Tipoff was Barely 45 minutes away, and nobody-not his mother, Lucille, not his aunt Carole, not his brothers, Derrick and Charles, not his coach at Loyola Marymount, Paul Westhead, not his teammate Bo Kimble—could find Hank Gathers.
Loyola Marymount assistant Jay Hillock was concerned. "Have you seen him?" he asked fellow Lion assistant Judas Prada as they stood at the Gersten Pavilion on the Loyola Marymount campus in Los Angeles. "He's usually here skipping rope by now."
Just then, still well before the start of the West Coast Conference tournament semifinal game between Loyola Marymount and the University of Portland on March 4,1990, into the gym walked Gathers, grinning wildly, his white uniform clinging to his muscled chest, which was beaded with sweat.
"He was out on the track running sprints," Prada said as he turned to watch Gathers wave to some friends.
Flames leap from a metal barrel and pierce the dark Philadelphia night. A cluster of men huddles around the makeshift heater, stamping their feet on the frozen pavement. The flames make the broken windows in the burned-out buildings around them glisten like jagged crystal. Gutted cars, some sitting on cinder blocks with their wheels bare, line both sides of the narrow street. A car stops at the corner. A man appears from a darkened doorway, flashes a handful of money and approaches the passenger's side of the car. The window is lowered. An exchange is made. The car drives off, and the man disappears back into the shadows.
Not far away, Lucille Gathers, 44, sits in a crumbling two-story brick row house. Her yard is littered with broken bottles and paper bags from fast-food restaurants. Her front door is covered with bumper stickers from Hofstra, Massachusetts and a dozen other universities that at one time coveted the talents of her basketball-playing sons. It has been a year since Hank Gathers died too young during that Loyola Marymount-Portland game, taking with him too many dreams for too many people. And so Lucille, surrounded by the deprivation of North Philadelphia, sits and waits in the house where she has lived for 24 years. Waits for a chance to get out.
Knowing this, knowing how much Lucille and the rest of the Gathers family had counted on Hank to take them from this place, perhaps it is easier to understand some of the ugliness that has pervaded the aftermath of his death. Maybe it is easier to understand why they have hired Bruce Fagel, a Los Angeles lawyer who specializes in medical malpractice cases—and publicity—and filed a $32.5 million lawsuit against Loyola Marymount, Westhead and the doctors and trainers who treated Hank, both when an irregular heartbeat was discovered after he fainted on the court during a game against UC Santa Barbara on Dec. 9, 1989, and after he collapsed in the game against Portland, and why the lawsuit has produced, so far, only new wounds.
Maybe it is also easier to understand why Marva Crump, the mother of Hank's seven-year-old son, Aaron, was selling T-shirts, with DOING IT FOR HANK 44 inscribed on the front, for $5 each on a Philadelphia street corner last July, a few months after she had wept hysterically at Hank's funeral service; why she has hired her own attorneys, filed her own lawsuit against the same parties; and why, according to an acquaintance, she now instructs Aaron to refer to Gathers only as "Daddy"—which Crump denies—when before it was just Hank.
Maybe it all makes sense when you see Kimble, Hank's teammate through high school and college, pull his 1991 silver BMW into the driveway of his palatial new home in Sherman Oaks, with its kidney-shaped pool and postcard view. And maybe you can comprehend why Kimble, now a rookie guard for the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers, and the family barely speak to each other and why Lucille won't allow Hank's high school number at Dobbins Tech in Philadelphia to be retired on the same day that Kimble's number is retired.
And maybe it explains why Gathers was running sprints on the Loyola Marymount track in the minutes before the start of what would be the final basketball game of his life.
"He was running the medicine off," Prada said to Hillock.
"The real tragedy now is that Hank isn't around to put a stop to all of this—to defend himself." There is a hint of disdain in Father Dave Hagan's voice as he sits at a worn table in his North Philadelphia house, just a few blocks from the Gatherses' place. Hagan's home, purchased for $2,800 in 1972 and now valued at $650, is a humble haven for teenage boys and young adults struggling to stay out of trouble in an environment that produces little else. Hank Gathers, whose parents divorced when he was nine, was one of Father Dave's kids, as they are known in the neighborhood, and Father Dave, a Catholic priest, remains Lucille's close friend and confidant. It was he whom Derrick Gathers telephoned from the hospital to say that his older brother had died. "It has been painful to watch the evolution of all this," he says wearily. "Reading all the depositions, hearing the accusations, everything has been so painful." He pulls on his cigarette, scratches his balding scalp. "None of it brings Hank back."
