ESPN just ran a piece on Sportscenter that brought back a flood of memories. I didn’t realize it, but today was the 20th anniversary of Hank Gathers’ death. I was in the gym at Loyola Marymount University when it happened, and was scheduled to interview him that day as part of my duties for KMBU-FM, the Pepperdine University campus radio station.
It all happened during the semifinals of the West Coast Conference basketball tournament. LMU — Gathers’ team — was playing in the first game of the day, and Pepperdine was scheduled to play in the second game. I don’t remember the opponents or anything else basketball-related about that day. Not to sound too melodramatic, but when you watch a man die in front of you, a lot of other details fade away pretty quickly.
LMU was an awesome team, and my Pepperdine Waves were pretty darn good, too. I certainly wasn’t an LMU fan, but I’m a Philadelphia native and felt some remote kinship to both Gathers and his teammate Bo Kimble, both of whom were also Philadelphians going to school in Los Angeles. I was happy to see them doing well, except when they played against the Waves.
I arrived early at the gym that day with my friend and radio partner, Kent, and we set up our radio broadcast equipment early so we could watch the first game and then be ready to start our broadcast back to campus. I don’t recall if I went directly to Gathers to ask for an interview, or if I went to LMU’s sports information director … but the agreement was that Gathers would come to our broadcast location at halftime of the Pepperdine game for an interview. His game would be over and we’d talk about that game and, presumably, a title game against Pepperdine. It was Kent’s turn to do play-by-play, which meant I’d handle the halftime interview. I was looking forward to chatting with him about Philadelphia, too.
And then pretty early on in the Lions’ game, Gathers dunked on an alley-oop and headed back to play defense. Only he staggered, stumbled, and fell to floor. His body shook a couple times and medical people rushed to his side. My memory is that he was on the floor for just a couple minutes with people working on him, and then they quickly moved him out the side door. I remember people crying loudly in the silence. I remember thinking it wasn’t a good sign that they moved him out of sight before really doing much medical work. But that’s all speculation and I have no idea what the story was at that point. I specifically remember not thinking he had died; there was no way Hank Gathers was going to die.
Kent and I were stunned, and at some point we switched into news reporter-mode. I’m guessing we probably tracked down Mike Zapolski, Pepperdine’s sports information director, and he made sure we were aware of what was going on. I recall there was some kind of news conference inside the building. They probably announced that the games had been postponed, but I don’t remember hearing that news. I don’t think they announced that Hank had died, at least not at that point.
Kent and I went — probably in Mike Z’s car — to the hospital where Gathers had been taken. By this time, all of the Los Angeles media were on hand waiting for the news — radio, TV, papers, everyone. I remember the doctors coming out and standing in front of a row of TV cameras. Rather than stand behind the cameras and not see anything, I moved around to the side/rear of the doctors so I could listen and record the statement for our news coverage. Since fans back at school were waiting to listen to our game broadcast, I remember Kent and I phoned in a couple live updates of what was going on.
I think, but I’m not positive, that I was the one who reported on our station that Hank had died. I remember being stunned that it happened. Beyond belief. I remember hating having to report that on the air. I remember thinking that I probably watched him die on the gym floor, but the doctors said he was pronounced dead at the hospital, not before.
The last thing I remember is going to classes the next day. All this had happened on a Sunday. Kent and I were in the same broadcasting class. Our teacher found us before the class started and took us aside. He said he was proud of us. He told us that he saw us on TV, standing near the doctors. He asked how we were and very delicately wondered if we wanted to talk to the class about what had happened. We decided that we would. And we did. I don’t remember exactly what we said, but we recapped the events of the night before. And some of our classmates asked questions about covering such a big story, and how we felt, and stuff like that.
I probably said that I felt numb. That’s what I remember. And although I don’t think about that day very much anymore … usually about once a year on March 4th when someone mentions it … I’m still kinda numbed by the whole experience. I was probably too young for it all, but really, is there ever a good age to experience all that?