by Vincent Thomas / @vincecathomas

Twenty years ago this week, Loyola Marymount ended a fairy-tale NCAA Tournament run getting dropped by eventual champs UNLV 131-101. In fact, forget fairy-tale, that makes you think about the tired Cinderella cliche attached the tournament. LMU’s run was deeper than that — it was “triumph of the human spirit” cliche stuff.

I mean, seriously: Your team leader collapses and dies during a game and, as an 11th seed, you advance to the Elite 8 just weeks later. That’s such an iconic story I don’t even want Hollywood getting its hand on it. Just leave it as.

At some point, UNLV’s championship and the cultural impact of that team will fade. America will probably always remember the LMU story, though. In case we needed a little prodding, however, I talked to the principal members and visited the campus to write a piece commemorating the team’s 20th anniversary. What you read below appears in this month’s issue of SLAM on newsstands now…

A little over two decades ago, in early February, the Loyola Marymount Lions traveled from their home in Los Angeles to Baton Rouge, LA, for a rare late-season, non-conference game against a collegiate giant. No, really— LSU was gigantic. The hosts’ Shaquille O’Neal and Stanley Roberts were massive 7-footers, more imposing even than the Alonzo Mourning/Dikembe Mutombo duo at GeorgBo Kimbleetown. LMU’s center was the 6-7 Hank Gathers who, the previous season, lead the nation in scoring and rebounding. This particular season, however, Hank “The Bank” ceded his scoring title to his teammate and fellow Philadelphian Bo Kimble. They marched into the Pete Maravich Assembly Center to take on Goliath. Well, while LSU had giants, LMU had The System.

That’s right, The System. It was simple, really. You know how Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix squad was marked by the “seven seconds or less” philosophy? LMU’s mantra was even more ambitious (and crazy). Paul Westhead—who had won an NBA championship as the Lakers head coach in 1980—wanted his LMU squad to shoot the rock in less than four seconds. Four! “Sometimes we’d get it up in two seconds,” he recalls. “There was no such thing as a bad shot.”

LMU averaged 122 ppg that season, which is downright preposterous. Think about it this way: No NBA teams come close to averaging 122 ppg and their games are eight minutes longer. Even crazier, back in ‘90, NCAA games still used a 45-second shot clock. The System was a bizarre product of a mad scientist. Up and down, up and down. They trapped you as soon as the ball was taken out and then flew down the court after a rebound. No matter what an opposing team tried to do, they got sucked into LMU’s vortex of chaos. Hank Hersch, writing for Sports Illustrated, said LMU games resembled “fourth-grade recess.” And it often worked.

Halfway into the LSU game, Tiger forward Vernell Singleton’s chest was heaving and he looked over to coach Dale Brown with a sheepish, helpless grimace asking to be subbed out of the game. The Lions ended up losing to LSU, 148-141…in regulation. For context, Syracuse’s six-overtime win over UConn last March was 127-117. The Loyola/LSU game was so remarkable for its pace and energy that Brown actually got on the PA system after the game and told the crowd they just witnessed one of the greatest games ever played in Louisiana.

LSU wasn’t used to games like that, but they were regular occurrences for LMU. Over the course of two seasons, The System started getting LMU notoriety; the L.A. Times actually assigned Alan Drooz to cover them full-time.

Jamie Sanchez, now the Lions tennis coach, oversaw the team’s ticket requests back then. He says everywhere they went, people were lining up to see this team put Doug Moe’s Denver Nuggets to shame.

That ‘90 LMU season, however, will always be most remembered for its emotional dichotomy. The university—a small Jesuit school of less than 4,000 students,
sitting on the beautiful bluffs of Marina Del Ray in Los Angeles county—experienced perhaps college basketball’s greatest tragedy, only to follow it up with one of the most memorable and euphoric Cinderella runs in NCAA Tournament history.

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LMU was never an athletic powerhouse. But when Westhead came in ‘85, he brought NBA Championship pedigree and, more importantly, Philadelphia ties from his days at LaSalle. This helped him land Gathers and Kimble when they looked to transfer from USC.

“Once we got Hank and Bo, I knew we had the athletes for The System,” says Westhead, who is now in his first year as head wBo Kimble, Hank Gathers & Jeff Fryeromen’s coach at the University of Oregon (and yes, still pushing his team to score 100-plus points).

