The Loyola Marymount Story: Tragedy and Triumph

by Bernard Frei on April 09, 2019

Tragedy and Triumph

In the late 80s and early 90s, the Loyola Marymount men's basketball team was unbelievable to watch. They were known for their electric pace on the floor, sprinting from end to end and typically getting off a shot within 10 seconds of gaining possession, and often much faster than that. Led by Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, their games would end up with huge scorelines and ridiculous stat totals. In 1990 LMU averaged an NCAA record 122.4 points per game. Nowadays if you weren’t shooting threes you’re getting left behind, but Loyola was ahead of that trend by far. To this day they hold the record for most 3-pointers made in a single NCAA tournament game at 21. It’s a stark contrast to the college basketball we see today where teams like Virginia often win by scoring half of ULM’s average. Unfortunately, this LMU side known for its exhilarating games and captivating style would be brought to a grinding halt when tragedy struck during the 1990 season.

Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers: The Early Years

Hank Gathers, Bo Kimble are posing for a picture

The story began in 1985 when Kimble and Gathers both committed to the University of Southern California alongside Tom Lewis and Rich Grande to form the “Four Freshmen”. Hopes were high at USC in this pre-”one and done” era that the Four Freshmen would lead USC to a dynastic period of dominance. But after an 11-17 first season, the coaching staff at USC was promptly fired and a disagreement with the new coach, George Raveling, lead Kimble, Gathers, and Lewis all to transfer away, leaving all hopes of a USC dynasty swept away. USC’s loss was Loyola Marymount’s gain however as Kimble and Gathers both transferred in. Kimble and Gathers were just the talent Loyola head coach Paul Westhead needed to catapult his team forward with his unique and progressive system.

A New Era Begins

Kimble and Gathers would be forced to sit out their first season at Loyola per the NCAA transfer rules. An 8-19 season wasn’t encouraging but the bright light on the horizon was that for the 87-88 season Kimble and Gathers would finally be eligible to play. From 8-19 to 28-4 the difference was clear, the new guys were just what Loyola needed. They finished as West Coast Conference regular season and tournament champs as well as finishing 15th in the AP poll. They lead the nation in scoring with 110.3 points per game and made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament where they were knocked out by North Carolina who had six players go on to play in the NBA.

Hank Gathers et al. posing for a photo

The 88-89 season brought a somehow even more potent offense for LMU but an overall disappointing season followed their successes from the season before. 112.5 points per game was good enough for a second consecutive season as the leading scorer in the nation, but their high energy style only carried them to a 20-11 record, finishing third in the West Coast Conference and nowhere near the AP top 25. A hot streak in the WCC tournament would earn them a bid into the NCAA tournament, but they were promptly knocked out by 5-seed Arkansas. Despite the disappointing season, Hank Gathers had one for the ages. He became the second player in NCAA Division 1 history to lead the nation in points and rebounds in the same season. At 32.7 ppg and 13.7 rpg Gathers was nothing less than dominant earning WCC player of the year and a spot on the AP All-American 3rd team. Gathers had announced himself to the world as a force to be reckoned with.

The Final Season

Hank Gathers’ and Bo Kimble’s careers at LMU had been up and down, but the one thing that stayed consistent was the squad’s electricity on the court. Whether they were 28-4 or 20-11 they were always a joy to watch. The 89-90 season was no different. A season opener against #1 UNLV would set the stage for the rest of the season. It was a hotly contested battle. ULM started to build up some momentum and looked like they might run away with it until a bomb threat was called into the stadium that brought the game to a screeching halt. Of course, the initial reaction was panic, but as the delay went on and the focus began to shift back to the game, something changed. The bomb was declared a hoax and UNLV was given the chance to breathe and craft a new strategy. In the second half UNLV came out with a zone they hadn’t shown before and ULM wasn’t able to cope. They lost 102-91 and the top team in the country managed to survive.

