Remembering A Fallen Star

I stayed away from the television today, spending my Saturday afternoon yet again working on my home renovation (which has been in progress for over two years now, and is worth a post in itself at some point — but not yet).  I didn’t get a chance to check on much of anything going on until this evening.  Sitting down in front of the tube awaiting the start of the Antonio Margarito/Shane Mosley title fight on HBO, I pulled up ESPN on-line to check out the day’s events.  What caught my attention was the story, “Harris collapses in Alabama game“.

Reading about Harris’ fainting spell and him clutching his chest as he fell to the floor sent a chill down my spine for several reasons.  I’ve had my own incidents in the past of light-headedness and fainting;  a doctor had once diagnosed me with an irregular heartbeat, though since then, my current doctor has assured me that my heart is apparently healthy and I’m not at risk — yet.  My natural father died of a heart attack when I was only a baby, and heart disease runs in my family, so despite a lack of red flags in my background — I’m in relatively good shape, and there’s little alcohol, no drugs, and no smoking in my background — any heart-related illnesses I come in direct contact with or see happen to a public figure always catches my attention.

In this case, seeing it happen to a college basketball player makes me think of one player, a personal favorite who was taken from us all too soon, Hank Gathers.  If you don’t remember Gathers, it’s a shame — for Gathers was, by all accounts, an outstanding player and a nice guy who, instead of living a dream and joining the NBA as a first-round selection, was buried less than a month after he celebrated his 24th birthday.

For those who have forgotten, Gathers had burst upon the scene in 1988, as he led Division I in both scoring and rebounding (becoming only the 2nd player in NCAA history to have done so) while leading unheralded Loyola-Marymount to national prominence.  Along with his teammate Bo Kimble, Gathers had attended USC before the pair transferred to the West Coast Conference school.  The run-and-gun offense of coach Paul Westhead was a perfect fit for Gathers, who flourished.  Loyola Marymount became one of the most entertaining teams to watch with one of the highest-scoring offenses in NCAA history, and Gathers became a potential pro prospect and one of the top players in the country.

With LMU roaring towards an NCAA berth, the future looked bright for Gathers — until a terrifying Saturday in December of 1989 when he collapsed during a conference game against the University of California at Santa Barbara.  Almost immediately after hitting the floor, Gathers had gotten up — but it was clear to anyone who had been watching that something was clearly wrong.  Gathers seemed to be a magnificent athlete — and the idea that something could be wrong with someone who had spent much of two collegiate seasons dazzling us on the court was enough to unnerve anyone.

Tests after the collapse revealed that Gathers had an abnormal heartbeat.  Medication was prescribed, and Gathers would return to the court, apparently healthy again and back on track towards his bright future.

Until it all came to a tragic end on March 4, 1990.

During a first-round match-up in the WCC tournament against Portland State,  Gathers dunked in the first half to put his team up by twelve — the last points he’d ever record.  As he moved back on defense near mid-court, Gathers collapsed to the court again, sending the rabid, cheering crowd into a deafening silence.  He tried, but could not get up.  Doctors and trainers rushed the court to attend to Gathers, while his teammates and opposing players looked on with anxious concern.  Within moments, Gathers heart had stopped beating, and he was hooked up to a defibrillator.  Less than two hours later, Hank Gathers was dead.  Just like that.

I had become a quasi-fan of LMU that season, enjoying their style of play and seeing them as a possible underdog I could root for when the NCAA tournament came around.  I’d liked what I’d heard about Gathers’ potential as a pro, about his hard work ethic on and off the court, and I found it easy to root for his success.  When I heard about Gathers’ first collapse in December, I was worried, and even after he had been cleared to return to the court, I felt uneasy.  Playing a game isn’t worth dying for I had thought.

When I heard the news that late, January afternoon that Gathers had collapsed again, I knew he was dead, even before they announced it on-air.  I just knew, and even though I ‘d never known any more of the man than what I had seen on a television screen or what I’d read in a newspaper, I had to fight to keep the tears away.  As a sports fan, my world was a little emptier.

Later, we would find out that Gathers had cut down on the medicine that he’d been prescribed for his heart ailment, feeling that it made him feel sluggish.  LMU officials were under the microscope, as questions were asked about their role in not protecting Gathers enough.  Gathers’ best friend and teammate Bo Kimble, a right-handed shooter, would honor his fallen comrade by shooting his first free throw in each of LMU’s NCAA tournament games left-handed — and, of course, he made them all.  But none of it was going to bring Gathers back.

Sadly, Gathers is largely forgotten now.  Basketball had seen and would see other tragedies similar to his — Len Bias had died in 1986, felled one night by his own weaknesses and Reggie Lewis’ illness and death in 1993 would be eerily similar to the LMU’s star’s fate  — but even now, Gathers’ tragic story is the one I remember as the saddest of them all.  And that sadness always comes back when I see an athlete taken ill like Ramon Harris was today.  I wish Harris a speedy recovery, and when my day is done,  I’ll try to remember to say a silent prayer that I never have to relive that cold, bleak Saturday afternoon in January of 1989 ever again.

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