“I loved it,” says Kimble. “We were all able to just unload our games. There were tremendous opportunities under Westhead. You do all your work in practice and then, on game day, he let the horses run out of the stable. Most coaches are too arrogant to give up that control.”

With Kimble filling it up, guard Jeff Fryer shooting the lights out, point guards Tony Walker and Terrell Lowery pushing the pace and Tom Peabody (aka The Human Bruise) playing like Crash Bandicoot, LMU had all the necessary ingredients for success—except size. That’s where Gathers came in. Even when he was giving up several inches and a couple dozen pounds to his opponents, you didn’t know it. Kimble says it best: “They might have been bigger than Hank, but every shot we missed he was gonna get the rebound and, on the other end, he was gonna get their misses and then beat his guy down the court.”

Gathers was LMU’s ex-factor—winning matchups he should have lost—and spiritual leader. He was the Lions’ biggest personality, literally the big man on campus.

But then came March 4, 1990.

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LMU was playing Portland in the West Coast Conference Tournament. They were up 23-13 when Gathers caught an alley-oop from Lowery and dunked it with force. As he ran up the court, though, he collapsed. It was an odd scene. This hulking, sculpted young man— after just completing basketball’s signature play for athletic prowess—crumbling to the ground and going into convulsions.

Gathers, who used to call himself the “Strongest Man in America,” was pronounced dead just hours later. An autopsy found he suffered from a heart-muscle disorder, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy.

It was a huge national story, of course: Potential Lottery pick dies on the court. SI, ESPN, 60 Minutes—the campus was like a newsroom. It was also like a zombieland. The entire student body and administration were in a haze of grief and disbelief. “Hank was so central to campus life,” remembers Sanchez. “Everybody knew Hank. Everybody liked Hank. Everybody loved Hank. His death was so sudden and so tragic that we all didn’t know how to move on.”

Days after Gathers’ death, the West Coast Conference gave LMU their automatic NCAA Tournament invite, the first in school history, as an 11th seed. Westhead says he and his staff weren’t sure whether the team was emotionally fit to play in the Tournament. “I thought that maybe it was too much, too soon,” he remembers.

Fryer, enjoying a career season as a senior, said playing in the Tournament was the best thing for the squad. “It allowed us, for a moment, to take our minds off Hank and the tragedy of his death,” he says.

Once they decided to play, it was on.

Talk about Cinderellas. There have been some great runs throughout Tournament history—Valparaiso, George Mason, etc.—but nothing like LMU’s run. For a small school like LMU to advance as far as they did, all while scoring in torrents and just weeks after losing its leader and best player, is on a whole other level of remarkable.

Even though New Mexico State was their first win (111-92), the Lions introduction, their “we’re here now” statement came in the second round against defending champion Michigan. The Wolverines boasted Rumeal Robinson, Loy Vaught, Sean Higgins, Terry Mills, Eric Riley—they all played in the NBA. Even though the game was held a few miles away from campus at Long Beach Arena and the crowd was decidedly pro-LMU, nobody really gave the Lions a chance. But midway through the first half, it was clear the Wolverines were not prepared for a game this emotional and frenetic.

When Kimble went to the line for the first time, he did exactly what he’d done a few days prior against New Mexico State—he shot the free throw left-handed. It was his way of honoring his dead homeboy. (Even though Gathers was right-handed, he’d briefly attempted shooting his free throws left-handed to improve from the charity stripe.)

“We all wore the [uniform] patch,” recalls Kimble. “And some of the younger guys were doing things like writing Hank’s name and number on their sneakers. But the pain I was feeling…I just didn’t wanna do that. That would have been, to use one of Hank’s words, ‘corny.’ I had so much respect for Hank as a person and player and one thing I always appreciated about him was how hard he worked on his free throws. So I figured there was no better way to honor him than to shoot the first free throw of every game with my left hand. I wanted to make it, but I didn’t care. That was my own selfish moment. It was an inner thing. A time for me to stop and pause and acknowledge Hank. The ball could have flew over the backboard or it could have been an air-ball that just went two feet and I wouldn’t have cared.”

Kimble made all three of his left-handed free throws and it always made the crowd go wild. After he hit his free throws against Michigan, Lowery followed up with a steal and a slick finger-roll over Robinson. After the bucket, he got up in the All-American’s chest and started woofing. (“Yeah, boy! Yeah, boy!”) Robinson didn’t say a word in return. Instead, coach Steve Fisher called a timeout and Robinson aPaul Westheadnd the rest of his squad sulked back to the huddle, down 44-30—with seven minutes left in the first half!—already seemingly defeated.

