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Hank Gathers: Bo Kimble’s Tribute

ONE SHINING MOMENT

Synopsis: Bo Kimble was a 2nd Team AP All-American who led the nation in scoring with a 35.3 point per game average during the 1989-90 college basketball season. Regardless, most of us remember him for the special way he paid homage to Hank Gathers, a former teammate who tragically died after collapsing on the court during a conference playoff game in March 1990. Up to that point, the teammates were inseparable. They played together on the same high school team in Philadelphia, and then enrolled at the University of Southern California before transferring to Loyola Marymount. During LMU’s magical run to the Elite Eight after Gathers’ death, Kimble shot his first free throw in each game left-handed, just like his long-time friend. This post provides the backstory behind one of the most touching moments in NCAA Tournament history.


HANK GATHERS – BO KIMBLE’S TRIBUTE

Every year, March Madness provides at least one dramatic story line that keeps us coming back for more. For the 2015 NCAA Tournament, there were two equally compelling stories: 1) Kentucky’s inability to become the first undefeated championship team since 1976; and 2) Coach K winning his 5th national title. Unlike recent undefeated teams going into the tournament (i.e. St. Joe’s in 2004 and Wichita State in 2014), Kentucky was the first since UNLV in 1991 that was the overwhelming favorite. After all, Larry Brown’s absurd comment that the Wildcats were good enough to make the NBA Eastern Conference playoffs was considered realistic enough to warrant further discussion on sports talk shows. By winning another National Championship, Duke Coach Mike Krzyzewski has given sports reporters additional fodder to argue that he is the greatest college coach of all-time. Coach K has had an incredible career with Duke, but he falls short in the most important category – championships. With ten titles during a twelve-year span, UCLA Coach John Wooden’s track record in unparalleled to this day. Just like Tiger is five majors short of being the greatest golfer ever, Coach K is six titles short of being the greatest college coach ever. Regardless, he’s a legend who just added another impressive chapter to his legacy.

For as good as those story lines were, the best ones throughout the history of the tournament have left an indelible image (and sound) of “one shining moment” in our heads. Sometimes, the moment results in a championship,

The Alley-Oop

lorenzo-charles valvano
NC State Coach Jim Valvano running around after Lorenzo Charles’s game-winning dunk in the 1983 Championship Game against Houston. Click here to see the play.

  

The Smart Shot 

keith smart
Keith Smarts game-winning shot in Indiana’s victory over Syracuse in the 1987 Championship Game. Click here to see the shot.

or occurs on the way to a championship,

THE Shot

Laettner
Duke’s Christian Laettner celebrating after hitting a game-winning turnaround jumper to beat Kentucky in the 1992 Elite Eight. Click here to see THE Shot.

or has nothing to do with a championship.

The Free Throw

Bo kimble honoring Hank Gathers
Loyola Marymount’s Bo Kimble shooting a free-throw against New Mexico State in the 1990 NCAA Tournament. Click here to experience the moment.

The first three images capture moments that were euphoric for the winners, but devastating to the losers. In contrast, the last image captures a moment that touched everyone who saw it. If you were fortunate enough to see “The Free Throw,” you should already know the backstory of one player (Bo Kimble) paying homage to a former teammate (Hank Gathers) who had died tragically after collapsing on the court a couple of weeks earlier. What might be forgotten after all of these years is how close these players truly were.

As high school teammates, Kimble and Gathers won a city championship in Philadelphia, PA before deciding to play college ball at the University of Southern California. They both were productive as freshmen during the 1985-86 season, but the team finished last in the Pac-10 with an 11-17 record so USC Coach Stan Morrison lost his job. Kimble and Gathers banded together with a couple other teammates to have a say in the hiring of the new coach; however, they overestimated their influence at the school, and ended up having their scholarships revoked instead. Still sticking together, Kimble and Gathers transferred to nearby Loyola Marymount, which was part of the West Coast Conference. Even though playing in the WCC was a step down from the Pac-10, they jumped at the chance to play for former Lakers Coach Paul Westhead. Interestingly, Westhead was at LMU despite winning the 1980 NBA Championship because Lakers legend Magic Johnson helped get him fired. Unlike Kimble and Gathers, Johnson actually had the necessary influence on hiring/firing decisions.

Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble
gathers kimble
Inseparable on and off the court

As required by NCAA regulations for transferring players, Kimble and Gathers were forced to sit out for a year. Once the transition year was over, they had an immediate impact on their new team. Specifically, Kimble averaged over 22 points per game while Gathers averaged approximately 23 points and nine rebounds per game during the 1987-88 season. Both players flourished under Westhead’s turbo-charged offense, which was based on the philosophy that the team should get a shot off in less than seven seconds. During each of their three seasons at LMU, the team led all Division I schools in scoring. In particular, the Lions averaged over 110 points per game during the 1987-88 season, 112 points per game during the 1988-89 season, and 122 points per game during the 1989-90 season. The team’s scoring average of 122.4 ppg during their senior season is still an NCAA record. As shown by the following tables, Kimble and Gathers put up impressive numbers and received numerous accolades while playing for LMU.

BO KIMBLE – COLLEGE STATS (Southern California and Loyola Marymount)
Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Team Games FG FT Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks

Points

1985-86

USC 28 46.5% 77.1% 3.6 2.1 0.6 0.4

12.1

1987-88

LMU 26 43.9% 78.6% 3.1 1.0 1.9 0.2 22.2
1988-89 LMU 18 45.9% 75.6% 4.2 1.4 1.9 0.2

16.8

1989-90

LMU 32 52.9% 86.2% 7.7 1.9 2.9 0.7 35.3
Career 104 48.4% 82.2% 4.9 1.7 1.8 0.4

22.6

Note: Led all Division I players with 35.3 scoring average for 1989-90 season.

Hank Gathers at LMU
gathers
Notice the short shorts. Obviously, pre-Fab Five
HANK GATHERS – COLLEGE STATS  (Southern California and Loyola Marymount)
    Shooting % Per Game Averages
Season Team Games FG FT Rebounds Assists Steals Blocks

Points

1985-86

USC 28 52.9% 57.6% 5.1 0.8 0.6 0.4

8.3

1987-88

LMU 32 56.2% 54.3% 8.7 1.3 1.4 0.7 22.5
1988-89 LMU 31 60.8% 56.2% 13.7 2.1 1.4 0.7

32.7

1989-90

LMU 26 59.5% 56.8% 10.8 1.5 1.7 0.9 29.0
Career 117 58.5% 56.0% 9.6 1.4 1.3 0.7

23.3

Note: Led all Division I players in scoring (32.7 ppg) and rebounding (13.7 rpg) for the 1988-89 season.

 

COLLEGE RECOGNITION – HANK GATHERS AND BO KIMBLE
Year
Hank Gathers
Bo Kimble
1987-88 1st-Team All-WCC

WCC Tournament MVP

1st Team All-WCC

1988-89

3rd Team AP All-American

WCC Player of the Year (also 1st Team All-WCC)

WCC Tournament MVP

Honorable Mention All-WCC
1989-90 2nd Team Consensus All-American

1st Team All-WCC

2nd Team AP All-American

WCC Player of the Year (also 1st Team All-WCC)

 

In addition to having tremendous individual success, Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers had a big impact turning the team around. While waiting for its star players to become eligible after transferring, LMU finished last in the 8-team WCC with a 12-16 record. In contrast, the team finished first in the conference with a 28-4 record in their first year on the court. Given the team’s success during the season, it likely had secured a spot in the 1988 NCAA Tournament, but any debate ended when it received an automatic bid by winning the 1988 WCC Tournament. As a#10 seed in that tournament, LMU beat 7th-seeded Wyoming 119-115 in a mild upset before losing to#2 seed UNC 123-97 in the round of 32.

Despite Gathers’ impressive individual stats during the 1988-89 season (i.e. leading the nation in both scoring and rebounding), LMU slipped to a 3rd place finish in the WCC and a 17-11 record during the regular season. With no chance of an at-large bid, the Lions had to win the conference tournament in order to earn their second consecutive trip to the Big Dance, and they did. As a #12 seed that year, LMU couldn’t engineer another upset so the team went out in the first round after a 120-101 loss to 5th-seeded Arkansas.

