[h2]22 Years Later, the Story of Hank Gathers Still Brings Smiles and Tears[/h2]
Name the greatest players that have ever come out of Philadelphia? Wilt Chamberlain, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, Guy Rodgers and Kobe Bryant are the easy ones. Names like Rasheed Wallace, Lionel “The L Train” Simmons and Pooh Richardson come to mind. If you really know your Philly Hoops, you’ve already mentioned Dawn Staley and an old-timer named Paul Arizin. Current players like Tyreke Evans and Jameer Nelson also have a shot at getting in the conversation.
Unfortunately, a lot of people neglect to mention a young man whose star once burned incredibly bright, a player with unique talents who was the personification of the underdog overcoming long odds.
Whenever I’m asked about Philadelphia’s greatest talents, I never hesitate to include the name Hank Gathers.
Every year during the NCAA Tournament, I think back to an incredible brand of basketball that I witnessed in the late ‘80s, and a pair of teammates who made an everlasting impression on my basketball soul.
Watching Syracuse University’s Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine this year, Philly natives and best friends who grew so close through their formative years that they refer to themselves today as cousins, made me hearken back to another dynamic duo from the City of Brotherly Love, a tandem that once set the basketball world on fire.
The first time they met on the Moylan Playground at 23rd and Diamond Streets in North Philadelphia, Eric “Hank” Gathers and Gregory Kevin “Bo” Kimble were in junior high school.
While Bo was throwing down some nasty dunks on a rim that was a little higher than the standard 10 feet, Hank wandered over to watch.
“Where you play at, man?” a curious Hank asked.
Kimble was a regular at nearby Whittier Playground and already had a reputation as a rising star on the local hoops scene.
The two young men started talking and found that they had something in common, that they lived for the feel of the ball in their hands. They immediately sensed a kindred spirit in one another.
As sunlight faded on their first meeting on the Moylan courts, Hank parted with these words – “All right, man, I just wanted to check out who was dunking’. If you ever want some work, just come up the block. I live over there.”
He nodded toward the notorious Raymond Rosen Projects, one of Philly’s roughest.
“Hank lived on the first floor, where it was especially bad because of street fights – noise and crashing near his door, whether it was three in the morning or three in the afternoon,” wrote Kimble in his book For You, Hank. “Hank grew up with all kinds of people who never made it to the age of twenty. There were four people Hank knew who all died from drug overdoses in just a few months over one summer. It was nothing to walk out in the morning and find that someone you knew, a neighbor, a friend, someone you played with only a day ago had been murdered the night before.”
The Rosen Projects – with its rows of two-story apartment buildings, dirt yards and chain link fences, along with the high rise structures and their poorly lit and filthy hallways, leaking pipes and smashed windows that housed scant hope and an overabundance of despair – even by the city’s tough standards, were treacherous.
Kimble lived a few blocks away and also had to navigate a difficult path. These were boys with hopes and dreams, raised in one of America’s forgotten pockets of urban despair, an eyesore of blight that never appeared on postcards alongside the tourist-friendly Liberty Bell.
In the middle of one playground pick-up game, a group of Kimble’s teammates sprinted off the court and chased a kid who was walking outside the park. Peering through the fence during the unexpected game-break, he witnessed someone pull out a pistol and shoot the kid in the head.
While Bo already possessed a supreme outside jumper and could dunk with authority when he was well under six-feet when they first met, Hank was merely an awkward, lithe sixth-grader known more for his relentless rebounding, work ethic and heart as opposed to his limited offensive skills.
Father Dave Hagen, Hank’s elementary school coach at St. Elizabeth’s, opened his home to a lot of North Philly kids that loved basketball, kids like Hank, his brothers, Bo and others who hung out there watching NBA, college and high school games on VHS tapes.
“I used to play Hank on the low post because he was the weakest shooter on the team,” Father Dave once told Kimble. “Hank couldn’t shoot the ball. But he tried so hard. He ran the floor, and even then, he rebounded well.”
While waiting for his skills to keep pace with his desire and competitive spirit, Hank still managed to have an impact on any game he played in.
“He was totally committed to basketball, which, given his nature, meant that if you did something on the court, he was going to do you one better,” wrote Kimble. “It didn’t matter one damn if you could shoot better, run faster, jump higher. He was going to outdo you. That’s all there was to it.”
On the court, Bo was the smooth one. And Hank was the one that nobody wanted to fight for a rebound against. He was also, among those in his inner circle, a hilarious comedian with the gift of being able to mimic anyone.
“He was sharper, funnier, more energetic, and twice as retarded as Richard Pryor,” wrote Kimble. “At father Dave’s, Hank was the center of attention, hands down. No one was even close.”
The two friends grew closer when they began playing in the same summer programs in the legendary Sonny Hill League. And it was Hank who provided the compass for Kimble, even though Bo was the young player tabbed the city’s next ‘Chosen One’.
