A Mother's View How Lucille Gathers Tried To Save Her Son

Posted: January 17, 1991

In a crowded, raucous gymnasium shocked into silence, the mother watched her son struggling against death.

"Lay down," someone told Hank Gathers, unsteady on wobbly legs.

"I don't want to lay down," he said, his chest heaving with the final wild beats of his heart.

To his mother, who had rushed onto the basketball court from her seat two rows away, his voice sounded as strong as ever.

But those words were his last.

He lay back down, surrounded by the team trainer, a physician, his mother, brother, aunt, teammates.

"Someone help my baby," Lucille Gathers screamed.

"Do something for him," yelled Hank's teammate and friend, Bo Kimble. ''Help him. Help him. Help him."

Then Hank Gathers' chest stopped heaving. His eyes rolled back into his head. Suddenly, his body surrendered to his defective heart, there at center court in the gym on the campus of Loyola Marymount University, a world away

from his childhood home in the projects of North Philadelphia.

*

Not long after Hank Gathers collapsed and died on March 4, 1990, his family brought a $32.5 million wrongful-death suit against Loyola Marymount and 13 other defendants.

In August, Lucille Gathers and another son, Derrick, gave lengthy depositions for the suit. The depositions became public as part of motions by one of Hank Gathers' doctors, who is seeking dismissal of the suit. Arguments on those motions are scheduled to be heard beginning today in Los Angeles.

Neither Lucille nor Derrick Gathers has granted interviews since Hank's death. None of the other principals would agree to interviews for this article, which is based almost entirely on the Gatherses' depositions.

Lucille Gathers' deposition provides an inside look, from a mother's viewpoint, at the world of big-time college athletics.

During Hank's freshman year of college at the University of Southern California, she says, he began receiving small amounts of money from a USC booster. During his three years at Loyola, according to the depositions by Lucille and Derrick Gathers, the payments Hank recieved got bigger as he got better. By the time Hank was a senior, the depositions say, he was driving a new car, living in a $1,150-a-month apartment and receiving larger and larger chunks of cash.

Lucille Gathers watched her son become a star with growing unease, and at times confronted him, asking him to stop taking money.

Her pleas were ignored.

And as time went on, Lucille Gathers began to fear that her son would get caught taking payments and ruin a promising career in professional basketball.

But in the final weeks of December 1989, his mother stopped worrying about Hank's ethics and began worrying about his life.

Early in the morning of Dec. 10, 1989, Lucille Gathers was awakened by a phone call from the West Coast. The caller was Albert Gersten, a Beverly Hills real estate developer and well-known Loyola booster. He had disturbing news.

Hank Gathers had fainted the night before in a game against the University of California-Santa Barbara. Doctors didn't know why.

Lucille Gathers was shocked. Hank had never been sick. Growing up in the Raymond Rosen housing project in North Philadelphia, he never even had colds.

"Take him to the hospital," she screamed at Al Gersten. "Don't put him back in the game."

"We're not," Gersten assured her. "We're taking him to the hospital."

Hank's brother, Derrick, had a message from Gersten's wife on his answering machine when he got home from his own basketball game that night. Derrick, who played for Cal State-Northridge, lived in the San Fernando Valley, about 20 miles from the Loyola Marymount campus in Los Angeles.

Neither Derrick nor Lucille Gathers heard about Hank's health from Loyola head coach Paul Westhead, any other coach, or any representative of the school, that night or in the days immediately afterward. Al Gersten was their contact.

CASH PAYMENTS

In his deposition, Derrick Gathers says Hank received approximately $50,000

from Gersten in the three years Hank played for Loyola. Derrick says he

himself received about $5,000 from Gersten. The Gersten Pavilion, the gym in which Hank died, is named for Gersten's father.

In her deposition, Lucille Gathers says Gersten gave Hank money to buy her a living-room set, a dining-room set, a VCR and an expensive watch. She says she saw Gersten hand her son cash at dinner after basketball games.

She says she believed Gersten also gave Hank money to pay the $1,150 monthly rent on his apartment near the Loyola campus. Hank drove a 1989 Mercury Cougar, which he leased. He had no apparent income.

Derrick says Gersten also gave cash payments to Bo Kimble, a childhood friend of Hank's in Philadelphia, and to Corey Gaines, another player at Loyola. Kimble and Gaines have declined to comment on that allegation.

Derrick was not surprised by the payments. "That's what goes on in the NCAA," he said in his deposition.

Lucille Gathers felt otherwise. She didn't like Al Gersten's giving money to her son, or his taking it.

