A little over 20 years ago, Loyola Marymount University's Gersten Pavilion was the scene of one of Southern California's most tragic events in sports. LMU star forward Hank Gathers, playing against Portland in his team's first game of the West Coast Conference Tournament, collapsed and died of heart failure as a result of hypertropic cardiomyopathy.
Conference officials canceled the tournament and sent the Lions to the NCAA Tournament. There, led by Gathers' friend and high school teammate from Philadelphia, Bo Kimble, LMU improbably advanced all the way to the West Regional Final, losing to eventual champion UNLV, knocking off defending champion Michigan along the way.
LMU, under the guidance of former Lakers coach Paul Westhead, played a somewhat revolutionary run and gun style of basketball, throwing up three-point shots combined with a full court press. The Lions would outscore most NBA teams, although they would also give up their fare share. On January 31, 1989, LMU and U.S. International University set a Division I record for scoring in a 181-150 win for the Lions. (My brother Tom, who was covering the game for the Daily News at the time, has told me that the final score may have been different as the official scorers seemed to fall behind the action in the second half.)
After Gathers death, Gathers' family filed suit against LMU and Gathers' doctors. Westhead left LMU after the season to return to the NBA. Loyola Marymount retreated into basketball obscurity.
In the 20 seasons since LMU last made it to the NCAA Tournament, the Lions have had only four winning seasons. They have had three season where they won just seven games, and in the 1999-2000 season, the Lions won just two.
Last season, Bill Bayno took over as coach, but soon had to step down for health reasons. Assistant Max Good took over and the LMU finished the year 3-28.
Good was given the job fulltime and managed to coax a team with no seniors and only three juniors to an 18-14 season. LMU beat USC and Notre Dame on the road. On February 18, the Lions upset the #9 team in the nation, Gonzaga, at home. It was the first win for LMU over a nationally ranked team since they had defeated Alabama in the NCAA Tournament in 1990.
While the improvement was not good enough to deliver a conference championship (that went to St. Mary's) or an NCAA Tournament berth (which Gonzaga also earned), the Lions did manage to get a bid into one of the three other postseason tournaments.
LMU was not quite good enough for the NIT, which has history on its side, or the College Basketball Invitational, which is run by the powerful Gazelle Group who run nearly all of the preseason tournaments in college basketball. Instead, LMU found itself in the rather unfortunately named Collegeinsider.com Tournament, aka the CIT.
The CIT invites 16 teams and matches them up as best they can to get people to show up. (Although Harvard at Appalachian State may not be what they had in mind.) LMU paid the organizers of the CIT a sum of $31,500 to get the right to be the home team for its opening game against Pacific.
However, with short notice, LMU drew only 1,541 fans for the game. And, if you arrived just before tipoff (as I did), you could still buy a ticket that put you two rows off the court. The free parking at the Westchester campus was pretty nice.
Pacific, which tied with UC Santa Barbara for first in the Big West Conference, was a little too strong inside for LMU. Pacific led by 17 at halftime, saw the Lions cut the lead to three, but then pulled away for an 86-76 win. Pacific shot 60% from the field for the game.
Since all the stars of this year's LMU team, such as forward Drew Viney and guard Vernon Teel, the Lions could try to make a claim for the title of "Best Team in the West Coast Conference That Isn't Gonzaga."
Whatever happens in the future, the 1990 season is still going to overshadow anything that happens at LMU. Fans can buy Hank Gathers jerseys at a concession stand inside Gersten Pavilion. A biography of Gathers, Heart of a Lion by Kyle Kiederling, is also available for sale.
On March 23, an ESPN "30 for 30" documentary on the 1989-90 team called "Guro of Go" will have a showing at Gersten Pavilion. The documentary will air nationally on ABC on April 3 at 1 pm.
The Hank Gathers story will keep being retold, mostly because of its tragic aspects. The image of a young athlete dying in front of people is hard to erase. Twenty years is still not enough time. But, if the Lions keep on improving, there may be a slightly happier story in the near future for Loyola Marymount.