And it has brought nothing but sadness and controversy to Gathers's legacy.
The tainting of that legacy began only hours after doctors at Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in Marina del Rey pronounced Hank dead, an hour and 41 minutes after he had collapsed on the court. Loyola Marymount officials, after receiving calls from people interested in donating to a fund in Gathers's memory, quickly asked Lucille if she wanted to approve two funds to be established at a local bank in Hank's name: one to help the Gathers family with its financial difficulties, the other to be used to create a Hank Gathers scholarship at the university. But Lucille, upon the advice of family friends, including Hagan, rejected the scholarship fund. She was convinced that it would be too easy for the $25 donations to be placed in the family fund and the $2,500 checks in the school fund. So only one account was opened. At first, donations arrived from all over the country, steady and strong. In just a few days, the balance in the account totaled nearly $17,000. Then the contributions slowed to a trickle. One reason for the sudden change may have come on March 9, three days before Hank was buried, when Fagel announced, in front of 11 TV cameras, 12 microphones and two-dozen reporters, that he had been retained by the Gathers family—including Carole Livingston Gilmore, Hank's aunt—to file a $32.5 million lawsuit, claiming negligence, emotional distress and wrongful death.
"People were shocked," says one former Loyola Mary-mount athletic department official. "Not so much at the lawsuit but at the timing of it. Had they waited even a couple of days to sue and done it a little quieter, money would probably still be coming into the family's account."
Public sentiment, in fact, flipped overnight. The bad feelings continued when it was learned a few weeks later that Crump had retained two Philadelphia lawyers to represent Aaron and herself in their own wrongful death suit. The suit claimed that Aaron, not the Gathers family, was the rightful heir to Hank's estate.
Suddenly, the people closest to Gathers in life were, in his death, fighting over money that wasn't there.
Crump, 26, has a four-year-old son, Chris, by another man. She, like Lucille, appeared to be counting on Gathers to help her get out of the North Philadelphia row house she shares with her sons and her mother, Phyllis. Hank's high school friends say he was proud of Aaron and vowed to take care of him when he made it to the NBA—a likely achievement for a player who had led the nation in scoring and rebounding as a junior and had enjoyed a solid senior season. But the friends also say that Hank and Marva were never close, that he picked Aaron up at her house and dropped him off there. Nothing more. Marva says: "Nobody knew him the way I knew him. We were a lot closer than anyone thought."
"She made a fool of herself at the funeral," says Rich Yankowitz, Gathers's high school basketball coach. "She was crying, trying to get into the casket, saying, 'My baby, my baby, my baby.' She and Hank were nothing."
It did not surprise Gathers's neighborhood friends that a few months after Hank was buried. Crump was spotted sitting near the campus of Temple University, not far from her house, selling the aforementioned T-shirts, which had been printed during the NCAAs. Nor were they surprised when Aaron suddenly started calling Gathers "Daddy."
"I sat with her and Aaron at one of Hank's games," said Hagan. "Aaron yelled out, 'Look, Mom, that's Daddy!' She turned to him and said, 'That's not Daddy, that's Hank.' "
Derrick, who is attending Cal State-Northridge, says his family was upset that Crump filed her own suit. "It just messed everything up," he says. "We would have taken care of Aaron. It hurt that she didn't think we would. It crushed my mom."
The two cases were ultimately consolidated by mutual consent, but Derrick says there is still animosity between the two parties. Lucille and Marva live an alley apart but rarely speak. "It's painful for all of us," Crump says softly. "Aaron is doing better now. For a while he was slipping in school. But he seems to be coming through his sadness. I'd trade all the money in the world if this were all a joke."
Father Hagan takes another sip of coffee, another drag on his cigarette. "You see, a lot of us lived vicariously through Hank," he says, shaking his head. "We were all desperately hoping he would make it. Not too many come through this environment and do."
