Twenty years ago a team from a small Jesuit university on the Westchester bluffs fought through the sudden loss of one of their star teammates to make an inspirational run toward the college men’s basketball national championship.
The Lions of Loyola Marymount University (LMU) ultimately lost one game away from entering the prestigious Final Four, but it was their ascent in spite of tragedy and their emotional tributes to their fallen teammate Hank Gathers that had the nation cheering.
Though the NCAA basketball tournament experiences underdog stories virtually every year, the story of the 1989-90 LMU team has stood on its own. The Lions averaged an NCAA-record 122.4 points per game that season but the loss of Gathers, who collapsed during a home game and died of a heart condition days before the tournament, was thought to have impeded their hopes for a national title run.
That was until the team pushed itself to continue striving for its championship goal, despite its grief, and in honor of Gathers.
“For us to do what we did without Hank was very special,” said Bo Kimble, a friend and close teammate of Gathers who averaged 35.3 points a game that season as a guard.
Seeded 11th in the tournament, the Lions picked up impressive wins over defending champion Michigan (149-115) — still an NCAA tournament record for most points scored in a game — and Alabama (62-60) during their memorable run, which came to an end against eventual champion UNLV (131-101) in the Elite Eight. Kimble, who paid tribute to Gathers by shooting free throws with his left hand, says he believes that the Lions would have likely captured the championship if they had Gathers by their side.
That team remains the most successful in LMU history, having gone further in the tournament than any other squad and scored 100 points or more in 28 of 32 games. Their achievements hold a special place on the Westchester campus, and that’s something the school has chosen to honor during the 20th anniversary of that season this year.
At a halftime ceremony of the LMU homecoming game against Saint Mary’s College January 30th, members of the 1989-90 team and head coach Paul Westhead were recognized by the LMU community and handed a piece of the Gersten Pavilion floor that they had played on. Lucille Gathers Cheeseboro, Hank’s mother, was also in attendance on the court where her son collapsed and expressed joy as she received a floor piece in his memory.
“To be able to come back and share with you guys all of the history we’ve been able to share together, it’s great,” Kimble told the crowd of 3,966. “We’re all so happy to be home.”
Asked how the team managed to stay focused after Gathers’ death, Westhead said the Lions shared in their sorrow but “played their hearts out” when it came time to be on the court. He called the team the best he’s ever coached and reminded everyone in attendance at the ceremony where they were at.
“First and foremost, this is Hank’s House,” said Westhead, bringing cheers from the crowd.
LMU (11-12) lost the homecoming West Coast Conference game to Saint Mary’s 85-67, with forwards Drew Viney and Kevin Young leading the scorers with 27 points.
The 1990 team’s impact on the community still lives on today, as evidence in the scores of fans who approached the players and coaches outside the pavilion and during a tailgating event simply to shake hands, offer praise or get a picture. The players were equally honored to be recognized for their accomplishments two decades ago.
“I feel honored that they put this much effort into honoring us. It makes us know that what we did was special,” said Terrell Lowery, who averaged 14.5 points a game as a guard.
Jeff Fryer, who was third in points scored behind Kimble and Gathers at 22.7 per game, added, “The university put together a great weekend for us and I’m thankful for that.”
The former players say they were also thankful for the celebration as a cause to reunite with their teammates and see how the campus has changed, especially the dormitories.
“It’s always great to get together with the guys and we’re all honored to be a part of Loyola history,” said Kimble during the tailgating event.
“This is my family; I love these guys.”
Former player Marcus Slater said he is proud that the team has not been forgotten.
“It’s great to come back to see how much the school has changed and to see how much this team is remembered after all those years,” Slater said.
Though Gathers’ shocking death remains as a headline from the season, Kimble said he hopes people remember that Gathers was the type of player who was a great guy both on and off the court.
“He was determined to be a great player and in his short life he became that great player. Hats off to him,” Kimble said.
Slater added that Gathers “really had the heart of a lion.”
LMU Athletic Director Bill Husak said while the school has not had any team come close to the 1990 team’s level of success, the Lions are progressing closer now than they ever have since.
“To get back to that standard of excellence is something we aspire to and something I think we can achieve again,” Husak said.