But she had mixed feelings about Gersten. Though his giving Hank money violated NCAA rules and could hurt her son's career if anyone found out, Gersten was helping Hank to step outside the poverty he had grown up in. Through Gersten, Hank - because he could play basketball - was glimpsing a world full of promise.

Lucille Gathers came to feel that Gersten alone cared enough about her son - and her - not only to call her after Hank had fainted but to visit him in the hospital and stand by him during the trying medical tests to come.

Still, she didn't like the money part. Once, on a visit to Los Angeles, she confronted Gersten. She told him to stop giving her sons cash and gifts. She says Gersten laughed.

Thereafter, when Hank sent his mother cash via Western Union, she would ask where he got the money, and he'd reply: "Oh, Mom, there you go, asking those questions again."

On Dec. 16, 1989, Lucille Gathers flew to Los Angeles to be with her son while he underwent two diagnostic tests. Hank had been released from Daniel Freeman Hospital but told not to play basketball. Doctors still didn't know why he had fainted.

TESTS AND QUESTIONS

The first test, a catheterization, was conducted Dec. 17.

"How did the test go?" Lucille Gathers recalls asking Hank's cardiologist, Vernon Hattori, whom she was meeting for the first time. She says Hattori told her the test had gone fine and had revealed some irregular heartbeats.

"What do you do about that?" she asked.

"Well, we're going to watch Hank," she recalls the doctor saying.

"Does this mean that Hank plays no more basketball?" she said. "Because if he has irregular heartbeats, and the (fast-paced) game that Paul Westhead plays, I don't want him to play basketball anymore."

Lucille Gathers says Hattori assured her that she had nothing to worry about, that doctors would observe Hank, conduct further tests and monitor his condition.

She wasn't satisfied. She asked Hattori if the irregular heartbeats were life-threatening.

"No," she recalls him saying. "Hank is strong. He is young, and he has his whole life ahead of him."

Lucille Gathers had trained as a nurse's aide. Before flying to Los Angeles, she had obtained from a physician at Hahnemann University Hospital a booklet describing the second diagnostic test. This one worried her.

It was an electrophysiology (EP) exam, designed to make the heart race, to chemically induce an irregular heartbeat so doctors could study it. She thought it sounded dangerous.

During the test on Dec. 18, Hank's heart began to beat wildly. Doctors had to use a defribrillator to shock his heart back to its normal beat.

Derrick visited Hank briefly that day. "He looked like he died and came back to life," Derrick said in his deposition.

Lucille Gathers says she questioned Hattori and another physician, Charles Swerdlow, in Hank's room, asking what they had learned from this test.

"They didn't really give me much information," she testified. "They didn't find out anything. That he had irregular heartbeats. They found - they knew that before they gave him the test."

In light of the second test, Lucille Gathers asked Hatorri, shouldn't Hank stop playing basketball? Hattori assured her again that it would be safe for him to play.

By Dec. 23, Hank Gathers had not been given clearance to play. He sat on the bench, in uniform, that night as Loyola Marymount lost to Oklahoma, 136-121.

Lucille Gathers spent Christmas in Los Angeles. Hank gave her an Omega watch. She asked him how much it cost and how he could afford it.

"Mom," he said, "it's a gift."

Lucille Gathers returned to Philadelphia the day after Christmas, and Hank, accompanied by his brother, returned to the hospital.

Hattori watched as Derrick and Hank, wearing a heart monitor, ran full- court in the hospital's gym.

The next day, Hank called his mother and said he felt great.

On Dec. 28, he called again. He had been put on medication and cleared to play.

Lucille Gathers phoned Hattori to ask about the medication and its side- effects. She says Hattori said he thought the medication, Inderal, would help Hank.

'MOM, I'M FINE'

Lucille didn't like it. She told Hattori, and later Hank, that he should not play. She says Hank tried to reassure her. "Mom, I'm fine," he would say, "I'm strong as an ox." He said he trusted her judgment, but he trusted the doctors, too, because they were doctors and knew what they were doing.

On Dec. 30, he returned to the Loyola lineup against Niagara and scored 22 points in 24 minutes.

The new year would not go as well, on the court or elsewhere.

"It's fair to say that Hank Gathers is not nearly close to his game," Paul Westhead told reporters in Philadelphia on Jan. 4, 1990. "He was totally spent by halftime."

Hank had returned to his home town for two games, against St. Joseph's and La Salle. In Loyola's win over St. Joe's that night, as Westhead said, Gathers had played poorly, scoring only 11 points in 26 minutes.

Gathers complained to his mother and brother that the Inderal made him feel sluggish. "It's controlling me," he told Derrick by telephone after the game.

On Jan. 5, an off-day, Lucille Gathers recalled, Hank told her mother that

Westhead and Hattori had decided to cut his dosage in half.

