In March 1990 Philly native Hank Gathers, a senior at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, was the leading candidate for college basketball’s player of the year. As a junior, he had led the nation in both scoring and rebounding. He was a certain NBA first- round lottery pick in the draft just a few months hence. Since the age of twelve his goal had been to reach the NBA and release his mother and brothers from the grip of poverty in one of the worst slums in America.
His dream ended in a nightmare during a West Coast Conference Tournament game on March 4 that was watched by his family and thousands of fans at courtside and later on national television. Hank threw down one of his trademark tomahawk dunks and was headed back up court to the cheers of his fans. He slapped his teammate’s hand, then fell slowly to the court. Within minutes Hank Gathers, who had proudly boasted of being the strongest man alive, was dead.
I never met Hank Gathers while he walked this earth, but I wish I had. In researching and writing this book I got to meet him through the eyes and words of those who played with and against him, coached him, counseled him, and loved him. No one who met him ever forgot him. He was the kind of man who touched men’s souls. Yet today, if you mention his name to anyone old enough to remember what happened, the invariable response is, “Oh yeah, the guy who died on the court.”
That Hank Gathers should be recalled solely for his passing is as tragic as his demise. The ghastly images of his death ignore the complexity of his life, the nobility of its purpose and his lasting legacy.
Hank’s ferocity and competitiveness earned the respect of his opponents and the accolades of the press, yet he never lost his innocent enjoyment of life and all it offered. His passion and his bliss were written on his smiling countenance off the court, and none could miss it. He was a gentle giant adored by the children who worshipped him. There was no evidence of the “privileged jock” mentality in his demeanor or interactions with other students. The kid from the ghetto was just another kid even if he was on the cover of national magazines.
No one has ever played the game of basketball harder than Hank, and few have played with more at risk than he.
“If someone told me I had a fifty-fifty chance of dying if I played basketball again, I wouldn’t play. Hank would,” said his friend Bo Kimble.Despite the billions of dollars it generates and the madness it creates each March, college basketball is, after all, just a game. And games by definition are frivolous pursuits. But sometimes games can promote meaningful change. Such a game took place on March 4, 1990.
The death of Hank Gathers triggered sweeping and dramatic changes in the way sports medicine practitioners view physical examinations and medical surveillance of all college athletes who have taken the field since. The defibrillators now at the ready in all major arenas have saved the lives of athletes and spectators alike and are part of the legacy of Hank Gathers.
Heart of a Lion is Hank’s life story. I believe the title is one he would have chosen because it captures the way he lived, the way he played, and the way he died.
Hank Gathers walked this earth for only twenty-three short years, but he left us with his dream - that anything is possible.
Hank may be gone, but the dream is alive.