The phone rang at 2 p.m. in a Los Angeles apartment, several weeks after Gathers's death. Derrick was on the line and asking Kimble if he would come to Fagel's office to sign some papers. Perplexed, Kimble asked, "Papers for what?"
"We need your consent for a movie deal," Derrick answered. "We want to send my mother home with a check."
Jim McGillen, an independent producer, had reached a tentative agreement with attorneys representing the Gatherses and Crump to produce a made-for-TV movie on Gathers's life. The estate would receive more than $70,000. Because Kimble would be a principal character in the movie, McGillen wanted his permission and help in writing the screenplay. Kimble called sports agent David Spencer, a longtime mentor; Spencer called his partner, Leonard Armato. Armato told Kimble not to sign anything.
"I wanted some control over how my character was portrayed, and they [Fagel and McGillen] wouldn't allow that," Kimble says. Kimble urged the Gathers family to wait, saying the parties could perhaps cut a better deal. But thinking that Kimble was trying to undercut them, Derrick and Lucille became angry. When McGillen backed out of the deal, their anger turned to fury.
"We were hurting for money real bad, we were struggling, needed it then," says Derrick. "We thought Bo was like one of the family members, but it seemed that he was all in it for himself."
McGillen insists, though, that the collapse of the initial deal was not Kimble's fault. "I did not walk away from the project because of Bo Kimble not being there that day," he says. "Rather it was because of difficulties I had with Bruce Fagel." McGillen continues to pursue the project and says he is "confident" that the movie will eventually be made. "I am doing the movie," he says. "Bo Kimble will cooperate, and no matter what, the Gathers family and the estate will be properly compensated."
The Gatherses' initial fury was fanned by Kimble's emergence as a national hero. Here he was, valiantly leading the Lions to the final eight at the 1990 NCAA tournament. And here he was, shooting free throws with his left hand just like his fallen friend. But at the same time, says a family friend, "nobody seemed to remember Derrick or Lucille. Everything was Bo, and they started to resent that."
During the tournament, Kimble patiently answered journalists' questions about Gathers. He was candid and open, explaining that he wanted the whole world to know the kind of person Gathers was and how much love the two of them had shared. He pledged that if he made it to the NBA—Kimble was a certain first-round draft pick-he would take care of Lucille and her family, just as Gathers would have done for Kimble's family. The nation, which watched Kimble almost nightly on television, was touched.
"Hank's death made Bo," says a former employee of the Loyola Marymount athletic staff. "They were friends, but they weren't best friends or even the oldest of friends. Bo wasn't even Hank's closest friend on the team. But Bo played up the relationship. He wasn't a phony—he truly loved Hank—and maybe to him it was that way." Kimble says, "I have never tried to characterize myself as Hank's best friend. We were friends for a long time, and we were close friends."
The Clippers made Kimble the eighth pick in the 1990 draft. After a brief holdout, he signed a guaranteed five-year contract worth $7.5 million. By then, he had hired Armato and Spencer, who set about promoting Kimble and honing his image. They signed a New York writer, David Falkner, to collaborate on a book about Gathers and Kimble and landed Kimble a leading role in the soon-to-be-released movie Heaven Is a Playground, based on the book of the same title by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED senior writer Rick Telander.
Kimble's moves were met with raised eyebrows back in Philadelphia. A December article in the Los Angeles Times, reprinted in The Philadelphia Inquirer, convinced some people that things had gone too far. The piece, which ran in The Inquirer under the headline CREATING A HERO, noted that Kimble and his agents were trying to shape his image into one similar to Julius Erving's. Not because Kimble was a phony but because "that is the way he is," Spencer was quoted as saying. "He might enjoy a glass of wine once in a while. We're not talking about getting drunk or drinking the whole bottle. If he's out and wants to have a drink, I just want him to make sure it's in a real classy restaurant."
"Who is he kidding?" asks Darrell Gates, a high school teammate of Gathers's and Kimble's and one of Gathers's closest friends. "A glass of wine with dinner? That's not the Bo we know."