Bo Kimble standing on a basketball court in front of a crowd

That season would see Loyola Marymount finish 26-6, but despite a worse record than 87-88, the lions were undeniably at the peak of their powers. They averaged 122.4 points per game, crushing their nation-leading figures from the past two years, and setting an NCAA record that stands to this day. Their frenetic style wasn’t just entertaining but created some of the highest intensity and incredible face-offs we’ve seen to this day.

Loyola Marymount v. LSU

In fact, that season produced one of the all-time greats as LMU faced off against fourteenth ranked LSU in a regular season matchup. LSU had a strong roster led by none other than Shaquille O'Neal. The matchup of Gathers versus Shaq was tantalizing enough to make your mouth water just thinking about it, and it didn’t disappoint. It started out hot with Shaq blocking Gather’s first five shots of the game. Anyone else might’ve conceded defeat right there, but never Hank Gathers. Shaq would continue to dominate the game. He ended up with 20 points on 12 shots, 24 rebounds, and 12 blocks. He was immense, but Gathers was unstoppable. Gathers finished with 48 points and 13 rebounds. In front of every NBA scout in the country, this pair put on an unforgettable duel. The game matched their intensity. The two squads were sprinting up and down the court. Bucket after bucket after bucket. It was as exhausting as it was exhilarating. The LSU staff scorekeeper had to go home and lay down to rest his right arm after the game. The official play-by-play’s typewriter burned out from the constant action and had to be replaced mid-game. At one point an LSU guard threw the ball out of bounds on purpose just to get a chance to catch his breath. It was madness--beautiful madness.

a basketball player during a game

LSU would go on to win that game in overtime 148-141, but the performance would prove to be the pinnacle of the Westhead system and would carry LMU throughout the season. One win would even finish at a whopping 181-150. The season was trending upwards. Gathers was starting to dish out jaw-dropping performances and Kimble was leading the entire NCAA in scoring with 35.3 points per game. Loyola Marymount University was charging full steam ahead into the West Coast Conference tournament after finishing conference play 13-1 and earning the regular season WCC title. They finished the season ranked 21st in the nation but had proven through bouts with UNLV and LSU that they could take on anyone in the country.

Tragedy Strikes

Next came the WCC conference tournament. LMU started off firing with a 121-48 win over last seed Gonzaga(a stark contrast to the Gonzaga we know today). LMU looked like they were going to blow through the tournament until horror fell over their semi-final match against Portland. It was only seven minutes into the game when, after finishing off an alley-oop, gathers began to run back down the court and suddenly collapsed to the floor. Time froze as everyone around him watched in horror. You see, this wasn’t the first time it had happened.

a black and white photo of a person

Just four months prior Gathers had collapsed for the first time against UC Santa Barbara and had been diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat. He was prescribed medication to help deal with the heart issue but Gather’s Jekyll and Hyde-like performances over the following games led him to believe that the medication was adversely affecting his play. The LSU game signaled his arrival back at the peak of his powers, powering LMU to win seven of the next eight games and Gathers to record a career-high 30 rebounds against Saint Mary’s. Gathers’ dosage had been steadily decreased over time due to his complaints about them lowering his performances and it was believed by some that Gathers wouldn’t take his medication on game days. Leading up to the tournament Gathers missed multiple appointments to see if the reduced dosages were properly suppressing the arrhythmias. Gathers didn’t want to let his family on the team down and he didn’t want to give up the sport he loved so much. LMU was having one of their best seasons in years and he wanted to be sure he wasn’t going to ruin it for everyone.

