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Hank Gathers’ death shocked the nation 25 years ago

The nation awoke to terrible news 25 years ago today. Hank Gathers, one of the best college basketball players in the country, collapsed on the floor during a late-night game and later died. A packed gym and live television audience watched in horror as the seemingly invincible Loyola Marymount star lay motionless on the floor, moments after making a thunderous dunk.

A shocked nation watched the video repeatedly. News reports surfaced that Gathers had been told by doctors he had a heart defect and shouldn’t play.

Here’s a commentary written soon after by the Chicago Sun-Times’ Richard Roeper:

You do not die at 23. You don’t even think about it.

At 23, you’re much too blinded by the full shine of life to even consider your mortality. And when you can soar and glide, when you’re a California hero because of the way you play the game, the concept of death must be as remote as a distant planet – nothing but a tiny blinking inevitability hovering so far off it’s not a part of even one breath you take.

Of course, that’s a lie. You can die at 23.

Millions of us saw proof of that this week, when we watched a man die on television. On the local news and the “Sports Machine” program and the cable sports shows, we saw the ESPN footage of the last minutes in the life of Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers. The dunk, the jog back to half court, the collapse. By the time someone wearing jeans and sneakers had the decency to put his hand in front of the camera lens, we had seen more than we needed to see.

Later in the week we saw 4,000 mourners in the Marymount gym, and we heard them applauding – not the excited, high-pitched cheering they used to do when Gathers hit a jumper or pulled down a rebound, but a steady, respectful, terribly sad rhythmic clapping. It was impossible to watch this without feeling a heavy swallow in your throat.

Now comes word there’s a chance this could have been prevented. According to a report in the Los Angeles Times, Gathers had been warned by doctors to quit playing basketball; he also probably quit taking his heart medicine in the days before his death.

“He was told (he was) through as an athlete,” a cardiologist reportedly said. “We told Hank that if he wanted to live the best he shouldn’t exercise. Hank Gathers was going to play basketball. It didn’t matter what some doctor told him.”

Remember also that Gathers had collapsed earlier in the season and was diagnosed as having cardiomyopathy. And four years ago, a conference of cardiologists found that some athletes with this condition “would be disqualified (from participating in sports), particularly if they had symptoms such as fainting.”

Gathers’ own teammate, Bo Kimble, said, “If you told me that every time I stepped on the court I had a 50-50 chance to survive, I wouldn’t play. Hank would.”

You hear all this and you wonder, why? Why did Gathers continue to play basketball if there was even a remote chance it would kill him?

It may be because basketball literally was his life. Most students are graduated before they turn 23. But Gathers, who attended USC for a year before transferring to Marymount, had a difficult time in school. Like most student-athletes, he was much more of one than the other.

We keep hearing that Gathers was an All-America and a certain NBA first-round draft pick; we do not hear if he was a candidate for graduation, or what his degree would have been in.

We hear that Gathers was a tireless worker, an aggressive player, a scoring and rebounding machine. We do not hear about his interests, if any, outside the game.

When you are 23, you are old enough to make your own decisions about your own life. But when you are 23 and you are a man playing a boy’s game, when you are 23 and you are elevated to star status because of what you can do with a basketball, you cannot be expected to say, “I quit.” You cannot be expected to choose on your own to walk away from the game.

“Hank Gathers was going to play basketball. It didn’t matter what some doctor told him.”

It should have mattered. If Hank Gathers couldn’t see the dangers in what he was doing, maybe somebody with more responsibility and a clearer vision of death should have made the decision to quit for him.