The first full practice came two days after a campus memorial service for their friend and teammate. Yet even with the finality of that ceremony, Loyola Marymount's basketball players found it hard to remember that Hank Gathers was really gone.
As the team formed a circle and sat down for its stretching exercises on March 8, forwards Per Stumer and Chris Scott unconsciously left a space for Gathers between them. When the drills began, Stumer stood motionless at mid-court, momentarily confused. For two years, he and Gathers had drilled together; now Stumer had no partner. Backup center Chris Knight, who had long coveted a starting role, began to shake when he was told to take Gathers's spot. "I felt guilty," says Knight. "Like I had something to do with his death."
It was only four days earlier that Gathers had collapsed and died of heart failure during a West Coast Conference tournament game against Portland on Loyola's home floor in Los Angeles. Says Loyola forward Bo Kimble, who had been a friend of Gathers's for the past 10 years, "We had a lot to deal with quickly. It was hard on everyone. But we knew Hank would have wanted us to play in the NCAAs. At the memorial service [in Loyola's Gersten Pavilion] I looked over and saw his coffin was in the paint. I knew then we would have to find a way to win for him."
And, perhaps astonishingly, they did. Playing in the West Regional in Long Beach, Calif., the 11th-seeded Lions beat No. 6-seed New Mexico State last Friday 111-92. Kimble scored 45 points and grabbed 18 rebounds, despite playing the entire second half with four fouls. On Sunday, Loyola crushed defending national champion Michigan 149-115 to shatter the tournament record for most points scored by a team (the previous mark was held by St. Joseph's, which got 127 in a four-overtime game against Utah in 1961) and to earn a berth against Alabama in this week's West Regional semifinals, in Oakland. Leading the Lions were Jeff Fryer, who poured in 41 points, including 11 of 15 shots from three-point range; Kimble, who added 37 points; and guard Terrell Lowery, who had 23.
Nobody made a motivational speech at either game. Nobody had to. Before facing New Mexico State, Kimble huddled his teammates in the dark tunnel leading to the arena and told them to "stay calm and play our game." They put their hands together high in the air, yelled, "Get that ass!" a cheer Gathers was especially fond of, and sprinted onto the court. "We were like horses being let out to run after a long winter," says Stumer. "Everybody was ready."
Coach Paul Westhead's biggest concern was that his team would play with too much emotion, that it would equate caring about Gathers with winning. "Our feelings about Hank Gathers are irrelevant to whether we make a jump shot or not," he told the Lions early last week. "If we lose, it's not because we didn't care enough."
However, none of the Loyola players was thinking about losing. Playing and winning had become such a fierce mission for the Lions that a fight broke out between Lowery and reserve forward John O'Connell during that first practice. As a result, Kimble called a special team dinner meeting that evening. "The fight was like brothers fighting," says Kimble. "It was a love fight. We had a lot of tension. We hadn't played in a while. A lot of things built up."
At the meeting, Kimble encouraged his teammates to loosen up. Staying loose was something Gathers had insisted on. Even after a defeat, he would try to make his teammates feel better by kidding them until they couldn't help but smile. "If Hank saw us sitting around feeling sad, crying, he'd laugh his heart off at us," says Kimble. "I decided that Hank wasn't going to laugh at me."
So Kimble joked and hammed things up. He organized a videogame tournament. He talked freely with reporters about how he had loved Gathers. His mood was infectious. Each day became a little easier. And each day the players grew closer. They began looking out for one another, making sure that nobody was alone. Even Knight, who was so haunted about taking Gathers's place, began to feel better. On last Thursday's bus ride to Long Beach, the mood was upbeat, even if the banter was quieter than usual.
"If Hank had been there, he would have been on the bus's microphone making fun of anybody in his path," says assistant coach Judas Prada. "He would have had everyone rolling."