Every spring, my mind goes back to March 4, 1990. I'd been up watching games all day—Temple was playing UMass for the A-10 Championship. I went to bed before the game was over, and I remember hearing that Hank had collapsed again.
"God," I said to myself, "please let him pull through one more time."
The next morning, my mom told me Hank was gone.
I was 17 years old, a good ballplayer on my way to college. Growing up in North Philadelphia, I was a short walk from Temple University. Along the way, I could stop over at 16th and Susquehanna Avenue. Philadelphia was a hotbed for college basketball at the time: Lionel Simmons was the National Player of the Year, and John Chaney was working his usual magic with the Owls. In addition, there was plenty of young talent on the local playgrounds—Aaron McKie, Jerome Allen, and Malik Rose, among others.
Out in California, though, there was a two-man show moving at warp speed: Gathers and his close friend Bo Kimble had their own version of Showtime running at Loyola Marymount University.
Coached by Paul Westhead, the Lions put up a shot an average of seven seconds after the inbounds pass. No one was better suited to the breakneck style than Gathers and Kimble: As a junior, Hank led the nation in scoring and rebounding (only the second player ever to do so); as a senior, Bo took over the scoring crown.
They made it look so easy...and opponents didn't have any choice but to try to outscore them. The result? Watching an LMU game meant buckling your seat belt, because you knew you were going to be in the passing lane for the entire ride.
Hank collapsed for the first time in December 1989, but came back in time to play two games in Philadelphia against LaSalle and St. Joseph's. In the second matchup, Kimble hit a three at the buzzer to give the Lions the victory.
For most of us, that would be the last time we saw Hank alive in person.
He was gone three months later, and I—like everyone else—was in shock. As much as basketball meant to Hank, it meant nothing to any of us in the days after his death.
I saw the biggest men reduced to tears. John Chaney, a personal hero of mine, cried openly. Sonny Hill held Pooh Richardson like a baby at Hank's funeral. The most enduring image was that of Lionel Simmons standing stunned on the court, weeping after he'd received word of Hank's passing.
My eyes are filling up as I relive these moments. It's a deep cut, and it still hurts.
Hank played with and against some of the players that I mentioned. Some were from South Philly, some were from West Philly, the majority were from North Philly. By traveling across town to play each other, they formed a brotherhood of close-knit competitors.
There is a mural of Hank in his old neighborhood at 25th and Diamond in North Philadelphia. It covers an entire side of a building—a recreation center renamed in his honor.
For some reason, I feel the need to tell the world what Hank Gathers meant to me. I don't know if it's because I saw him play on the playgrounds, or felt connected to him through basketball, or simply because he was one of us: because he came from a part of the city where dreams are usually just dreams, and because he proved that some dreams really could come true.
Maybe I need to talk about Hank because I see his life as unfulfilled—but then again who am I to say whose life is fulfilled? That's the beauty of writing to an audience: Instead of putting this in a journal and tucking it away in a drawer, I'm sharing it with people who may feel the same way I do.
But even then, I'm not sure I'd be doing enough. I feel like I have to keep the torch burning for Hank—for his memory, for his legacy.
I've made a commitment to myself to one day sit down with the Gathers family and those who knew Hank best—just to let them tell their stories.
What saddens me most is that Gathers wasn't a victim of random violence like Chicago high school phenom Benji Wilson, or a victim of a bad choice like Len Bias.
Hank had a heart condition that couldn't be helped. His fate was out of anybody's hands.
I've read about Wilson's story, and I know how one of his teammates more or less stopped living after Wilson was killed. He'd visit Wilson's gravesite once a week, but that was it: Other than the mourning, his life just stopped.
Thinking back to March 4, 1990, I know just how he felt.