Friday, April 1, 2011

Hank And Khristin

TigerBlog was on the verge of falling asleep last night when his attention was diverted by ESPN Classic's presentation of some "30 For 30" repeats.

If you haven't been paying attention to the "30 For 30" series, it's a series of documentaries by various filmmakers - including TB's friend from college, Jon Hock, who did one on former Oklahoma running back Marcus Dupree entitled "The Best That Never Was."

TB has watched many of the pieces in the series, and they've been, without exception, riveting.

Last night, TB was able to see the last 15 minutes or so of the one about Len Bias, the former Maryland basketball star who died of a cocaine overdose two days after the NBA draft in 1986.

When that one was over, TB managed to say awake for 60 more minutes, because he couldn't turn away from one second of the "Guru of Go," which was about basketball coach Paul Westhead and centered around the death Hank Gathers - who played for Westhead at Loyola Marymount - on March 4, 1990, from a heart ailment. Gathers' death came on the court seconds after he finished off an alley-oop against Portland in the first round of the West Coach Conference tournament.

TigerBlog was watching a different game on TV that night when the network, which TB assumes was ESPN, cut into the game that was on to show what had happened to Gathers. Like pretty much everyone else in the sporting world at that point, TigerBlog had become a huge fan of Loyola Marymouth, of Westhead's shoot-every-five-seconds "System," and especially of the team's two stars, Gathers and his childhood friend and high school teammate Bo Kimble.

Back when TB used to cover high school sports, he saw Gathers and Kimble play for Dobbins Tech in a tournament in the Trenton area. When they went to Loyola Marymount from USC when George Raveling took over the Trojans and dumped the pair, TigerBlog wrote a big story on Kimble for the Trenton Times after spending 30 minutes or so on the phone with him, during which time Kimble could not have been nicer.

Westhead, meanwhile, had coached the Lakers to the NBA title in 1980, Magic Johnson's rookie year, before Johnson decided he didn't like Westhead and famously orchestrated his removal as coach. From there, Westhead bounced around, eventually landing at LMU.

The Lions under Westhead were legendary for their conditioning, including running up a sandy hill on a beach, and the result was a combination of fast-paced offense and pressing defense designed solely to drive the opponent to exhaustion. Loyola Marymount didn't care if it gave up tons of points; the logic was that by the end of the game, their superior conditioning and familiarity with playing at that pace would eventually break the other team.

It usually worked.

LMU averaged 110.3 points during the 1987-88 season and 112.5 the next year and then turned it up in 1989-90, going for 122.4 per game, which is still the NCAA Division I record. Gathers, as a junior, led the nation in scoring and rebounding, and the program was approaching legendary status by the 1989-90 season.

The first sign that something was wrong came when Gathers collapsed during a game in December, and that's when he first was diagnosed with a heart issue. The medication to correct him made him sluggish, though, and he began to dial back on the dosage.

By March, though, he seemed to be his old self, and he pronounced himself 100 percent.

His death won't be forgotten ever by anyone who was watching the TV that night. Gathers took an alley-oop pass and threw it down like he always did, looking indestructible. Then, as he set up defensively, he suddenly stumbled and went down. He tried to get up and almost got his knees once before falling again, and he was pronounced dead on arrival at the hospital.

Watching the video on the "30 For 30" movie, TB got the same chilled feeling he got when he first saw the horror, and it didn't seem like 21 years had passed by.

The most touching moment off the movie came when Westhead, Kimble, Gathers' brother and two other LMU teammates were all shown, one after another, completely speechless in response to either viewing the clip or being asked to talk about it.

Of course, LMU made a magical run in the NCAA tournament that year after making the decision as a team to keep playing and after the WCC gave the Lions its automatic bid, as the tournament was cancelled after Gathers' died.

LMU would beat New Mexico State 111-92 and then destroy defending champion Michigan 149-115 to get to the Sweet 16, where it got past the slowdown tactics of Alabama 62-60. The run ended when the great UNLV team blasted LMU 131-101, but the Lions had made a big statement on behalf of their fallen friend.

And no statement was bigger than the one Kimble made when, in Gathers' honor, he swished his first foul shot of the tournament lefthanded.

A year later, LMU wasn't quite the same team, but it still was the leading scoring team in the country. Westhead was now the head coach of the Denver Nuggets in the NBA, and Kimble was in the NBA as well.

Still, the matchup at Jadwin Gym on Selection Sunday 1991 - March 10, or a year and six days after Gathers' death - was an intriguing one, featuring the top scoring offense against the top scoring defense of the Princeton Tigers.

Tom Peabody, who was one of the people interviewed extensively for the "Guru Of Go" movie, and Terrell Lowery, who threw the alley-oop to Gathers on the play before he died, were still on the team that came to Princeton on a day that would be all Tigers, who won 76-48.

It's been 20 years since that game at Jadwin and 21 years since Gathers died. Khristin Kyllo wasn't even born yet when Gathers passed away.

Tomorrow, in conjunction with Princeton's Ivy League opening doubleheader in softball against Brown, the Tigers team will be honoring Khristin Kyllo, who passed away a few weeks ago, four months into her freshman year at Princeton, where she was on the softball team.

by inviting those who knew her during here time here at Forbes College to attend. Khristin's parents and other family members will also be there.

The softball team is honoring her on its game jerseys and batting helmets this year, and clearly Kyllo made a strong impact on this team in a very short time.

And like Loyola Marymount, the Tigers are left to carry on without her. It's not in the same public spotlight, but doesn't make her loss any less tragic.

TigerBlog used the word "indestructible" earlier to describe Gathers, but he was really talking about young college athletes. They are so fit, so healthy, so seemingly unbreakable that it's hard to contemplate that they could be hear one minute and gone the next.

The "Guru Of Go" brought the emotion of the Gathers tragedy rushing back to TB for 60 minutes.

For Khristin Kyllo, the tragedy is much newer.

In both cases, it's hard to think of it as real.

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