Friday's Birthday Shout-Out: Hank Gathers Still Lives

In 1989, I fell in love with college basketball. As far as I was concerned, the UNLV Runnin' Rebels were the greatest thing I had ever seen in my life. Not just the greatest basketball team, not even the greatest sports team.

The greatest THING ever.

I was 12 years old and had never seen such a mesmerizing show. From the lavish, Vegas-style introductions, complete with fireworks to the unbelievable athletes playing a style of basketball that looked like it came from the mind of a video game designer. All of it run by an eccentric little man who sat on the bench chewing on a towel. There was no part of it that wasn't entertaining.

Only one thing could come close. Loyola Marymount. If UNLV basketball was a track meet, LMU was the Autobahn. Paul Westhead was the man behind the wheel, but Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers were the engine. My friends and I dreamed of seeing those two teams face off in the NCAA Tournament. Would the scoreboards be able to count high enough to keep track of all the points they'd score?

Then after LMU's regular season finale on March 3rd, 1990, came the horrible news that Gathers had collapsed and died. The Lions made an emotional and inspiration run to the Elite Eight before losing to UNLV. Bo Kimble's left-handed free throws will always be one of the lasting images of the tournament to me.

In 2004, just months before the 15th anniversary of Gathers' death, L.A. Times columnist Bill Plaschke wrote about strange phenomena happening in LMU's Gersten Pavilion. Odd sights and sounds that many believed to be the ghost of Hank Gathers.
As Hank Gathers died there, so he now lives there, his banner on the wall, his jersey in the rafters, his No. 44 on the backs of students, his presence flowing as smoothly as that last roaring dunk before his midcourt collapse.

"We're a Catholic institution, so we believe in the Holy Spirit," said Bill Husak, the school's athletic director, choosing his words carefully. "Let's just say, we believe that Spirit is working through the memory of Hank."
Instead of treating it as some kind of kooky ghost story, the campus population embraced it as inspiration, giving the former star the respect he commanded and deserved. As fans we were robbed of the chance to enjoy Gathers talents, but I've always felt better believing that he still lives in the place he was the most content.

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