Vindication For Westhead Coach Dropped From Gathers Suit

Posted: March 06, 1992

In some ways, Richie Phillips said yesterday, a lingering cloud that had been hovering over the reputation of Paul Westhead has been lifted.

In some ways, Phillips said, the cloud was never really there.

Phillips, a Philadelphia attorney, yesterday received a summary judgment in Los Angeles County Superior Court, having the case against Paul Westhead in the March 4, 1990 death of Eric "Hank" Gathers "dismissed in its entirety."

The charges were dismissed "with prejudice for good cause," which means that they cannot again be brought against Westhead.

The case against Westhead - then the basketball coach at Loyola Marymount University and now the coach of the NBA's Denver Nuggets - was pending for nearly two years.

"This has been a long, hard time frame," said Westhead, formerly the coach at Cheltenham High and La Salle University. "I would say I'm happy the charges have been dropped, because it means I've finally received vindication.

"But my feelings are mixed, too, because any time it's even implied that you've been involved in a grievous case, it's difficult. You feel as if a heavy weight that has been dragging you down has been removed."

Gathers, 23, a former star at Murrell Dobbins Tech, collapsed at Marymount's Gersten Pavilion during the first half of a West Coast Conference semifinal playoff game against the University of Portland and died less than two hours later. An autopsy revealed that he died of an inflammation and scarring of the heart muscle.

It was the second time that Gathers had collapsed on a court that season; the first time was Dec. 9 in a game against California-Santa Barbara. At the time, doctors suspected that an accelerated heartbeat might have led to the first incident, and Gathers began taking prescription medication to regulate his heartbeat.

He eventually convinced the doctors to allow him to cut back on the medication. Among other things, Westhead was charged with prompting the reduction of medication to low and dangerous levels, conspiring with doctors to do that, and fraudulently concealing from Gathers a life-threathening situation.

Later, separate actions were filed against Westhead, saying that he was, in part, responsible for the death of Gathers. One action, brought by Aaron Crump, Gathers's son, and the Gathers estate, previously was withdrawn. The suit from which Westhead was dismissed yesterday by Judge J. Gary Hastings in Torrance, Calif., had been filed by attorney Bruce Fagel on behalf of Lucille Gathers, the mother of Gathers, Carol Livingston, an aunt of Gathers, and Charles and Derrick Gathers, brothers of Hank Gathers.

Westhead was among a number of defendants named in the $32.5 million lawsuit. On Feb. 18, Hastings split a $1 million settlement from a cardiologist who had treated Gathers between Crump and Lucille Gathers, awarding $650,000 to the boy and $350,000 to Lucille Gathers. A settlement between the Gathers family and the school is pending, with a settlement conference scheduled for March 30 and a trial set for next month.

"There was no evidence to link anything Paul did with the death of Hank Gathers," Phillips said. "We argued that, from the time Hank Gathers arrived at Loyola, Paul's treatment of him was exemplary, and for that reason the case was dismissed . . . There is not a scintilla of evidence linking Paul to the death of Gathers.

"For the people who know Paul, there was never a cloud over him because of this, because no one who knows him would think anything ill of him.

"On the other hand, I understand that there are millions of people who don't know Paul at all, and, in that respect, there had to be a cloud over (his reputation), to be accused of being responsible for the death of Hank Gathers. That's a terrible thing."

Last year, Phillips filed a defamation-of-character action on Westhead's behalf against Fagel "on the grounds that he said false things against Paul." Phillips said they are continuing to pursue that action, asking for more than $1 million. That action is being litigated in Pennsylvania and California.

"Fagel says that, were it not for Paul, Gathers would be alive today," Phillips said. "Paul knows in his heart what he did, how deeply he cared and that he wanted the best for Hank Gathers. But knowing that is not enough of an answer (for him). It's sickening for Paul to have people out there who are willing to believe not-nice things about him."

Gathers began his college career at the University of Southern California, then transferred to Loyola Marymount. As a junior, he averaged 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds, joining Wichita State's Xavier McDaniel (1984-85) as the only NCAA Division I players to lead the nation in both categories. He averaged 28.8 points and 11.2 rebounds as a senior, was the No. 12 scorer in Division I history and had scored eight points in the game against Portland State.

He scored 1,251 points at Dobbins, where his teammates included USC and Loyola teammate Greg "Bo" Kimble, now with the Los Angeles Clippers, and Doug Overton, the former La Salle star now playing professionally in Australia.

Westhead is in his second season coaching the Nuggets and previously coached the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bulls. He coached the Lakers to the 1979-80 championship, stepping in for Jack McKinney, who was severely injured in a bicycle accident.

"I had a great fondness and respect for Hank," Westhead said. "In this situation, I won, but I wish I could have won more. By that, I mean that I wish that he had never died, that none of this had to happen. This has been a hard one for me, because I have very strong feelings for Hank."

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