped off its season with a trial by fire: a road matchup against the fearsome UNLV Runnin' Rebels. They traded punches with the Rebels for the game's first 20 minutes, and kept it close for much of the second half, even as tired legs and foul trouble meant Hank's 1-on-3 drives had to carry the team through stretches. But the Rebels built their team on defensive smothering, transition points and backbreaking runs, and the last five minutes of the game featured too much of all of those. The Lions left Vegas with a valiant 11-point loss, confident that they belonged on the court with anyone.
To help forge the team into a tournament contender, Westhead embarked on a cross-country barnstorm. The Lions only played four non-conference home games (one of them against 1988 national runner-up Oklahoma), and ventured to every corner of the nation: Florida, San Diego, Oregon, and Philadelphia, where Bo poured in 54 points, including the buzzer-beater, against St. Joseph's.
They came home with a 9-3 non-conference record; more than that, the road-testing, The System and Bo and Hank's preternatural connection had created a hellbent, free-flowing, unified basketball machine. LMU was nearly unstoppable in front of the home fans that packed Gersten Pavilion. They tore through 11 straight WCC wins, with the only bump in the road a 148-141 overtime loss on a hastily scheduled national-TV trip to LSU. (Freshman Shaquille O'Neal proved too much for The System -- barely.) Through February, Hank was dominant as usual, Bo continued his emergence as a potential NBA lottery pick, and the Lions cruised into the WCC tournament with a 13-1 league record and a #1 seed.
Then, on March 4, Hank Gathers collapsed.
And of all the Lions' amazing achievements, perhaps the greatest is that the team didn't.
* * *It would have been the easiest thing in the world to call it quits. To end the season, turn down the automatic tournament bid and face their grief inwardly and privately. The team had lost its MVP; the fan base had lost its hero; Bo Kimble had lost his best friend, and at a cruelly young age.
But, instead, they played on. They had to. As Bo would tell anyone who'd listen, they were a team on a mission; in the LMU locker room, someone scrawled "The Dream Is Alive" on the chalkboard, and the Lions weren't about to let that dream go.
Three days after Hank's funeral in Philadelphia, the Lions tipped off their tournament in Long Beach as a #11 seed. The black "44" patches on their jerseys were the most visible sign that Hank was foremost in their minds, and their jittery, mistake-filled first half made it just as clear. But in the second half, something changed. The System started to flow, and the Lions came out on fire; a desperate Aggie foul stopped the clock in the middle of an 18-4 run.
What followed then was the moment that everyone remembers, that all of us who love basketball have watched and wept over more than once. Hank, for all of the greatness in his game, struggled with free throw shooting, and the last mechanical tweak he'd tried was to shoot left-handed. Bo decided to pay tribute to his best friend by attempting his first free throw in each game the same way, and it was perfect -- a team's inside joke turned into a poignant memorial, and the players, the fans and the nation got a quiet moment to remember not only Hank's life, but his lifelong work to improve his game.
When Bo sank that left-handed free throw, the roar that went through the Long Beach crowd echoed like a national championship celebration. (Even watching it through the lens of 20 years of nostalgia, it raises goosebumps.) And after the free throws and an Aggie basket, LMU went on an incredible five-second, two-takeaway, eight-point run that effectively decided the game.
* * *What happened in that second half was this: LMU began playing with absolutely no fear.
On March 4, they'd been struck by the worst thing that could happen on a basketball court, a real-life intrusion of terrible finality. And after that devastating loss, they were suddenly, totally unable to be intimidated by mere basketball.
They didn't fear a higher-seeded New Mexico State team. They didn't tremble at facing the defending national champions in the second round, instead setting a tournament scoring record while running Michigan out of the gym. And they didn't back down in the face of a defense designed to grind the System to a halt: in the Sweet 16, Alabama held the Lions to 62 points, but that was enough to win.
They didn't even fear a rematch with the mighty Rebels from UNLV, or the fact that a Final Four berth was on the line. And while I'd love to tell you about their stirring victory, this is where the games stopped fitting the narrative. Without Hank's presence in the middle, the fast, seasoned Rebels cruised to a 30-point UNLV win, one more step on their trip to a dominant national championship run.
* * *But, though it ended in a loss, the loss isn't really the point. No, what remains is the way the Lions played fearlessly because they faced tragedy together.
Whether it's in the heightened emotional context of sports or in the quiet moments of everyday life, we humans are inevitably going to deal with despair. Even two decades removed, Loyola Marymount's young men in maroon and blue have much to teach us about doing so. They lost a leader and a friend, but they never stopped being a team. They faced their grief by sharing it throughout their community; they kept each other from being overwhelmed, and they allowed sadness to coexist with pride and joy as they played on. The unity of "team" gave the Lions perspective, and support, and purpose, and it helped them retake the court without fear.
When we think about the conjunction of sports and "real life," it's usually the bad news that comes to mind: long-term injuries, shady business deals, tabloid nonsense. But as we stand on the cusp of another college basketball season, the Loyola Marymount story brings a crucial, positive lesson off the court and into reality: whoever they are, and whatever you face, hold on to your team. You'll be glad you did.