Producer Jim McGillen had to steer a cautious course through all the litigation following Gathers's death, and, as a result, he wound up making a movie in which the loose ends tend to stay loose.
That's not to say "Final Shot" is bad. It works fine as a coming-of-age story about two friends, Gathers and former Dobbins and Loyola teammate Bo Kimble. But it glosses over so many questions surrounding Gathers's death that it runs the risk of being called myopic.
McGillen, who fought an uphill battle to make the film, feels good about ''Final Shot." He claims it was his intention all along to make a movie about Hank Gathers's life and not just his death.
"It would have been easy to turn this into an exploitation film or a whodunit"' said McGillen, a Philadelphia native, now an independent filmmaker in Pebble Beach, Calif. "But I thought the real story was the relationship between Hank and Bo.
"I saw these two guys, best friends and teammates, and all I could think of was 'Brian's Song.' This is the Brian's Song of the '90s."
"Brian's Song" was the 1971 movie about the friendship between two Chicago Bears, halfbacks Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Piccolo was stricken by cancer and died at age 27. Sayers went on to become one of the great runners in NFL history.
As films, "Final Shot" and "Brian's Song" are drawn along parallel lines. For example, "Final Shot" ends with Kimble (played by actor Duane Davis) delivering a sobbing eulogy to the fallen Hank. "Brian's Song" ended with a tearful Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams) telling a hushed ballroom, "I love Brian Piccolo."
There is a fundamental difference in the stories, however. There was no mystery attached to Piccolo's death. But when Gathers collapsed on the court at Loyola and died of heart failure, there were dozens of questions, followed by millions of dollars in lawsuits.
"Final Shot" tiptoes around these issues in a way that will have investigative reporters ripping out their hair.
Was Gathers's heart condition properly diagnosed after his first fainting spell, three months before his death?
Was his medication sufficient?
Was Gathers given the best possible medical care on the court after he collapsed the last time following a slam dunk in a West Coast Conference Tournament game?
McGillen's film does not tackle these questions because they still were being thrashed out in court when the movie was in production last year.
Legal constraints dictated much of what McGillen could do. For example, he claims former Loyola coach Paul Westhead (now with Denver in the NBA) threatened to sue if his name was used in the film. As a result, the Loyola coach is referred to simply as "coach" throughout the movie.
"We even had to cast an opposite (physical) type," McGillen said. "We hired a stocky, gray-haired actor to play the part.
"Too bad because I was going to offer the role to Pat Riley (coach of the New York Knicks). Riley and Westhead look so much alike and they both coached the Lakers, it would have been a natural. We couldn't do it for legal reasons.
"There was so much of that, it was mind-boggling," said McGillen, 49, a former news producer at WCAU-TV. "I felt like I was banging my head against a wall. No one wanted to cooperate for months.
"Finally, doors began to open and people began to listen. I assured them I wouldn't do anything to harm Hank's name, and I remained faithful to that all the way through."
The result is a movie that plays it safe, yes, but also plays well on a human level.
The scenes of the teenage Gathers (played by newcomer Victor Love) and Kimble knocking around the playgrounds of North Philadelphia are engaging. As Gathers, Love comes across as a likable kid with a funky wit and heady dreams of making it as a lottery pick in the NBA draft.
Most folks will tell you that was a pretty accurate portrait of Hank the Bank.
The overall tone of the film is positive, and people close to the situation hope "Final Shot" helps to heal the wounds created by the lawsuits and squabbling that followed Gathers's death.
"The last two years have been painful for everyone," said Kimble, now a struggling backcourt reserve with the Los Angeles Clippers. "They've been sad and ugly. They've been everything Hank was not.
"It would be nice if this movie put the focus back on the positive side of the Hank Gathers story. I think that's what will happen.
"I went to see the final cut and I was very impressed," Kimble said. ''The movie does Hank Gathers justice, and that's probably the highest compliment I can pay it."
"It's a good movie . . . It isn't 100 percent accurate, but movies never are," said the Rev. Dave Hagan, the Catholic priest who coached Gathers in grammar school and remains a trusted friend of the family.
