Thursday, March 4, 2010
20 years ago today I walked into my off-campus apartment and asked my roommate, "Did we win?" Ten seconds later I was shocked into the realization that life, even a young, strong life, can end in an instant.
My Alma Mater, Loyola Marymount University, is a small Catholic university in Los Angeles which, in addition to having a championship rugby team in '89-'90, thank you very much, also had a stellar, record-breaking basketball team. Loyola was playing the University of Portland in the West Coast Conference Basketball Tournament. The winner of the tournament would go to the elite NCAA Division I Basketball Tournament.
Loyola was the highest scoring team in the nation, and 20 years later they still hold that record! The nation's top scorer and rebounder was Loyola's own, Hank Gathers. A giant athlete (for his day), Gathers earlier that season out-rebounded and out-scored a collegiate Shaquille O'Neill when we played LSU.
Hank was a funny guy, and always friendly in the locker room. And the NBA scouts were salivating. Because Loyola's basketball strategy was based on a high paced, quick scoring fury, the team was always out running around the rugby field as we practiced - they were as conditioned as we were. Even though Loyola was an exceptional basketball program, holding many NCAA scoring records to this day, it was still a small school, and we were friends with the guys on the team - they'd be at our parties, and they'd be in our classrooms - nothing like the athletes of big time NCAA sports today.
That night I was home celebrating my brother's birthday which was the day before, then drove the hour to Loyola. It was probably 8 PM, and since the game started at 5 PM, it was long over. I had my radio stolen a few months earlier, which was par for the course when you drove a red Jetta, so I was unable to listen to the radio on the way back to campus.
"Did we win?" My roommate looked weird. He stammered, rather solemnly, "They never continued the game when Hank went down." "What?" I said incredulously, "He went down again?" Our star player, Hank Gathers, had fainted at the free throw line a few months earlier. He was diagnosed with an irregular heart beat and put on medication. Hank missed a few games, including a nationally televised game against the other top scoring team in the nation, Oklahoma. I know that the players said Hank complained about the medication, that it made him sluggish. For some reason I think I remember, but I could be wrong, that he either fainted, or felt dizzy and had to sit out practice once or twice as well, but it's been 20 years, I could be wrong. Either way, I knew he had a chronic problem.
But, still, I was surprised that Hank fainted again...in a big game no less, with Loyola vying for the NCAA Tournament bid! With Hank at full strength I imagined we could actually win the first game of the tournament and advance to the next round before surely getting beat by one of the better teams in the nation. But, it will be exciting to see my college in the NCAA's! So, what a bummer that Hank fainted again! Maybe they should change is medicine?
"He went down again?" I shook my head and rolled my eyes. My roommate was motionless, and his jaw began to slowly drop, "You didn't hear?" "What?"
"WHAT?" I ran to the TV, and on every channel, there it was - video of Hank dunking the ball - seen that a few million times - the fans go crazy - seen that a million times - then a stumble, and a fall, and the next shot is of Hank being carried out of the Pavilion on a stretcher by teammates. They used a defibrillator, but minutes later, at the hospital, this giant Greek god of a specimen was dead.
The next day the campus was silent. I mean SILENT. The next time I felt such an eerie sensation of a large number of people going about their day silently was on September 12, 2001.
He died of Hypertrophic cardiomyopathy where the muscle of the heart thickens without obvious cause. Even though they never finished the game, the NCAA decided to give Loyola an automatic bid into the tournament. The team took some time before they decided to accept it...they will play for Hank.
Loyola has entered March Madness, and will play without one of the best players in the nation. First opponent? New Mexico. Result? WIN! It was during this game that childhood friend and teammate, and the other star of the team, Bo Kimble, shot his first free throw left handed. The chills were paralyzing! You see, Hank was great, he can rebound, he can shoot, he was a team player, he was funny, he was an all around great guy, but he could not shoot a free throw worth a damn. The coaches tried a new tactic. Hank would shoot free throws with his left hand. I often walked through the gym out to the rugby field and would watch Hank practicing his free throws left handed. To me it looked ridiculous, but it worked, he was a better free throw shooter with his left hand, barely. So, Bo, in honor of Hank, vowed to shoot his first free throw with his left hand every game. Loyola was the little team that could. With the tragic death of Hank, the left hand free throws of Bo, and a university with a student body of no more than 4,500, the nation was pulling for us!
Next up? The defending champions, mighty Michigan! Surely, little LMU's Cinderella story will come to an end. Result? WIN! Not only a huge upset of the defending champions Michigan, but by a score of 149-115, which still stands as a tournament record for the most points scored. Loyola was now in the Sweet Sixteen! The Sweet Sixteen, year after year, is where the big boys play - perennial powerhouses like Duke, Connecticut and Kansas belong there, not little Loyola! But there we were, and all for Hank! Result? Loyola 62 - Alabama 60! The spirit of Hank lives on, and the world was behind us! Then, in the Great Eight, LMU lost to UNLV which would go on to be crowned champions that year.
Days later Loyola Rugby traveled to Boston for a few games against Boston College, and Boston University. With no time to sew on patches or anything like that we decided to honor Hank on our uniforms by wrapping black electrical tape around our jersey sleeves and with White-Out wrote "44," Hank's number.
Everywhere we went people knew the story of Loyola Marymount Basketball, the left hand shooting Bo, and the spirit of Hank. Everyone said they were pulling for us, it was magical. But one memory sticks out more than any other. During a vicious game against BC where fists were flying a little more than usual for a rugby match, there was a pause. The referee was speaking to the two captains about the particular barbaric road the game was heading down, and he wanted it stopped. With the welcomed break (to catch our breath) so the ref could scold each side, both packs of forwards heaved and sweated and we eyed each other with contempt. We wanted to rip their heads off! They were losing and resorted to playing dirty, cheap! I looked at them and I just wanted knock a few of them out. One of the BC players broke the tension and said, "Hey, we are sorry about what happened to Hank." Wow! Humanity was back into this match, and even though we beat the hell out of each other (we won handily by the way) for the rest of the game, there was an air of civility. One man, the same age as all of us on the field, but bigger and stronger, died in the prime of his life.
Thank you for letting me share my thoughts on those memories from the Spring of 1990. Even though heart disease is the leading killer in America, Hank's was a muscle defect that had nothing to do with how he lived. A majority of heart disease is preventable.
R.I.P Number 44.