Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Bo Kimble remembers Loyola Marymount’s run to the 1990 Elite Eight, and the free throws he shot to honor his fallen friend, Hank Gathers.
There was a time when all I wanted was to be wherever Hank Gathers wasn’t. Now, 25 years after his death, because of what we did together and because of what our Loyola Marymount team did to honor him after he was gone, he’s never far from me.
In high school, it was tough playing with Hank. We were very competitive with each other and there wasn’t always enough of the basketball to go around. It was hard for us to share. So when Hank decided to play college ball at the University of Southern California, I was looking to go anywhere but there. Wherever Hank Gathers was, I wanted to go somewhere else.
But USC — Hank or no Hank — turned out to be the best fit for me. So about a week after Hank chose USC, I chose USC, too.
Together, 3,000 miles from our home of Philadelphia, we had a productive and successful freshman year. Hank played significant minutes and I made the All-Pac-10 team. Everything seemed perfect. We were on our way.
Then USC fired the head coach, along with David Spencer, the coach that recruited the hell out of us to get us to USC.
Hank and I didn’t want to leave. We loved USC. But when we learned about the uptempo offense coach Paul Westhead was running at Loyola Marymount, it felt like a perfect fit for us. Running the floor coast-to-coast, lots of touches, lots of shots — it was a dream offense.
So we transferred together.
It was the best decision we ever made.
Hank became just the second player ever to lead the nation in both scoring and rebounding in the same season, while I averaged 35.3 points-per-game. We couldn’t have done that at USC. It was the style of play in Coach Westhead’s offense that made it possible.
From high school to USC to Loyola Marymount, Hank and I continued to thrive together. Everything seemed perfect.
One Sunday, during a game against Portland State, Hank Gathers completed a very Hank Gathers-esque dunk, an alley-oop tossed from half-court. Shortly after making the play, he collapsed on the court as a result of a rare heart condition and passed away. He was 23 years old.
I lost a friend, teammate and brother, but the world lost an extraordinary human being and a kind spirit. Unexpectedly. Abruptly. Too soon.
My weakest moment was that first practice after Hank died. We were co-captains, so we would always start practice. When the first whistle blew, Hank and I would jog around the perimeter of the gym and the team followed.
At that first practice, we did our jog and Hank wasn’t there. That was the first time it hit me like a ton of bricks that he was gone and he wasn’t coming back.
What I needed to do was to go outside, cry and let everything I was feeling pour out. But I couldn’t do that. I believed the rest of the guys were feeding off my strength because whatever pain they were feeling, they knew my pain was greater because I had known Hank for so long.
If I could keep it together and be strong, they knew they could, too.
Twelve days after Hank’s death, the 1990 NCAA Tournament began. Loyola Marymount — without Hank Gathers — was a No. 11 seed. We played New Mexico State.
Our mental state was fragile at best, but the tournament actually acted as therapy, especially for me. It was a relief that we could go out and play a game, and escape the sorrow.
All the guys had the gung-ho mentality of, “We’re gonna play for our love of Hank!” I tried to discourage them from having that mindset because I didn’t want there to be any disappointment if we lost, like we let Hank down or we didn’t honor his memory. I told them that no matter what happens, we love Hank Gathers.
But when that ball went up, I can promise you, the only thing they were thinking about was kicking everybody’s butt in honor of Hank.
We beat New Mexico State 111-92. Everybody had an extra pep in their step, but there were two players who really stood out: Chris Scott and Chris Knight.
Chris Scott was a freshman who didn’t have great footwork and would get too excited when he got the ball in the paint. He was talented but he was young and needed polishing.
During that game, he played with Hank’s footwork in the low post. All of a sudden, he was able to pass the ball in traffic, rebound and block shots. It was extraordinary. Hank may not have been on the court but the influence he had on that team was everywhere. It was in Chris’s footwork, it was in our young players’ confidence, it was in my determination.
Chris Knight was the one who played in Hank’s spot in the lineup, and he rebounded, played tough defense and ran the floor just like Hank did, scoring throughout the tournament.
We didn’t just play to honor Hank. We played like Hank.
As far as a tribute, I didn’t want to just write Hank’s name and number on my sneakers. I wanted to honor him in a different way.
Hank was an unbelievable human being and a prolific basketball player, but he was a terrible free throw shooter. So bad that he switched from shooting with his right hand to his left because his technique was so horrible with his right hand that he felt more comfortable with his off-hand.
I watched him work every day — before, during and after practice — on his free throw shooting, and he got better. I always had great respect and admiration for how hard he worked to improve just one aspect of his game. It said a lot about the person he was.
I told everybody in interviews the day before the tournament — including CBS, who was broadcasting our game — that I was going to honor Hank by shooting the first free throw of every game I played in that tournament left-handed. It didn’t matter if I made it or missed it. That’s how I was going to honor my buddy, and say I love you and I miss you.
In the second half, with a comfortable lead over New Mexico State, I pulled up for a 15-footer and got fouled for the first time in the game. I was heading to the line.
That was my selfish moment. From the moment I got fouled, it felt like I was in that arena by myself. The score, the fans, the tournament, the benches — everything was gone. It wasn’t about making the free throw, it was about honoring how hard Hank worked to be a better free throw shooter. How hard he worked is a hallmark of the person he was.
And it was perfect.
Looking back, I’m humbled that it went in. If I missed it, it wouldn’t have mattered. I may have shot the free throw, but it was never about me, and it still isn’t. It’s about Hank.
We went on a memorable tournament run after that. As a No. 11 seed, we reached the Elite Eight, where we lost to a really talented UNLV team — a team I believe we would have beaten if we still had Hank Gathers. In three of our four games in that tournament, I went to the free throw line, and each time, I shot my first free throw left-handed to honor Hank.
I made all three.
Everything about Hank was extraordinarily positive and energetic, from his physique to his personality. Everything about him was uplifting. To see him leave us that way — it’s something you never really get over. You just cope. I’m just blessed that I have so many great memories. Every time I think of his name it’s all smiles and joy, because that’s what he stood for. I’m able to celebrate him a little every day. I don’t think about how Hank died — I think about how he lived.
Twenty five years after his death and 25 years after those free throws, I’ve been blessed enough to travel to 40 countries all over the world, and not one time has someone talked about those free throws or that tournament without mentioning Hank. They always talk about Hank.
Twenty five years later, Hank, I still miss you and I still love you.
For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.