The pass was a rocket, a line drive from the left side of the floor. Loyola Marymount's Hank Gathers, one of the country's premier college basketball players, leapt up to the right side of the basket to meet it. The meeting of man and ball was dazzling, the two-handed alley-oop slam dunk spectacular. It was the kind of moment for which Gathers, who last season led the NCAA in both scoring and rebounding, lived.
"He turned back from the dunk and was smiling," said Don Ott, assistant commissioner of the West Coast Conference. "It was typical Hank Gathers."
But seconds later, with 13:34 remaining in the first half of Loyola's game against Portland in the semifinals of the WCC tournament late Sunday afternoon in Los Angeles, Gathers, a 6'7", 210-pound senior, collapsed near midcourt. He then struggled to his knees and was apparently trying to stand when his body went into seizure and he slumped back onto the floor, his body convulsing in spasms. Portland coach Larry Steele, who has been treated himself for a heart condition, was one of the first people to reach Gathers. "From my experience I knew right then it wasn't good," said Steele later.
Loyola trainer Robert Schaefer ran onto the court and was immediately joined by a doctor from the school, Dan Hyslop, who had been standing in line at the will-call ticket window at Gersten Pavilion, Loyola's home arena. Along with another doctor, Benjamin Schaffer, they began administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation as a stunned audience of about 3,000, including Gathers's mother, Lucille, an aunt, Carol Livingston, and two of his three brothers, Derrick and Charles, looked on. When the doctors failed to find a heartbeat, Gathers was placed on a stretcher and taken outside. Paramedics, having just arrived in an ambulance, administered electric shock stimulation and then took Gathers to Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital in Marina del Rey, five miles away.
"He was gone by then," said Ken Kennedy, a friend of Gathers's who is a senior partner with First Round Inc., a New Jersey sports management company. "He wasn't moving at all. I looked at Bo Kimble [Gathers's teammate, fellow Philadelphian and best friend], who was standing there [outside the gym], just staring at Hank. Bo looked back, and his face was so blank. So helpless."
At 6:55 p.m., an hour and 41 minutes after his spectacular dunk, Gathers was pronounced dead.
"He's died. He's died. What are we going to do? What are we going to do?" wailed Gathers's aunt Carol, who collapsed outside the emergency room after Hyslop informed the family. Inside, Lucille and some of Hank's teammates, including Kimble, sobbed and screamed.
"Words are hard right now," said Loyola coach Paul Westhead in a written statement. "This is the hardest thing I've experienced. To be so close to a player and see him fall and for it to be over. I feel a deep hurt for his family."
As of Monday, the cause of death had not been determined, but questions immediately arose about whether Gathers should have been playing basketball. After he fainted on the court during a Dec. 9 game against UC Santa Barbara, he was diagnosed as having an abnormal heartbeat. Gathers missed two regular-season games and one exhibition game while Vernon Hattori, a cardiologist at Daniel Freeman Hospital, administered a battery of tests on him. Then Hattori placed Gathers on an antiarrhythmic drug, and according to the school, the player was pronounced fit to return to the court. (Hattori was still unavailable for comment as SI went to press.)
"His condition was closely checked, and he was cleared," said Mason Weiss, the cardiologist who treated Gathers at the hospital Sunday. "As far as we knew, it was safe for him to play.... He was taking his medication."