March Madness stories bring you to tears; then there is the 1990 LMU Lions. Before Gonzaga, LMU was the small Jesuit school that was turning around college basketball. LMU coach Paul Westhead revolutionized college basketball with his run and gun style office.
The Lions played at a light-speed pace, encouraging fast-break transition and threes early in the shot clock. Westhead, wanted to be the fastest team ever.
He recruited the perfect duo to make that dream a reality. Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble were best friends since high school growing up in Philadelphia. They both committed to USC out of high school and later transferred to LMU before the 1987 season. If you went to LMU during the late 80’s, you enjoyed the Santa Monica beaches, but most importantly, you got a front-row seat to the Hank and Bo show.
LMU lead the country in scoring both seasons prior. Their 1989-1990 senior campaign was supposed to be their dream season. For many reasons, it was. LMU was the talk of the college basketball world. Gathers and Kimble were both surefire top 10 NBA picks. This style helped LMU become one of the most prolific offenses in college basketball history.
It was all gas no breaks for the Lions team. They pressed the ball baseline to baseline on the defensive end and the sprinted to floor getting open shot after open shot on the offensive end. Even in the fast break three point centered game created today, there is nothing that replicates it.
The Lions averaged 122.4 points per game, and were constantly ranked in top 25 throughout the 1989-1990 season. Their nationally televised regular-season games were must-see tv. Hank Gathers went toe to toe with Shaquille O’ Neal scoring 48 points and 13 rebounds in a nationally-televised overtime loss against LSU. Kimble hit a 35-foot jumper to defeat St. Joseph’s in the Hank and Bo Show’s triumphant return to Philadelphia. Even in regular-season losses to UNLV and Oklahoma, this team showed it was special.
Kimble lead the country in scoring at 35 points per game and Gathers followed up with 33. They boat raced through the West Coast conference in modern Gonzaga fashion. It felt like they were the team of destiny, then tragedy struck. They were more offensively potent than Few’s best Gonzaga teams. That’s saying something.
LMU hosted the WCC tournament in Gersten Pavilion. LMU breezed to a semifinal matchup with Portland. It was packed house at the Pavilion for that semifinal matchup on March 4th, 1990. Even with John Wooden coaching UCLA 20 miles down the road, Magic Johnson and the showtime Lakers lighting up the Forum, it was the small school at Loyola Marymount that was the hottest ticket in town.
They were there for Gathers. Early into that semifinal matchup, Gathers through down a thunderous alley-hoop dunk. The crowd went wild then halted to collective silence has Gathers collapsed unto the floor with a booming thud. Gathers, the man who was called himself “the strongest man on earth” lay motionless on the floor powerless. His mom came rushing from the stands with the medical staff and they needed a stretcher to get him off the floor. The game was cancelled the news was now focused on Gathers.
Two hours later the worst possible reality was confirmed, star basketball player Gathers dead at 23. He was later determined to have died from the heart-muscle disorder hypertrophic cardiomyopathy. A condition he was previously diagnosed with but was supposed to be treatable. The event of Gathers death is one of the most grueling public tragedies in American sports history.
In the midst of this horrific tragedy LMU had an NCAA Tournament to play in. They had 11 days to prepare during long stages of grief and the crazy media circus that surrounded Gather’s death. LMU Lions at to play in an NCAA tournament just a few weeks later. LMU opened up the first round of the NCAA tournament against New Mexico State at the nearby Long Beach convention center. The Lions received the WCC automatic bid as regular season champions since the rest of the tournament was cancelled. LMU had to face a tough New Mexico State team. The game didn’t start well, Kimble picked up four fouls in the first half. Still tied the game at 46 at half. Kimble paid an early tribute to his falling friend, he shot his first free throw left-handed, just like Gathers did, the result-swish. LMU took a tied 46 game and won 111-92. Kimble had 45 points and 18 rebounds, 35 of those points came after his fourth foul.
In the second round, LMU faced defending champion and third-seeded Michigan. LMU was a major underdog and the game wasn’t close- LMU dominated 149-115. A score that you read through google and think it is from an NBA 2k game. Kimble at 37 and senior point guard Jeff Fryer had 41.
LMU had reached team of destiny territory.
In the Sweet Sixteen match, LMU scored just half of their season average. The legendary run must have been over right? This is where it ended? You thought wrong, the resilience of this Lions team showed once again defeating Alabama 62-60.
LMU was one game from the Final Four now up against one of the best teams in the country- the UNLV Runnin Rebels. It was a rematch of the first game of the season. Unfortunately for the Lions, they weren’t able to get their revenge. LMU season ended with a 131–101, in the regional final loss to UNLV. At that point, LMU had already captured the hearts of the world.
ESPN made a 30 for 30, Guru of Go that highlighted LMU’s run. A couple of quotes stood out.
From Paul Westhead:
“To quote Charles Dickens, it was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” Westhead said. “It’s really hard even now to separate it. The death of Hank Gathers is the worst of things that could happen to anyone, to any team, to any coach. And yet the celebration of the team that rallied around Hank and played so marvelously for the NCAA tournament, that’s the best of times.”
Bo Kimble last memories of Hank Gathers don’t end with the tragedy “When I think of Hank Gathers, I don’t think of sorrow,” Kimble said. “I think of all the great laughter, all the funny memories, all the times on the court and off the court. There’s way too many great things about Hank’s presence to just think about the sorrow and the way he died. I think of everything but how he died. I think of how he lived.”
Since that awful moment, we’ve all moved forward in life. Twenty-five years later, we notice how much time has passed since this seminal moment in college basketball history, and it makes us realize our own mortality. Time has passed us by. We’ve gotten older. But Hank Gathers did not. In our minds, he’s always 23 years old and slamming down that tomahawk dunk, a man whose inspiring life ended before the truly amazing part — the NCAA tournament, the NBA fame, the riches — could ever begin.”