“I saw in Hank this total commitment to getting what he wanted,” wrote Kimble. “He wanted the same thing I did: basketball. But there was nothing – nothing in all those distractions and dangers in the neighborhood, nothing in his makeup – that was going to keep him from getting to where he wanted to go.”
“I loved and admired his determination, and I could identify with it,” continued Kimble. “You knew right away, even while he wasn’t the best player around, that he was going to get his goal. He had in his makeup, even while he was just a teenager, this awesome strength that would help him overcome the damn neighborhood, the dope, the violence, the needles, the narcs, the cons, the deals, the competition, even the limitations he had as a player. He was going to make it through. I like to think that spirit rubbed off on me.”
The boys drew on the power of their bond to elevate one another. They laughed, fussed and fought with each other like an old married couple. And they were hell on wheels as teammates.
After polishing their skills on the city’s asphalt playgrounds and refining their nuances in the Sonny Hill league against Philly’s finest at the time – players like Pooh Richardson, Brian and Rodney Shorter, Doug Overton and The “L” Train, Lionel Simmons – Bo and Hank took their game to Dobbins Technical High School.
As freshman, when Hank stood 6-foot-1 and weighed 135 pounds, they played on the junior varsity. As sophomores, they made the varsity together. The summer before their junior year, Hank stretched out to 6-foot-6 as muscles began populating his once skinny frame.
With Overton transferring into Dobbins during their junior year, the Mustangs advanced to the city title game, where they ultimately lost to Pooh Richardson’s Franklin High squad. As seniors in 1985, they beat Lionel Simmons’ Southern High School team to win the prestigious city championship, the first ever in Dobbins’ history, to go along with being the top ranked team in the state of Pennsylvania.
Hank and Bo proceeded off to college together, heading to Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California. It was a symbolic and geographical shift to the land of stars, sunshine and dreams which was as far removed from their rugged North Philly upbringing as they could get.
When head coach Stan Morrison got fired at USC after their freshman year, they transferred to Loyola Marymount. After sitting out a season due to NCAA transfer rules, Hank and Bo went to work and took full advantage of their remaining three years of college eligibility.
They didn’t simply play well as individuals and win games. They made an unforgettable contribution to college basketball’s rich tapestry, along with providing a lasting, visual definition to the term that their coach, Paul Westhead, used to describe his offense – “Gasoline on Fire”.
Gathers became only the second player in NCAA history to lead the country in both scoring and rebounding. He averaged an incredible 33 points and 14 boards per game his junior year. Kimble was also a force to be reckoned with, raining three’s like a tropical monsoon and attacking the rim with explosiveness and smooth precision.
Bo and Hank were centerpieces for one of the most entertaining college basketball teams ever. Loyola Marymount ran at a frenetic pace, pressing full-court the entire game and scoring more than Hugh Heffner at the Playboy Mansion.
But when Gathers collapsed in a game during his senior year against Santa Barbara in December of 1989 and was found to have an abnormal heartbeat, the fun suddenly turned somber. After being cleared to play again, after numerous tests and under medication, basketball fans breathed a sigh of relief when Hank returned to the basketball court, although he initially seemed to lack his trademark ferociousness.
Behind the scenes, stories circulated that he was cutting back on his medication dosage and not taking it at all on game days because it made him feel sluggish, adversely affecting his play.
Sadly, on March 4th, 1990, he collapsed in a West Coast Conference Tournament semi-final game against the University of Portland (whose starting point guard was current Miami Heat coach Eric Spoelstra) and died on the court. The autopsy found that he suffered from a heart-muscle disorder known as Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy.
He was only 23 years old, a certain NBA lottery pick who reminded many of a young Charles Barkley due to his dynamic force, strength, physicality and voracious appetite for rebounds.
As a college student at the University of Pennsylvania at the time who followed the game with the same passion I do today, I was part of the city and overall hoops community that cried a collective tear that day. I remember staring at the front page of the Philadelphia Inquirer the next day, still in stunned disbelief.
In his absence, Kimble, who led the country in scoring as a senior with 35 points per game, pushed Loyola Marymount to the Elite Eight, where they lost to the eventual national champions, Coach Jerry Tarkanian’s powerhouse UNLV Runnin’ Rebels headlined by Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Anderson Hunt and Greg Anthony.
Kimble shot the first free throw of each NCAA Tournament game left-handed, in honor of his best friend and surrogate brother.
The jerseys of Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers are retired at Loyola Marymount. Bo was picked 8th overall by the L.A. Clippers in the 1990 draft. His brief three-year career was sabotaged by injuries.
And even though Hank is no longer with us, his relentless determination and hard work around the basket will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it. Together, with that swagger, confidence, unwavering desire to succeed and hope in the unseen that was honed in North Philly, Bo and Hank formed one of the greatest shows the college game has ever seen.
Today, Gersten Pavilion, LMU’s home court, is unofficially known as “Hank’s House”.