Quinn Buckner and Greg Gumble called the game for CBS. Buckner spent most of the game laughing and chuckling in disbelief at the insane pace and LMU’s “bombs away” mentality. Kimble played the whole game with a knowing smirk on his face. He knew when a team played them for the first time, the pace would catch them off guard. Westhead ran his practices at the same 1,000 mph pace as the games, so his squad was ready. Their opponents? Not so much.

“I never wanna be in that shape again,” jokes Kimble. “When you get into that kinda shape, you can almost be on cruise control. If Paul said, We’re gonna run 50 miles, I wouldn’t be happy, but I was in shape where I could lace up my sneakers and do it. And I could also guarantee that, by halftime, the other team felt they’d played the whole game.”

The Lions led 65-58 at the half, but they literally ran Michigan out of the gym in second half. At one point, after Fryer (on his way to 41 points) hit one of his 11 treys, a whole section in the arena did the “We’re not worthy” bow from Wayne’s World. LMU ended up winning 149-115, breaking a Tournament scoring record. It was inspired ball. In his post-game interview, Fryer evoked Gathers. “Hank is on our side,” he said. “We’re an emotional hurricane and nothing’s gonna stand in our way.”

Kimble made the cover of SI the following week, with the caption “For You, Hank.” They had the nation’s full attention. Fryer and Kimble even went on TheArsenio Hall Show.

The Cinderella run continued in the Sweet 16 where they met a Robert Horry-led Alabama squad. Following the Michigan game, Westhead had said, “On the bus ride here I instructed our guys to play bombs away…the players are free to let it go. I feel sorry for whoever we play next.” But legendary Bama coach Wimp Sanderson wasn’t going to fall victim to The System like New Mexico State and Michigan, so he and the Tide played the ugliest game of stall-ball you’ll ever see. They flipped it on LMU and ended up dictating the pace of the whole game. LMU could usually score 100 points with their collective eyes closed, but, somehow, Bama managed to keep the score low. Still, LMU won 62-60, which was like a halftime score for them. After the game, forward Per Stumer said the pace was so slow that “it was like learning to walk again.”

In the Elite 8, LMU met UNLV. The two squads had opened up their seasons against each other, with the Runnin’ Rebels winning 102-91. UNLV was one of the few squads that had the horses—and then some—to keep up with LMU. Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson were All-Americans. Anderson Hunt could bomb away from deep all day. David Butler and Moses Scurry were beasts down low. Greg Anthony ran the show. They were too much, ending LMU’s Cinderella run 131-101. It was Westhead, though, who put the loss in proper perspective.

“Today was the way the last three should have been, proof that the last three were unexplainable,” Westhead said after the game. “They were examples of the human spirit rising above occasions. But we’re not angels and we can’t always rise above. I’m not devastated. When we entered this Tournament, I made the decision this wasn’t for winning or losing, but to play hard for Hank. We were playing basketball on another level. It wasn’t on the level of wins and losses.”

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LMU’s campus still has some markings of that memorable squad. There’s a banner in the gym that reads “Hank’s House” and both
Gathers’ and Kimble’s faces can be seen on murals and pictures around campus. There was also a Homecoming event honoring that team in January. But for that squad to be the school’s most successful team, there’s not too much commemoration, probably because even though that was a very happy time, ecstatic even, there was also a lot of sadness associated with ‘90. Kimble said he saw footage of his left-handed free throw recently and got teary-eyed. “It was a total reminder of the joy and the sadness of that season,” he says.

Fryer says it was a confusing time. “I didn’t know whether to mourn or celebrate,” he says.

This much is known, though: LMU’s ’90 season remains one of the most dramatic and compelling four months for any team in any sport.

“For us as a team, a school and a community to go from being so low and experiencing just an unthinkable tragedy to then being so high, almost delirious, it was only right,” says Sanchez. “The only way to balance out all that sorrow was to just ride the wave with the team. It was like they were being helped by a higher power.”

Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM, a contributing commentator for ESPN and writes the weekly “From The Floor” column for NBA.com. You can email him your feedback at vincethomas79@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter at @vincecathomas.