Aaron Crump, 36, is the only son of Hank Gathers, the basketball star at Dobbins Tech and Loyola Marymount University who, during a game 30 years ago, dropped dead of cardiomyopathy, a heart ailment. In late February, Crump traveled to Los Angeles, to LMU’s campus, to attend a ceremony dedicating a statue of Gathers. He was just 6 when his father died. This is Crump’s story, in his words, of his complicated relationship with Gathers and his legacy.
My father’s death was the first major event in my life that I can remember — how strongly it affected those around me, how I didn’t feel the same way that they felt. To me, I was like any other kid who had to grow up with an absentee father. I missed out on being around him, and nothing could have replaced that. That feeling of being detached or removed from him, from who he was, grew over the years.
In Philadelphia, there’s an air of possessiveness that surrounds my father. It is a difficult thing to describe. I can hear the pride in people’s voices when they talk about him — that they went to the same high school, or lived in the same housing project, or played on the same team that he did, that he is from where they are from. Driving through Los Angeles on the afternoon of the statue’s unveiling, though, the weight of that “thing” was nonexistent. I could feel my father’s presence.
I come from such greatness, and at times I’ve felt so far away from that greatness. I’ll be 37 in May, and I’m just now starting to understand my purpose — to understand that I don’t have to impact the world in the same way that my father did.
Playing basketball was heavy for me for a while. I don’t have half the game he had. I played point guard. I’m 6 feet tall. I didn’t get any of that 6-foot-8 frame he had. When I was younger and really struggling, I was like, “Dude, am I going to get taller?” I was really a late bloomer as a ballplayer.
I started high school at Roman Catholic. My mother enrolled me. I was super-gung-ho about it. I was looking forward to competing. I get there the first day, and we’re in the assembly hall, and that’s the first time I realized it was an all-boys school. Don’t ask me why, but I had no clue that there were no girls at the school. It really just turned me off. I bugged my mom, and after a semester, I transferred to Cheltenham High School. I played JV in 10th and 11th grade and finally cracked the starting five my senior year.
After high school, I didn’t have a plan. I came into money from my father’s wrongful-death suit, nearly $900,000. A lot of my buddies went to schools like Delaware State and Howard, so I was down there every other weekend, hanging out.
My family members — bless their souls — were introduced to a situation like this, having real wealth, for the first time. We were in the projects. We were surrounded by people who were in the same situation we were.
After I came into that money, people treated me different as a young man. They’d constantly ask me what I was going to do with the money. Meanwhile, at home, I was the man of the house — because it was my house. I bought it as a teenager. I paid the bills. I had no example to follow. I was just expected to be a man and take care of things because I had the capacity to take care of them.
I didn’t get the kick in the ass that I needed. People were afraid to do it because, at some point, they were hoping for a handout. Looking back on it, I’m not bitter anymore about it, and I understand it a little bit more.
What were people supposed to do? No one had ever been in the situation I was in: sudden wealth, no direction. How could they give me advice on how to power through it?
Even if I’d had a mentor helping and guiding me, I can’t even honestly say I would have taken his advice, just because of the head space I was in. I was young. I had access to money. There was not too much that anyone could tell me. I just floated around. I didn’t have any direction at all, and you know as well as I do that was a recipe for disaster: having money, not having a plan, and idle time, man. It wasn’t a good situation.
I spent five years at Rockview State Prison, in Central Pennsylvania, after pleading guilty to aggravated assault with a weapon. I’m not proud of it at all.
Being away from my daughter, Dasia, who was only 4 months at the time, broke my heart. That time away from society, from what I loved, from what I believed to be important, was essential in becoming the person I ultimately want to become. It’s not something I like to speak about, but I own it, because that’s the grown-man thing and the good-human-being thing to do. I understand it’s a part of my story, and it drives me.
I shouldn’t have put myself in a situation like that one, but I’m proud to have worked on myself while in there. I made it a point not to return, no matter how hard it got for me. And it got really hard.
I came home to none of the money I had going in. Absolutely nothing. That, along with being a felon, was ... interesting. But I made it through, and I think I’m doing relatively well,
Right now, I’m working for two nonprofit organizations. One is Mount Airy Community Development Corp. They also have a sister building that is a co-working space.
My role is managing one of the two co-working spaces in the building. Out of that same space, I run a free, six-week business course that the corporation sponsors. I facilitate the classes, organize them, and I’m proud of that, helping small business owners. Most of them are minorities, and they need the information and insight that the course provides.
Then there’s Philadelphia Youth Basketball, which is actually my life’s work. I’m a coach and a mentor there.
When I deal with our youth at PYB, they ask all the wrong questions about being in prison: “How was it in there? Did you have TV? Were you guys allowed to have fun?” The kids want to know if they can maintain while going through it, if they could handle a five-year stint in jail. They ask the cool stuff, the stuff they hear people rap about. It sounds cool, but it’s not. I would prefer they ask, “What were you thinking when you did what you did?”
I’ve got to rein them in. I tell them, “It’s not something I’m proud of! I don’t want to have to tell you this! But I would prefer to tell you this rather than have you go through what I went through. Hey, we all do what we have to do, but you do not want to go through that. You do not — do not — want to have to make lemonade out of the lemons in there. Sure, there’s TV. Yes, you’re able to play basketball. But it’s so you don’t go crazy, so you don’t lose your mind.”
Only in that context do I feel comfortable speaking about my past, because I understand that it can be used in a positive way. I can reach someone who may be going down that path.
I was, by all means, set up for success. But from another standpoint, I could have been set up for failure. I had that feeling of having things under control, but I didn’t have a mentor to guide me and let me know, “You don’t have it all figured out.” That’s important. It’s really important.