"It's hard to capture Hank Gathers. It's like trying to capture a snowflake. He was a unique personality, but Victor (Love) probably comes as close to getting a handle on him as anyone can.
"The thing I like is, Hank comes off as a good guy," Hagan said. "That was how I saw him. The tragedy is Hank wasn't around to put a stop to all the (fighting) that took place the last year."
The fighting took the form of lawsuits filed by separate parties: one on behalf of Gathers's mother, Lucille and his brothers, Charles and Derrick; the other on behalf of Gathers's 8-year-old son, Aaron Crump, and Crump's mother, Marva.
The suits sought damages against the doctors who treated Gathers, Loyola Marymount and Westhead. One cardiologist already has settled: $650,000 going to Crump and $350,000 going to the Gathers family. Two other doctors have trial dates set for next month. Yesterday, Bruce Fagel, the attorney for Lucille Gathers, said a settlement had been reached with Loyola Marymount in which $545,000 will be divided between the Gathers family and Aaron Crump and his mother. (Westhead has been dropped from both suits.)
It has been a messy process and it has driven a wedge between old friends. Even Kimble admits that "things aren't like they were" between himself and Lucille Gathers.
The Gathers family resented the fact that Kimble delayed production of ''Final Shot" until he was guaranteed script approval. Reportedly, the family thought Kimble really was holding out for more money.
Kimble says all he wanted to do was ensure that his character wouldn't be twisted out of shape.
"I wanted control over what Bo was (in the movie)," Kimble said, relaxing before a recent Clippers game.
"I wasn't going to let them write the story any old way. Suppose somebody said, 'Hey, let's make Bo a drug dealer and Hank saves him'? That kind of thing happens in movies, and I didn't want it to happen with me and Hank.
"I wanted this (movie) to be the real thing."
Kimble visited the set in Los Angeles twice during filming. He talked briefly with Davis, the beefy, young actor who plays him, but mostly Kimble tried to stay out of the way.
"It was a funny feeling, hearing someone shout 'Bo' and seeing someone else answer," Kimble said.
Kimble received $25,000 from the film, which he says he forwarded to Lucille Gathers, who still lives in the North Philadelphia rowhouse where she raised Hank and his brothers.
"I've spoken to Lucille a few times in the last year, but not a lot," Kimble said. "It's not as close (a relationship) as it used to be, but I blame most of that on the lawyers. They turned some good people against each other.
"What came out (in the suits) didn't reflect the true character of the people involved. Hank's family came off looking greedy, the school came off looking bad, everybody suffered. They are good people, and, in time, I hope this will pass.
"What you see in the movie, the relationship between Hank and Lucille (played by Nell Carter), the relationship between Hank and Father Dave (played by George Kennedy) is how it was. That's legit. To me, that's the best part of the movie."
Lucille Gathers has seen the film, but she declined to be interviewed for this piece. "It's too emotional," she said. "I hope you understand, but it's just hard for me to talk about."
Likewise, Hagan said he found watching the film a wrenching experience. He had to leave the room during the scene in which his character receives the phone call from Los Angeles informing him that Gathers had died.
"It conjured up so many memories because that's exactly how it happened," Hagan said. "I took the call right there (pointing to the phone next to the kitchen). I remember it as if it were yesterday.
"I have a few quibbles with the movie. It makes Hank appear obsessive about playing in the NBA, and he didn't get that way until his final year at Loyola. As a teenager, he had a wider agenda than that.
"The film also makes Bo out to be a very stern character, and he's really more playful than that."
Hagan generally was pleased with his portrayal, although he, too, did some minor script tinkering.
In one scene, his character was supposed to tell his eighth-grade team: ''That was a sinful practice." Hagan read the line and balked.
"I told the writers not to theologize my role," Hagan said. "I told them only priests in movies talk like that."
The overall effect of the film, Hagan believes, will be a good one. Good for the young people who watch it and good for the somewhat battered Gathers legacy.
"This is a story worth telling, a story about a young guy who came up the hard way and worked to make himself something pretty special," Hagan said.
"It is a good story that kids all over the country can identify with. Hank impacted a lot of kids in a positive way when he was alive. If that can carry on through a movie, then it makes the whole project worthwhile."