In July, Kimble won the National One-on-One tournament in Atlantic City, a pay-per-view event featuring eight promising rookies. The winner's purse was $100,000, and Kimble sent $5,000 of the money to Lucille. She accepted the money but has yet to acknowledge the gift. Spencer isn't even sure whether Lucille has cashed the check. To this day, Spencer says, she won't return Kimble's calls. In November, when Yankowitz telephoned Lucille and told her of Dobbins Tech's plans to retire both Hank's and Bo's numbers during a school assembly, she told him she wanted separate ceremonies. On March 15, Dobbins Tech will host an intrasquad game, at which time Gathers's number will be retired. Kimble's number will not be retired until a later date.
"I'm not taking this personally," Kimble says. "I had a great relationship with the Gathers family, and I know a lot of the trouble now is, in part, because I'm here and Hank isn't. I don't think they mean me any harm." But harm has clearly been done. Last August, according to Fagel, Lucille and Derrick testified in depositions taken for their lawsuit that Gathers and other members of the Loyola Marymount team, including Kimble, had taken money from Albert Gersten, a prominent Loyola Mary-mount basketball supporter and private developer, who contributed heavily to the construction of the school's gym-it's named for his father. (Kimble refused to comment on the allegation.) They also testified that Gersten's payments had subsidized a $1,050-a-month apartment near campus and a car for Hank. Derrick says the payments were an "incentive" to keep Hank—who had discussed leaving Loyola Marymount to join the NBA after his junior year—with the Lions for his senior season. In his deposition, Derrick estimated that Gathers had received about $50,000 "more or less" from Gersten and others during his four years at Loyola Marymount. Derrick also testified that Hank had given a substantial, but undefined, portion of that sum to his mother.
Gersten's attorney, Skip Miller, says each of the allegations against his client is "absolutely false, outrageously false."
The depositions were filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court in mid-January as part of the defendants' motion to challenge Lucille's right to sue for wrongful death. By then Fagel had tipped off some reporters as to the contents of the depositions. He said that the incriminating information about the school and Gersten was initiated by questions from attorneys representing the defendants, including Westhead and Loyola Marymount. Loyola Marymount athletic director Brian Quinn says he has alerted the NCAA to the allegations, which, if found to be true, could force the Lions to forfeit every game from the 1989-90 season as well as the $800,000 they received by advancing to the final eight. If the basketball program at Loyola Marymount crumbles, Fagel says Loyola Marymount officials have only their attorneys to blame. "They should never have questioned Lucille Gathers's right to sue," he says. "None of this would ever have been made public."
The Gathers family's suit includes four major charges: 1) that Westhead induced Hank's doctors to reduce Hank's dosage of Inderal—a medicine used to treat his irregular heartbeat; 2) that the doctors did not properly monitor the effects on Gathers of a lowered dosage; 3) that the Loyola Marymount team doctor, school doctor and team trainer waited too long to administer the proper life-saving procedures on Gathers after he collapsed in the game against Portland (a defibrillator kept at courtside was not used until Gathers had been carried off the floor and out of the view of the spectators); and 4) that perhaps Gathers should never have been allowed to play basketball at all after his first collapse.
In early January, a week before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge ruled that Lucille may well have been financially dependent on her son and therefore could be a legal plaintiff, Fagel called another press conference and dropped a bombshell. If it weren't for Paul Westhead, he said, "Hank Gathers would be alive today."
Westhead denied Fagel's charge and filed a suit, in excess of $1 million, for defamation of character.
Why was it necessary to say such a thing? "So much of the news in the papers has been about payments and other issues that have nothing to do with this case," says Fagel. "I was trying to refocus the public's awareness to the issues at hand."
That so much of this case has been publicized is no surprise to lawyers who have dealt with Fagel. "You want to know what cases he's won?" asks another Los Angeles medical malpractice attorney. "Just call him up, I'm sure he'd be happy to tell you. He loves the publicity. Turn on any camera, any microphone anywhere and he's always got something to say." Lawyers for all parties are scheduled to discuss settlement possibilities in March—insiders say that a $2 million to $4 million figure, to be paid to the Gatherses and Aaron by the defendants' respective insurance companies, might satisfy everyone. The trial—if it comes to that—is scheduled to begin on Sept. 3. All parties have agreed on this: If the case does go to trial, what is ugly now is bound to get uglier. "It's the nature of the business," says one of the attorneys.
