THE DEATH OF A DREAM
After collapsing on the court at the Gersten Pavilion during a game against UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 9, Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers walked into the locker room, slumped to his knees and sobbed. He was crying not only because he was scared, but also because he feared his collapse might have punctured the dreams of many others.
Peter Priamos, a Los Angeles attorney who befriended Gathers five years ago, followed him into the locker room that night. "I told him, 'It's O.K., we'll find out what it is,' " Priamos said last week. "He looked up at me and said, 'You don't understand. I just blew the NBA.' "
Gathers, who died during a game on March 4 after he again collapsed on the Loyola court, ached for the chance to prove himself in the pros. He also wanted to earn the kind of money that would allow him to take his family out of the Philadelphia ghetto where he was raised. Gathers was, in fact, counting on it. His family—from his mother, Lucille, to his three brothers, to his aunt Carol, to his six-year-old son, Aaron—was counting on it as well.
Now the family will count on Hank in a different kind of court. Last Friday, three days before Gathers was buried in Philadelphia, the family announced that it would file a "seven-figure" lawsuit against those it deemed responsible for his death. "We had planned on waiting until after the funeral to announce this," said the Gatherses' attorney, Bruce Fagel of Beverley Hills, who is also a licensed doctor. "But the purpose of this press conference is that up to this point, the only information that has been released, 90 percent of it is wrong."
On March 6 the Los Angeles Times quoted an unidentified cardiologist as saying Gathers had been advised not to play basketball, had missed a treadmill stress test the week before his death and was suspected of not taking his heart medicine the last week of his life. Fagel said that Gathers was never advised to quit playing, that he did not miss a treadmill test and that he had been seen by family members taking his medicine. And Albert Gersten Jr., the Los Angeles real estate developer who underwrote the building of the basketball arena on the Loyola campus, said, "Hank was with me Friday [March 2] to watch my eight-year-old son play basketball, and I watched him take his pill out, break it in half and swallow it. If that's not taking medicine, I don't know what is."
Fagel said the suit, expected to be filed in Los Angeles Superior Court this week, will question whether proper procedure was followed directly after Gathers collapsed. Why, for example, wasn't the specially-purchased de-fibrillating machine, which restores the heart's rhythm and was kept on the sidelines during all of Loyola's games after Gathers's first collapse, used on the court immediately upon Gathers's second collapse instead of minutes later outside the gym? And should Gathers have been cleared to play at all after the Dec. 9 episode? The suit will also charge that someone within the Loyola athletic department pressured Gathers's doctors into reducing his dosage of the heart-stabilizing drug Inderal because it was affecting Gathers's play. School officials maintain that everything that could be done medically was done for Gathers before and after the fatal game. They say they will not respond to Fagel's allegations until the suit is filed.
Ironically, had the 6'7" Gathers quit playing after his first collapse, he probably could have cashed in on his $1 million disability insurance policy with Lloyd's of London. Gathers took out the policy last spring when he decided to stay at Loyola for his senior season after leading the nation in scoring and in rebounding as a junior. The policy, which was designed to benefit Gathers in case of a career-ending injury, did not include benefits for death.
"We talked about him cashing it in, hanging it up," said Priamos. "But Hank would have nothing to do with it. If the doctors were going to clear him to play, he was going to play."
And so Gathers agreed to let his doctors perform any tests necessary to find out if that was possible. During one test, his heart began racing so wildly that the doctors had to administer shock to get it stabilized, said a friend who was with Gathers at the hospital that day. Such an incident is not unusual during these kinds of tests, cardiologists say, but it was so painful and so traumatic that it left Gathers despondent about his circumstances and caused his mother, who saw him shortly afterward, to collapse in the arms of a nurse, the friend said.
But Gathers's real concern came when he discovered the dosage of Inderal prescribed for his heart condition prevented him from playing basketball with his usual relentlessness. The medication made him drowsy. He couldn't run as fast. His mind wasn't as sharp. Recalls David Spencer, who recruited Gathers for USC, where Gathers played for one season before transferring to Loyola. "With the medication, Hank became average. And he hated being average."
According to Fagel, who has examined the hospitals' medical records, doctors gradually decreased Gathers's Inderal dosage from 240 mg to 40 mg during treatment after his first collapse. Friends said Gathers's energy level rose. Still, he became depressed several weeks ago after Los Angeles Clipper coach Don Casey told him he would probably be the 10th to 15th player chosen in the upcoming NBA draft. Gathers's teammate and lifelong friend. Bo Kimble, would probably go in the top five, Casey said. Gathers had counted on being a top-nine pick, which would have meant more money for his family.
He decided to work even harder in an effort to reach that select group. Whether he also further reduced his Inderal dosage—and whether, in any event, this had any bearing on his death—is uncertain.
WHAT PRICE $32.6 MILLION?
Through a series of contracts with two cable stations and three TV networks, the last of which was announced last Friday. NFL owners raised their annual TV revenues to $32.6 million per club, or almost double their take during each of the last three years (chart, at right). As recently as 1978, television yielded just $2 million a team.
The first of the four-year contracts was negotiated with a new player in the NFL's television sweepstakes. Turner Broadcasting Systems, whose eagerness to get in on the action was shrewdly exploited by the league's new commissioner, Paul Tagliabue. "Grab onto my coattails and ride them into the 21st century," Ted Turner, the TBS boss, told NFL negotiators, by way of trying to supplant ESPN as the sole cable outlet for NFL games. In the end, Tagliabue worked out rich deals with both TBS and ESPN.
In 1987, in a three-year deal that expired after the '89 season, ESPN agreed to pay $51 million annually to air four preseason games. Sunday night games in the last eight weeks of the year and the Pro Bowl. In his contract, Turner anted up $112.5 million a year for three preseason games and up to nine Sunday night games early in the season. The package includes neither Pro Bowls nor any late-season games crucial to the playoff picture. To maintain its relationship with the NFL, ESPN then bought essentially the same package of games it had under the '87 contract—for the same $112.5 million a year TBS had agreed to pay. The combined $900 million payout by the two cable networks forced the hands of CBS. ABC and NBC, all of which wound up shelling out substantially more than they had under their previous deals with the league.
But while Tagliabue filled the owners' coffers, he also watered down their product. The NFL will allow TV to increase its commercial time in 1992 from 27 to 28 minutes per game. To expand the number of Sunday "exposures," the league will stretch the season from 16 to 17 weeks in 1990 and '91, and to 18 weeks during the next two years. It also added two more teams and two more games to the playoff format, moves that allowed it to exact more money from ABC, which will now join in the playoff coverage. As former Dallas Cowboy general manager Tex Schramm said last week. "Maybe I'm a purist, but this deal takes away a premium from winning a division."
While most of the league is delighted with its TV lucre, some longtime NFL executives have misgivings that echo Schramm's. "The question is. Where is the line?" he asks. "How far should we go? And what do we do at the end of this deal to keep the thing increasing? I just don't think that it's a very positive precedent to set."
THEY SAID IT
•Tony Campbell, Minnesota Timber-wolves guard, after suffering a painful fall on his hip during a game against the Washington Bullets: "My gluteus maximus is hurteus enormous."
•Don DeVoe, the basketball coach at Florida: "I'm a no-nonsense coach who took over a nonsense program."
THE NFL'S TV BONANZA
Average Outlay 1987—89
Per Season 1990—93
4 years, $1.06 billion
4 years, $900 million
4 years, $752 million
4 years, $900 million
4 years, $3.65 billion*
*Include estimated $40 million for 1994 Super Bowl rights, which have still not been sold