Thursday, December 26, 2013

Best MAAC Stories: No. 28, Tears For Gathers' Loss

Here's another in the series identifying the "Terrific 32," the top 32 stories related to MAAC basketball in the league's first 32 seasons of play.

No. 28


The date was March 4, 1990, the semifinal round of the conference's post-season tournament, the first one ever played in downtown Albany in what was then known as the Knickerbocker Arena.

Late in the second half of a 106-90 victory over Siena, a glance at the La Salle bench brought the shocking sight that the Explorers' star forward Lionel Simmons had his head in his hands, shaking uncontrollably with tears running down his face.

And, he wasn't the only one. Tears were plentiful for players from the Philadelphia-based school that night.

They had just been informed, during a late-game time out, that one of their own, Philadelphia native Hank Gathers, had collapsed during a game that night and died.

Gathers, who led the nation in scoring and rebounding at Loyola Marymount that season, had an abnormal heartbeat and felt that his prescribed medication adversely affected his play. It was suspected that he was not taking any dosage on game days.

And, on that fateful day, in the first half of a West Coast Conference tournament game, he collapsed on the court, lost consciousness and could not be revived.

Word of Gather's passing soon reached Albany. After La Salle's players were told of the situation, Philly natives Simmons and Doug Overton left the court to grieve in the team's locker room.

Those two and Gathers grew up together, and had formed a bond playing in each summer's Sonny Hill League. Overton and Gathers had even played together at Dobbins Technical High School, and Simmons was a rival from South Philadelphia H.S.

That night the La Salle team gathered to meet in coach Speedy Morris' room and, then, decided to participate in the next night's championship game and dedicate its performance to Gathers' memory.

That La Salle team, arguably the best ever to play in the MAAC, defeated Fordham, 71-61, for the conference title and a trip to the NCAA tournament.

Simmons, the talented 6-foot-7 forward, scored 26 points including 18 in the second half. Overton had 10 points and the two combined to make five key free throws in the game's final two minutes after Fordham had pulled to within 64-61.

"Life certainly outweighs basketball tremendously," said Simmons, fighting back tears when he met with the media after the victory over Fordham. "Being only 21, I could never imagine anything like this happening. Now, I'll definitely approach life a lot differently. I won't take anything for granted. Hank was the strongest guy I ever say, and what happened to him I can't even imagine."

Morris, afterwards, called the outcome a "character victory."

"Hank would have certainly wanted us to play," said Simmons, back then. "He was such a competitive person."

Players wore black bands on their jerseys in Gathers' memory. Several, including Simmons, wrote "Hank," or "44" -- Gathers' number -- on wristbands, uniforms and sneakers.

"We try to tell them that life goes on," added Morris, after the 1990 championship game. "Those of us who could get up from those adversities are going to be the ones who are going to be successful.

"Gathers was a player who gave it his all. If we could take an example from Hank Gathers, it would be to give our best."

And, on the night of the 1990 championship game in downtown Albany, La Salle's players gave it their best in the worst of times to honor their lost friend.

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