In many ways it is ironic that I am paid to remember dates as a Professor of African-American History; however, there are dates that I refuse to remember because of the sorrow that emanates from them. Invariably those dates coincide with the passing of a friend, family member, loved one. Although I purposely refuse to remember the exact date, I do remember the moment with shocking accuracy. I was rudely reminded in one swoop of one such moment that occurred twenty-five years ago. The moment that I am referring to is the death of Philadelphia born and bred Hank Gaithers on March 4, 1990.
To truly understand the shock surrounding Hank Gaithers death, one has to remember that my generation’s age of innocence had been destroyed by a similar tragedy when the recently drafted Len Bias died on June 19, 1986 at the tender age of 22. Bias’ death from an apparent drug overdose drove home for my generation the repercussions that invariably followed drug use, even for celebratory occasions. Although shocking, my generation, and the droves of high school and collegiate basketball players who idolized Len Bias were able to make sense of the unfortunate event. There was no such balm to be found in the wake of Hank Gaithers’ demise.
The entire sports world was amazed at the feats that Loyola Marymount University was achieving under the tutelage of Paul Westhead’s unprecedented run-and-gun basketball philosophy; the basketball world has never seen anything like it before or since. Westhead’s basketball philosophy appeared to be a simple one of we are simply going to run you ragged and simply outscore you by shooting the ball within seven seconds of the possession beginning. Loyola Marymount ran through the West Coast Conference in a manner that would remind one of how Iron Mike Tyson destroyed his opponents during his ascension to the World Heavyweight Title. At the head of this scoring juggernaut stood Loyola Marymount’s very own Batman-and-Robin, both hailing from Philly, in the personage of Hank Gaithers and Bo Kimble. The only chink in this duos powers appeared when Gaithers collapsed at the free throw line in a game months prior.
In stories such as this, there is always a moment, THE MOMENT! Hank Gaithers final moment, we must remember that Gaithers had quite a few moments that we should never forget, came at the Gersten Pavilion in a semi-final conference game vs. Portland. Doing his best to adhere to the run-and-gun philosophy that Loyola Marymount prided themselves in Terrell Lowery threw a half-court alley-oop pass toward Gaithers who delivered with a signature dunk. It was at this moment that Gaithers, a young African-American male turned, stumbled slightly, and fell to the court; he never got up.
For my generation, this was a moment that would be burned in our minds forever. If Len Bias’ demise was the death of innocence, Gaithers death pushed us to the point of no return. Reports would come out that stated that his heart quite simply gave out. Such a diagnosis was more frightening than Bias’ death as we could avoid drugs, however, not one of us could avoid what happened to Gaithers.
There is no way of making sense of the acute pain that remains from this tragedy. I also find it impossible to end this piece on a positive note, I am truly still shook and heart-broken by this occurrence. So I will step to the side and simply allow the other-half of the duo, Bo Kimble, to close this piece with his recollection of his friend, brother, and fellow super-hero.
“When I think of Hank Gathers, I don’t think of sorrow. I think of all the great laughter, all the funny memories, all the times on the court and off the court. There’s way too many great things about Hank’s presence to just think about the sorrow and the way he died. I think of everything but how he died. I think of how he lived. Since that awful moment, we’ve all moved forward in life. Twenty-five years later, we notice how much time has passed since this seminal moment in college basketball history, and it makes us realize our own mortality. Time has passed us by. We’ve gotten older. But Hank Gathers did not. In our minds, he’s always 23 years old and slamming down that tomahawk dunk, a man whose inspiring life ended before the truly amazing part — the NCAA tournament, the NBA fame, the riches — could ever begin.”
James Thomas Jones III, Ph.D.
©Manhood, Race and Culture, 2015