"How could they do that over the telephone?" she asked.

"Mom," he said, "they did."

Furious, she called Westhead at the Penn Tower Hotel. He confirmed that Hank's dosage had been reduced.

"I got so frustrated," she testified. "Like, how is he going to play in the La Salle game? How could they do this over the telephone? Don't he have to be watched? I just said, 'That's it, Coach, I don't want to hear anymore.' "

Once again, she told Hank not to play.

The next night, Jan. 6, he did play. He scored 27 points and got 12 rebounds as Loyola beat previously undefeated La Salle. "I feel two or three times better than I did" against St. Joe's, he said afterward.

Indeed, he played well for the rest of the season. Loyola won almost all of its games, set numerous scoring records and headed toward the postseason tournaments with high hopes.

Hank Gathers had led Division I in scoring and rebounding the previous season. In this season, Bo Kimble was leading the nation in scoring. Maybe they could take Loyola Marymount to the NCAA Final Four, perhaps even the national championship.

Lucille Gathers continued to worry, continued to press Hank's cardiologist.

Around Feb. 1, after Hank had told his mother that his dosage had been reduced again, she called Hattori, who again reassured her. He added that doctors planned to do a biopsy on Hank's heart after the season.

"Why wait until the season's over?" she asked. "Why not do it now?"

Hattori, she said, assured her the test could wait.

A RETURN TO L.A.

On Feb. 22, Lucille Gathers returned to Los Angeles on a flight paid for by the Rev. Dave Hagan, a North Philadelphia priest and close friend of the Gathers family.

At the airport, she didn't like the way Hank looked. "I asked him had he been eating," she remembered.

On Feb. 23, Paul Westhead called Lucille Gathers at Hank's apartment and said he wanted to meet with her in his office the next morning. He wanted to talk about some problems Hank was having in school.

She testified that Westhead first talked about Hank's rebounding, not his missing classes.

He said he didn't need Hank to score - Bo Kimble would do that - but he needed Hank to rebound. Rebounding, he said, was Hank's job, the skill pro scouts were looking for most in him.

Then Westhead dropped a bombshell. It wasn't Hank's fault, she recalled him saying, it was the medication. He said he would call Hattori and tell him to reduce Hank's dosage again.

"Who are you to play God with my child's life, to call up his doctor to have his medication reduced?" Lucille Gathers recalls saying.

She says Westhead deflected her question and later said something that disturbed her greatly. Westhead said Hank had missed a few classes, but that she shouldn't worry because he had taken care of the problem. He had disciplined Hank by making him run extra laps at practice.

"How can you have him running extra when he has an irregular heartbeat?" she said.

She says Westhead told her: "Well, he's been cleared to play and run in practice, so he can run extra punishment."

In an interview last fall, Westhead said the doctors had determined whether Hank Gathers could play. He said the doctors made all the medical decisions.

When asked last fall about the lawsuit, Westhead, now coach of the NBA's Denver Nuggets, said: "I am just going to let the courts unfold what they deem is fair and proper. So whatever that is, it will unfold. I am just hopeful and confident that the whole correct, truthful scenario will be displayed. Whatever that result is, that will be fine."

Returning to Hank's apartment, Lucille Gathers told her son about her meeting with Westhead - and told him not to reduce the medication.

"OK, Mom," he said, leading her to believe that he would comply. Later, she found out he had cut his dosage in half.

That night, in Loyola's last regular-season game, Hank scored 29 points.

"I'm not tired," he said afterward. "I don't even feel like I played a game."

On March 2, before the West Coast Conference tournament, Lucille Gathers called Westhead. She still didn't think Hank should be playing basketball.

"Are you going to play Hank in the tournament?" she asked.

"We got to play the big fellow," Westhead replied.

"Why?" she said.

She says Westhead told her the doctors had cleared him to play, that it was safe.

"I don't want to hear anything else about any doctors," she said, "or about my son playing in this tournament."

Then she hung up.

Two days later, her son lay still on the court at Gersten Pavilion.

"No pulse," Lucille Gathers heard someone say. No one made a move to resuscitate him.

"Get a stretcher," she hollered. "Give him CPR. Do some mouth-to-mouth. Do something. Help him, please."

"We don't want to do anything in front of all these people," she heard someone say. She wasn't sure who.

Lucille Gathers turned away from her son and saw Westhead, who attempted to comfort her.

"Please get off me," she said, "I need to get to my son. Somebody has to help him."

Westhead held on.

"He's dead," she said suddenly.

"No, he's not," Westhead said. "No, he's not."

Lucille Gathers knew different. Her baby was dead.

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