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The numbing death of a vibrant athlete

Bill Lyon's column on the death of Hank Gathers was published in The Inquirer on March 6, 1990.

Bill Lyon's column on the death of Hank Gathers was published in The Inquirer on March 6, 1990.

The great irony is that he had just completed the most joyous, the most robust, the most thunderously ringing reaffirmation of life that a basketball player can express.

And then he was dead.

One second, Hank Gathers was soaring in free flight, having temporarily shed the shackles of gravity that root the rest of us to earth, rising above the rim, dunking the ball, with unrestrained gusto, on a breakaway.

And the next second he was toppling over, dying, his face twisted in fear and confusion.

One second, Hank Gathers was making the rim ring, was feeling so strong, so vibrant, so . . . so immortal. The flightless among us can only imagine how powerful an elixir the act of slamming must be, how heady, how rejuvenating. Never is a basketball player quite so alive as when he is walking on air. For that instant, he feels invincible.

And the next second, near mid-court, Hank Gathers was down, people rushing to him, and then he was trying to rise, as though that act alone would keep death away, as though, somehow, if he could just get up on his feet he could live. And then he was rolling over, his arms and legs convulsing, and you found yourself reflexively reaching to the television screen, trying to help him up from 3,000 miles away.

At the age of 23, possessed of a sturdy body that was part greyhound and part blacksmith, sweating and feeling just a little puffed up from that thunderous, crowd-igniting dunk, Hank Gathers perished.

It happens far too frequently, yet it never ceases to catch us by surprise-a young athlete, in his prime, playing the game that is his passion, collapses and dies. It always leaves us empty and helpless. It is always a grim reminder of our own vulnerability, the jolting realization that we are promised nothing, guaranteed even less.

Apparently, Hank Gathers had an engine that was too powerful for its own good. He had a heart that, like a revved-up racing machine, ran too fast. That, at least, was the conclusion the doctors who treated him came to after testing him this winter. In a game in early December, Hank Gathers had backed away from the free-throw line and then passed out.

Certainly nothing on the outside would indicate there was anything wrong with him. He was 6 feet, 7 inches, 210 pounds, his frame sinewy, his muscles defined and perpetually flexed. You could find more fat on a hummingbird.

So the doctors went inside. The diagnosis was that Hank Gathers was susceptible to an accelerated heartbeat. His pump tended to shift into passing gear and stay there. He was put on medication to regulate that condition. He was also tested regularly.

"I'm breaking all their equipment," he had said, joking, when he came back east to play, back home to Philadelphia for two games, against St. Joseph's and La Salle. And you had this image of Hank Gathers running on the treadmill and blue sparks crackling out the back, the needles going off the chart paper, the tubes and the sensors smoking, and the doctors marveling at his speed and strength and stamina.

So they cleared him for playing.

But he was not the same. He played for a team that is basketball's version of time travel. Loyola Marymount routinely scores 125 points a night. Other teams take timeouts, the Lions take pit stops. Hank Gathers had flourished in this system of orchestrated acceleration. Last season, he had led the country in scoring and rebounding. The team's style camouflaged the shortcomings in his game and emphasized his assets, the most principal being his ability to run 94 feet, up and back, nonstop, for about, oh, 20 hours at a stretch.

But now Hank Gathers struggled to keep up. He was no longer indefatigable. He was convinced his weakened state was the result of a side effect of the medication to regulate his heartbeat. He persuaded the doctors to cut back on his medication.

Is it melodramatic to suggest that, in a way, Hank Gathers took his own life with that decision? That, in a way, he made the ultimate sacrifice for the game that was his reason for being, that offered him sustenance for the present and hope for the future?

You cannot help but wonder if the thought had not occurred to Hank Gathers : If I limit my medication, I may be putting myself at great risk.

And, maybe this, too, is too romantic a notion, but you also wonder if, maybe, Hank Gathers even had to think twice about that, that he made his decision in about the time it takes to jump up into the air and fly to the basket.

His game came back to him after the medication change. One night last month, against St. Mary's of California, he scored 44 points. He was Hank Gathers again, college star and, perhaps most significant of all, pro prospect, making the numbers that would renew the attention of NBA talent scouts, would assuage any doubts they might have formed about his physical state, his durability, his ability to keep up in a higher league, where even the strongest are wilted by the inhumane pace.

In a newspaper interview last week, Hank Gathers had confessed how depressed he had become before the medication dosage was changed. He said:''It was hurtin' me because I know people didn't really know what was going on with me. I knew, if there was any way for me to do well, they were gonna have to cut back the medication. "

You can read his desperation in that. Implicit is the suggestion that he feared that his chances for a career in the NBA were slipping inexorably away. He had spent a life preparing for that, and now, in his mind, it was all in imminent jeopardy.

And this, too, is hopelessly romantic, but you would like to think that if Hank Gathers had to make the decision all over again, he would make the same one, that he would still choose momentary free flight over the safer, but more mundane, earth-bound.

Of all the words of shock and sadness and bewilderment that were spoken after the report of Hank Gathers' death, the ones that stuck with you came from Mark Macon, the Temple star, and a kindred spirit, someone who knows what it is like to fly, however briefly, to feel the rush. He said:

"I know it's sad to say, but Hank Gathers was doing something he loved to do when he died. "

In times of tragedy, you clutch tightly to consolation wherever you can find it.