Sadly as time unfroze and everyone in the stadium realized what just happened the consequences of those decisions became astonishingly clear. After the initial collapse Gathers attempted to get right back up, telling the trainers “I don’t want to lay down!” A sentiment that had carried both Gathers and LMU over the last four years. Shortly after, Gathers stopped breathing and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. Suddenly the consequences had become all too real and far too grave. Hank Gathers was gone. That night the WCC would cancel the conference tournament and awarded Loyola Marymount the automatic bid due to their regular season conference title.

a group of people standing in a parking lot

Life Without Gathers

Now Westhead, Kimble, and the Loyola Marymount squad were left to pick up the pieces--left to deal with life after Hank Gathers. The NCAA tournament was rapidly approaching and LMU were left at a fork in the road. With arguably their best player gone was it best for LMU to simply hand in the towel, or was it time to fight? For Bo Kimble, there was only ever one option. It was time to fight, and the rest of the squad was right behind him. LMU went into the tournament seeded 11th and would face off against 6 seed New Mexico State. They swept them aside with their frenetic pace winning the bout 111-92. They quickly decided that if they were fighting for Hank, anything was possible, even a national championship. They were going to play fast and unafraid and weren’t going to change their playstyle for anyone. Next came Alabama in an uncharacteristically low scoring game. They managed to squeak by 62-60, but the hole that Gathers had left behind became painfully clear. Nevertheless, LMU was through to the Sweet Sixteen despite all the odds. Next came Michigan, the 3 seed and the defending national champions. Michigan returned four starters from their title-winning season and was going to be a tough win for anyone that came up against them.

a man holding a basketball

Two halves later and Michigan were run off the court. They simply couldn’t keep up. Loyola had become the darlings of the tournament because of Hank Gathers death and their underdog status. After beating New Mexico State and Alabama, fans around the country had rallied to the team who were fighting for something bigger than themselves, and doing so with a joyous, electric energy. Michigan head coach Steve Fisher even said: “If I wasn’t coaching for Michigan, I would have rooted for them, too.” Michigan had decided that the defending champs shouldn’t have to bend their style to an underdog and felt like even if they wanted to, the quick turnaround wasn’t enough time to implement a new system. No one was playing as fast as LMU and Michigan hadn’t faced anything like it up until that point.  For LMU there was no deliberation, there was only one way forward. Westhead’s pregame instructions were simple: “You know, guys, bombs away.” Possibly the most memorable moment of the entire tournament came when Bo Kimble took his first free throw of the night. Kimble and Gathers had grown up together in Philadelphia and stuck together until the very end from Philly to USC to LMU. Naturally right-handed, Kimble took his first free throw with his left hand, a tribute to the friend he lost far too soon. The ball went up awkwardly and rattled in, the crowd erupted. From that point on it was clear, LMU was winning this game. The crowd was on their feet driving them forward and Michigan couldn’t keep up. 149-115 was the final score. The highest scoring game in NCAA tournament history. It was the perfect tribute to Hank Gathers. For the rest of his career in the NCAA and NBA, Kimble would shoot his first free throw of every game with his left hand.

A Legacy Cemented

The Lions were on to the Elite Eight. It was practically a miracle. Next came the 1 seed, UNLV. Sadly, the season would end how it began, with a loss to the runnin’ rebels. Probably the only team in the country who could run with LMU, future NBA stars such as Larry Johnson ended the Lions title hopes. UNLV would go on to win the tournament that year, showing that all it took to stop Loyola Marymount was one of the best teams in college basketball history. At the end of the season, both Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble were named 2nd team All-American, a fitting, and earned, tribute to the best friends from Philly who would never get to play together again. Kimble was drafted 8th overall by the Los Angeles Clippers that summer but his shining moments were always remembered as the ones at LMU playing alongside Gathers. Loyola Marymount University under Westhead, Kimble, and Gathers was an unrelenting force. Devasting to play against and enthralling to watch. That never say die attitude live on as inspiration. No matter what happened, LMU wasn’t going to bend its will to anyone. One thing was for sure: if you were in their way, they were going through you.

a group of people standing on a basketball court

 

Knox Ashford, a content writer for Vintage Sports, is a regular contributor to the site including stories, product descriptions, and video scripts. You can follow him on twitter @KnoxVSports for regular updates.

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