Friends and former coaches say that Gathers seemed happy in the weeks just before he died. He was playing well, looking forward to the conference tournament and hoping to showcase himself in front of the scouts at the NCAA tournament. He never talked about the fears that he might have had about his health. "I'm the most doctor-tested man alive," he often joked.
"If he didn't get drafted, he didn't care," says Doug Overton, a star guard at La Salle who played with Gathers at Dobbins Tech. "All he wanted was a tryout. That's all he would have needed to make anybody's team."
Overton and some of Gathers's other high school friends last saw Gathers during Loyola Marymount's two-game visit in early January 1990 to Philadelphia, where the Lions played St. Joseph's and La Salle. By then, the episode that had occurred in the game against UC Santa Barbara nearly a month before seemed of little concern. The Inderal evidently was working; in fact, Gathers had missed only two games after his on-court fainting.
Gathers and Kimble had envisioned returning to Philadelphia in triumph. "That first night, we all went to watch La Salle play Temple," says Gates. "There was Doug, me and Hank and Bo and Terrell Lowery [a Loyola Marymount player from Oakland] and a couple of the other guys standing at midcourt at halftime, just busting on each other."
After the game, the guys went back to Hagan's, where they ate pizza and told stories until 2 a.m. Then they went knocking on doors at the Penn Towers, where the Loyola Mary-mount team was staying.
"Hank was every bit himself, he was so happy to be home," says Darryl Dawson, another of Gathers's friends. "He was doing his Ali imitations right and left, clowning like always, kidding Terrell about being so scared of our neighborhood. You couldn't tell anything was wrong."
At least you couldn't until the following night in the game against St. Joe's. Kimble hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to give the Lions a 99-96 win, but Gathers's performance, which included 5-for-11 shooting and only 11 points, was miserable. He was so humiliated that he refused to come out of the locker room until after his friends had left the arena.
Gathers spent the rest of the night at the hotel, talking with Westhead and Westhead's wife, Cassie. According to attorney C. Snyder Patin, who represents Dr. Vernon Hattori, a Los Angeles cardiologist who had been treating Gathers, Westhead called Hattori and asked if something couldn't be done to alleviate the side effects of the Inderal, which is known to cause fatigue, listlessness and a lack of coordination in those who take it. Hattori told Gathers he could cut the dosage from the original 200 milligrams per day to 160.
"He came over the next night, and we went upstairs, and he sobbed," says Hagan. "His father [is a recovering] alcoholic, and Hank had always hated drugs. He said, 'And now I'm forced to take a drug that's killing me.' " Gathers blamed the Inderal for his poor play, saying it made him sluggish.
The next night, against Overton and La Salle, Gathers was a different man, scoring 27 points and getting 12 rebounds as the Lions won 121-116.
"It was just like being back on Father Dave's court on 22nd Street," says Overton. "Everyone from the neighborhood was watching, and Hank was awesome."
Gathers came out of the locker room after the game wearing a hero's smile. "He raised his hands and said, 'The king is back,' " Hagan says. "The whole Loyola Marymount team was just giddy because they thought he was back. Even Westhead, who spent the whole game watching only Hank, as if he were waiting for the slightest sign, seemed happy. It was quite a night."
Over the next two months, Gathers's medication was reduced three times, to 120, 80 and finally to 40 milligrams, according to Hattori's attorney, and his level of play steadily improved. In February, Gathers and Kimble appeared together on the Today show, and they helped the NCAA produce an antidrug spot for TV. When the Detroit Pistons went to work out at the Loyola Marymount gym before a game with the Los Angeles Lakers in early December 1989, before Gathers's first collapse, Gathers and Gates walked into practice, and Piston forward Dennis Rodman turned to say hello.
"Rodman had been asking who was this Hank Gathers kid," said Gates, who was attending nearby Santa Monica Community College. "Hank had been in the weight room really pumping up. He walked in, saw Rodman and said, 'Hey! Hey! I'm ready for the N-B-A.' "
Following Gathers's Dec. 9 episode, some observers had doubts about his future in the pros. "A red flag went up in front of all of us when he collapsed the first time," says Pete Newell, who coached Gathers at his big-man's camp during the summer of 1989 and who has been a scout for two NBA teams. "Whether it got back to him or not, I don't know. But we figured it would be like a Terry Cummings thing."
