On the day before its 1990 West Coast Conference tournament semifinal with host Loyola Marymount, Portland practiced in the Lions' Gersten Pavilion.
"There are windows on one end of their gym," Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, then Portland's sophomore point guard, recalled this week. "On the other side of the windows, there's a track. I'll never forget, that day we saw Hank [Gathers] out there running sprints with a parachute on his back.
"To see the leading scorer and leading rebounder in the nation with that kind of work ethic, we were beaten before we even played."
Twenty-four hours later, at 5:14 p.m. on March 4, a helpless Spoelstra was standing beneath the basket when Gathers rose over him and slammed home an alley-oop pass to give Loyola a 25-13 first-half lead.
"Then he ran to half court to set up near me in the press, as they always did," said Spoelstra, pausing as if to catch his breath at the scene he was conjuring, one that 25 years later still plays out in his head.
"And then . . ."
And then Gathers, the 6-foot-7, 210-pound physical phenomenon from Philadelphia, staggered momentarily, did a half-turn, and collapsed. He tried briefly to rise, slumped again, went into convulsions, and then finally was still. Rushed to nearby Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital, he was pronounced dead there.
An autopsy revealed the cause as idiopathic cardiomyopathy. He was 23.
On this 25th anniversary, that tragic event is remembered clearly by all who were in Gersten Pavilion that Sunday afternoon, no less vividly by those, like Spoelstra, the student broadcasters, and Loyola's trainer, who were not wearing Lions uniforms.
"Shuddering," said Spoelstra when asked to describe the moment. "That's the only thing I can say. Shuddering."
To those listening that day on Loyola's student radio station, KXLU-FM, the Lions' second-round conference tourney game with Portland must have sounded familiar.
As usual, the 22-5 Lions were setting a rapid pace, running constantly, pressing, shooting from anywhere.
That season, Loyola averaged an astounding 122.4 points, still an NCAA record, in "The System" installed by coach Paul Westhead who, like Gathers and his costar, Bo Kimble, was a native Philadelphian.
"You had to be in incredible physical condition to play in Paul Westhead's system," said Spoelstra. "And Hank Gathers was the most highly conditioned athlete, probably in the whole nation. He was a man among boys. He could play all game long. Press. Rebound. Sprint. Finish all the fast-breaks. He was stunning to see in person."
In Spoelstra's freshman season, Portland set a home-court scoring record with 92 points against Loyola. And lost by 52.
The Heat coach has a photo from one Loyola-Portland game in his home. He cherishes it because the scoreboard in it shows that Portland had a rare lead on its dominant WCC rival.
That seldom happened in the four regular-season games Spoelstra played against Gathers' Loyola. The Lions won all four, averaging 125 points - allowing 98 - in the process.
"You really had to be physically ready," Spoelstra said. "But it was kind of fun to play against them, because you knew you'd score some points."
In that March 4 game, Portland was down 10 when, as he crossed the half-court line, Loyola guard Terrell Lowery spotted an open Gathers. The forward from Dobbins High caught his teammate's high lob with two hands and stuffed it through the rim with typical emphasis. The crowd's roar almost drowned out the excited student broadcasters.
"Great pass by Terrell Lowery," said KXLU color analyst Brian Berger. "He was on the left side at half court. He threw it up. A perfect pass. Hank caught it in stride and jammed it! That brought the crowd to its feet."
"Hank was right in position," countered play-by-play man, Keith Forman. "It wasn't even a lob pass - he just rifled it up there. That's got to be one of the quickest alley-oops . . ."
At that moment, as if the venue had magically shifted to an empty gym, the noise ceased. A tense moment of dead air followed before Berger interjected:
A clearly stunned Forman resumed the account.
"Hank Gathers on the floor, collapsed. He was standing right beyond half court, and all of the sudden he just fell down. Trainers are all on the court. Hank's mother is rushing on the court. Hank is trying to get up . . ."
Gathers had fainted earlier that season, during a Dec. 9 game with UC Santa Barbara. Now, Loyola trainer Chip Schaefer, aware of the heart problems subsequent testing had revealed, sprinted to the fallen player.
"I thought he'd fainted again," recalled Schaefer, now the trainer for the NBA's Sacramento Kings. "He was responsive, and I tried to relax him while they were getting the stretcher and defibrillator. But, then he got a different look on his face, and his eyes shut."
Whatever it was that felled this relentless giant, Spoelstra thought, it must have been incredibly powerful.
"He had great athleticism. He was like a young Amar'e Stoudemire," said Spoelstra. "He had an incredible motor. He never stopped. He'd run as hard as he could every single possession."
At first, Gathers' teammates and opponents stood transfixed. Instinctively, they inched closer, and then, after help arrived, backed slowly away, their emotions shifting from puzzlement to concern.
"Everything started moving in slow motion," Spoelstra said. "There was a piercing silence in the gym. It was eerie."
Soon, the befuddled Portland team was ushered into a locker room. There they sat for two hours, mostly silent and unaware of how this tragedy, in whose first act they'd played a role, was developing beyond the closed doors.
"This was pre-Internet, pre-cell phone," Spoelstra said. "We had no idea what was going on. There was no communication. Then, someone came in and told us what had happened. They said Hank had died, and the entire tournament had been canceled."
Berger, meanwhile, had rushed to the hospital. The news he learned there, the tragic tableau he'd seen on the basketball floor that day, haunts him still.
"I still have dreams, 25 years later," Berger, now a public-relations executive in Portland, recently told Fox Sports. "In my dreams, I'm begging Hank not to play."
Spoelstra and his teammates flew back to Portland that night, the silence on the plane as deep as it was in the locker room.
Westhead would lead his stunned Lions to the NCAA tournament, where they captivated America with three unlikely victories, one highlighted by Kimble's memorable "lefthanded foul-shot" tribute to his fallen friend.
Gathers' death was one of sport's most public calamities. Replays filled the news for days.
The fascination was enhanced by both the terrible irony - that someone who played with enormous heart possessed such a fatally flawed one - and the grief born of this young athlete's death.
The latter point was poignantly illustrated a day later, March 5, in a Los Angeles Times drawing by editorial cartoonist Paul Conrad, who had attended the game.
In it, a basketball with a comet-like tail sailed across a dark sky. A line from the poem, "I Think Continually of Those Who Were Truly Great", accompanied it.
"Born of the sun, he traveled a short while toward the sun and left the vivid air signed with his honor."