During the 1989-90 regular season, the Lions presumably found their grove again and rebounded to a 1st place finish in the conference. However, the team suffered a tremendous blow in the conference tournament when Gathers died after collapsing on the court during a second round game against Portland. As a result of the tragedy, conference officials cancelled the rest of the WCC Tournament and awarded the conference title to the Lions as the winner of the regular season.

Earlier in the season, Gathers had been diagnosed with a heart disorder after collapsing on the court during a game against Santa Barbara. Up to that point, Gathers had started the season strong with averages of over 30 points and 15 rebounds per game. After sitting out for a couple games, he returned to the lineup but averaged “only” 22 points and 10 rebounds in his first five games back. Believing that his medication negatively affected his performance, Gathers presumably decided to cut back and didn’t take any on game days. Unfortunately, his belief was confirmed when he seemed to regain his old form.

Off his medication, Gathers had back-to-back games in early February with 40+ points and 10+ rebounds. One of those games was nationally televised because it involved the 20th-ranked LMU Lions facing off against the 14th-ranked LSU Tigers. Even though the Lions lost 148-141 in overtime, Gathers had an incredible performance with 48 points and 13 rebounds. At that time, the Tigers were led by sophomore sensation Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf (then known as Chris Jackson) and freshman sensation Shaquille O’Neal. Jackson held his own with 34 points and 9 assists, but O’Neal really put on a show with 20 points, 24 rebounds, and 12 blocks, including several against Gathers.

Hank Gathers vs. Shaquille O’Neil

gathers shaq

Of note, Gathers was almost 23 years old while O’Neal wasn’t even 18 yet. Viewers were excited to see Gathers come back with a strong game, but the lasting highlight was of the young phenom who would become one of the NBA’s most dominant big men ever. Sadly, Gathers only played another eight games before collapsing a second time, but with more dire consequences.

Prior to the start of the 1990 NCAA Tournament, Kimble told an interviewer that he planned to shoot his first free throw with his left hand as a tribute to his fallen friend. During the season, Gathers had switched to shooting free throws with his left, or non-dominant, hand in the hopes of improving his free throw shooting percentage, which hovered around 50%. The change initially resulted in noticeable improvement, but ultimately the difference was only slightly positive. Regardless, Kimble chose to imitate Gathers’ left-handed free throw as a way to honor his teammate’s commitment to persistence and hard work. CBS clearly was ready for the moment because the director ran a clip of the interview just as Kimble got ready to go to the line for the first time. After a timeout, which allowed all CBS affiliates to cut to the game, Kimble sank the free throw. The motion didn’t reflect picture-perfect form, but the ball headed to the basket in a beautiful arc before hitting the inside back of the rim and dropping right to the floor.

Even though Gathers wasn’t physically on the court, his spirit seemed to guide the team to victory. As an 11th seed, LMU trounced 6th-seeded New Mexico State (110-92) and 3rd-seeded Michigan (149-115) before squeaking by 7th-seeded Alabama (62-60). The magic eventually ran out in the Elite Eight when #1 seed UNLV thumped LMU by the score of 131-101. Two games later, UNLV similarly thumped Duke (103-73) in the most lopsided title game in tournament history.

Instead of being appreciated on its own, UNLV’s 1990 Championship is usually referenced as a prelude to Duke’s 1991 Championship because the Blue Devils rebounded from the humiliating loss in 1990 to upset the heavily favored Runnin’ Rebels in 1991. Interestingly, the compelling story lines from the 1991 Tournament are almost identical to the 2015 Tournament. In particular, a presumably unbeatable team lost in the semi-finals after arriving at the Final Four with an undefeated record (UNLV was 34-0 in 1991 while Kentucky was 38-0 in 2015), and Coach K had a milestone victory in leading Duke to a championship (i.e. his first title in 1991 and his fifth title in 2015). Clearly, UNLV’s title in 1990 was memorable (especially for providing an opening act to Duke’s back-to-back titles in 1991 and 1992), but the memory most worthy of the song “One Shining Moment” remains Kimble’s left-handed free throw against New Mexico State.

For as heart-warming as Kimble’s tribute was, it didn’t foretell his NBA career. Click here for the rest of the story.

HANK GATHERS: BO KIMBLE’S TRIBUTE
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