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Three Lives Connected Forever - The Tragic Story of Hank Gathers
Coach, innovator, philosopher Paul Westhead
The author, Dan W. Miller gets a chance to speak with Paul Westhead, his coach and about three lives connected into eternity.
This is a story about three lives that started out in Philadelphia. One would end tragically, the other two carry on his legacy. This is a story about how lives can intertwine like the net of a basket on a court forever.
While in a coffee shop at Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix very early one morning, I spotted a person I've admired for a long time. Paul Westhead was alone in a corner of the restaurant. He had grown up in Philadelphia and was the former coach of the 1980 world champion Lakers.
He was coaching the WNBA Phoenix team at the time. But years earlier, he had created a style of play at Loyola Marymount University in the late '80's and early '90's that was like no other before or since when he was their coach. The main catalyst of those historic LMU teams were the boyhood pals who grew up together in the slums of South Philly, Gregory “Bo” Kimble and Eric “Hank” Gathers.
FROM PHILADELPHIA GHETTO TO HOLLYWOOD STARDOM
The two had rose out of poverty and both moved out to Los Angeles to play for USC on a basketball scholarship. Then both transferred onto the famous innovative Loyola Marymount University basketball team with a new and exciting style of play.
Paul Westhead's “run and gun” style with a full court “defensive press” just looked terribly exhausting. Four of the five highest scoring games in NCAA basketball history belonged to his teams of that era including an incredible 181 points scored by his team in one game!
The South Philly life-long pals were an amazing one-two punch! Hank led the NCAA in scoring AND rebounding his junior year. (One of only two players to ever do so.) Bo was right behind him at number two in the nation in scoring.
But Hank mysteriously collapsed twice during games that season. He was diagnosed with a slight heart condition. His doctor prescribed Inderal, a beta blocker. But Hank cheated on taking the full prescription and even skipped taking it on a consistent basis. He said it made him drowsy.
ONE FATEFUL DAY IT ALL ENDED
On Sunday March 4th, 1990 LMU was in the West Coast Conference basketball tournament in a game against Portland University on campus in Los Angeles. Early in the game, Hank leaped up, grabbed an “alley-oop” pass and threw down a thundering two hand dunk!
The crowd gasped in awe! He nearly shattered the backboard and it still shook from this ferocious display of power as Hank triumphantly hustled back down the court.
But then when he reached the center circle on the court, he stumbled and collapsed! His eyes rolled back in his head and he turned ashen grey. The crowd was mortified, stunned into silence as his mother screamed and ran onto the court. Hank went into a horrific seizure with violent spasms. Parents in the stands covered their children’s eyes.
All that could be heard in the packed arena were Hank’s elbows and feet slamming onto the hardwood floor as he lay twisting and writhing on his back and the paramedics attending to Hank. A stretcher was wheeled onto the court and paramedics whisked away the already dead man out of the arena. His mother holding his lifeless hand at his side.
The game was cancelled as everyone quietly filed out of the arena. Even the rest of the week long league tournament was cancelled the next day. When I read about the news of his death, I instantly thought that Westhead’s furious pace of basketball had finally killed someone. But Hank, of all people? The 6’7” rock of a man, with the flattop haircut and movie star swarthy good looks?
TWO MEN CARRY ON HIS LEGACY
But hold on. That's not the end of this story. Bo’s first game back the next season, he wanted to honor his lifelong pal. Hank was a tremendous athlete but always had a difficult time with the finesse part of the game. Free throws were very difficult for him to sink. He even went so far as to shoot them left handed, his off hand, for a while.
So when Bo was fouled in the first game back from tragedy the next season, he shot his first free throw shot with HIS off hand, left-handed… and he knocked it down!
Bo went on to also lead the entire nation in scoring and then was drafted by the Los Angeles Clippers the next year. And what did he do the first time he was sent to the free throw line in his very first NBA game? He swished it… left handed!
THE AUTHOR'S HERO TALKS WITH HIM ABOUT HANK
But that’s STILL not the end of this story. As I sat talking to Mr. Westhead in the near empty airport restaurant that day, I told him that I knew what he had said at Hank’s eulogy. He looked deep into my eyes.
You see, Paul Westhead wasn’t just "some basketball coach." He was a philosophy professor who also taught at Loyola Marymount University during his coaching tenure there.
As he stood at the podium of Hank's burial that day, he related a story to the crowd. Coach Westhead said, “When Hank would sign autographs for the throngs of kids crowded around him, he would always say to them before he’d give them back that autograph, “Who’s your favorite basketball player?” And the kids would shout back, “YOU ARE, HANK! YOU ARE!”
"And if you asked me who my favorite basketball player was... in all the years I have coached... I'd have to answer, YOU ARE, HANK! YOU ARE!”
Dan W. Miller The Vanilla Godzilla