(Cummings, who was diagnosed as having an irregular heartbeat in 1983, during his first pro season, with the then San Diego Clippers, now plays for the San Antonio Spurs under medication.)
Gathers's friends insist that he did everything his doctors told him to do. Autopsy reports revealed that traces of Inderal were found in his system. It has not, however, been determined whether at the time of his death Gathers had taken the dosage prescribed for him. Derrick says that Hank took his medicine early in the morning on the day he died, though he didn't actually witness it. He also says that his brother had learned that by working up a good sweat before a game, he could lessen the side effects of the medicine.
"He started skipping rope before games," says Derrick. "He thought he had all the bugs worked out. He believed he could lick it."
So many people believed in Hank Gathers. Happily, not all those hopes died with him. Dawson and Gates are trying to carry on. Dawson has moved out of the old neighborhood where he, Gates, Gathers and Kimble grew up, and is working as a mail clerk at a branch office of the Mellon Bank in Philadelphia to support himself and his family. Gates is working in the stock room of Universal Records in Philadelphia and hopes for a tryout with a European pro team this spring.
Hagan's group is flourishing. Last summer, several of his young men cleaned up two neighborhood parks, one of which they have unofficially renamed for Gathers.
Overton, now a senior at La Salle, shaved Gathers's number 44 into his hair and dedicated this season to his memory. He is one of the nation's leading scorers and a probable first-round NBA draft pick.
Aaron, Gathers's son, draws stick people with red hearts on their chests, excels in math and penmanship in second grade and talks of becoming an artist.
Derrick is scheduled to graduate from Cal State-North-ridge in December with a business degree. He wants to play basketball in the Los Angeles summer pro league.
Kimble is struggling with the Clippers, averaging through Saturday only 8.0 points a game while shooting just 38.6% from the field. "Not a day goes by when someone doesn't remind me of Hank," he said over breakfast recently. "They will say that they saw us play or that they're pulling for me because of Hank. Other things, too, remind me of him. Things we did together, certain drills we run in practice. It's still hard. The last year has been hard."
For Lucille, the last year has been devastating. Once a feisty, quickwitted woman—"She spit on an opposing coach's shoes once, when she found out his guys were intentionally fouling Hank," Yankowitz says—she is now quiet and subdued, less likely than she used to be to join in when neighborhood boys drop by her house to visit her fourth son, 21-year-old Charles. For three weeks after Hank's death, she was in seclusion at the St. Malachy's Rectory, more than a mile from her home. She is also on medication for hypertension. In August, her oldest son, Chris, was sentenced to 18½ to 40 years in prison for robbing a jewelry store. She hasn't had a job since she contracted hepatitis 2½ years ago after being accidentally stuck with a dirty needle while working as a nurse's aide. "Hank was just like her," says Gates. "But something's gone in her. She's not the same."
Lucille still dreams of owning a house somewhere, anywhere, Derrick says, far away from the memories. But to fulfill that dream, she now depends on lawyers and depositions, the outcomes of suits and countersuits—not Hank.
"We didn't know it would turn out this way," Derrick says. "When we decided to get an attorney it was because there were questions that hadn't been answered about why and how my brother died. We just wanted them answered. We may not get any reward out of it all. We may just find out some of the things that happened to Hank and that will help a little bit."
Gathers is buried in a cemetery just outside Philadelphia. Up until the time of World War II, many blacks were not interred within the city limits, and many black families continue the practice of burying their loved ones outside the city so that they will be near their ancestors. Gathers's grave sits alone, yards from any other, 100 feet from a two-lane highway and half a mile from an aluminum recycling plant. The grave is marked by a cone of red and yellow plastic flowers, a small, worn American flag and a simple wooden cross. Stapled to the cross is a photograph encased in plastic of Gathers. A tombstone with photos and poems is being made, but the present stark memorial seems more suitable.
Last Christmas, Hagan sent a card to David Spencer, Kimble's agent. On it he wrote: "I just wish we could let Hank rest in peace."