By BRUCE LOWITT
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 7, 1999
One moment, Hank Gathers was producing the kind of thunderous dunk that brings basketball fans to their feet. The next moment, he lay on the court, dying.
He was 23, a senior at Loyola Marymount with pro potential when he collapsed on March4, 1990, a little more than six minutes into the Lions' semifinal game against Portland in the West Coast Conference Tournament at Gersten Pavilion in Los Angeles.
It was the second time during the season that the 6-foot-7, 210-pound senior from Philadelphia had fainted on his homecourt during a game. On Dec. 9 against Santa Barbara, Gathers went to the foul line with 13:56 left in the first half, missed his first free throw, stepped away from the foul line and went down. He had several days of tests in a local hospital and returned after missing two games.
Three years after Gathers' death, in frighteningly similar circumstances, Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis died while shooting baskets at practice.
Each had collapsed three months earlier, each had been diagnosed with a heart ailment, each had been cleared to play basketball again and each was on medication -- but each may have cut back on the dosage or stopped taking it altogether.
Bo Kimble, his teammate and friend since high school, insisted that Gathers had taken his medication and "would have done whatever he was told to do" to ensure his health. But he also said: "If you told me that every time I stepped on the court I had a 50-50 chance to survive, I wouldn't play. Hank would."
Gathers had given Loyola Marymount a 25-13 lead with his dunk moments before collapsing near midcourt. He appeared to have convulsions for several seconds while his mother and sister rushed from the stands, cries audible to everyone in the arena's suddenly silent crowd.
Cardiac resuscitation failed, he was taken to a hospital 5 miles from the arena and died an hour and 41 minutes after collapsing. The game was suspended.
The stunned crowd quietly left the arena.
Coach Paul Westhead did not immediately say whether the Lions would play in the NCAA Tournament.
"Hank would want us all to be strong and to go on," Kimble said, "and I'm sure in our hearts, my teammates and myself, we're dedicating all that we have for Hank." Riding the emotional aftermath, the team reached the West Region final, losing to UNLV.
According to Dr. Roger S. Blumenthal, director of the Henry Ciccarone Center for the Prevention of Heart Disease at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, Gathers had hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, "a thickening of the heart muscle, a pronounced thickening, more so than you would expect to see in an athlete.
"People with this degree of thickening also are more likely to have abnormal electrical systems of the heart, and it's that abnormal electrical system that predisposes them to sudden death," Blumenthal said.
Gathers' family sued the university, settling out of court for nearly $2.4-million. A civil suit against two doctors was dismissed.
Gathers had purchased a$1-million insurance policy on himself seven months before his first collapse. Had he quit playing, he might have been able to collect. But it covered only disability, not death.