In the spring of 1990, every kid on the playground played basketball for Loyola Marymount. Here were the starters: high-scoring Bo Kimble, sharp-shooting surfer Jeff Fryer, token Swede Per Stumer (yes, that’s his name), lockdown defender Tony Walker and … at 5-foot-7 (with my black coif gelled to the sky) … me, replacing the late Hank Gathers as the Lions go with three guards in my fantasy lineup.
They spread the floor and played “in space” decades before Chip Kelly and the Oregon Ducks made it cool for football. LMU led the NCAA Division I by scoring more than 120 points a game in Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun offense, putting up more three-point attempts and making more threes than any other team in the nation. Every one of their made shots was followed by a full-court press, which heightened the tempo of games and forced opponents into careless turnovers they converted into easy layups and threes.
Every once in a while, they faced opponents who thought they could keep pace. Silly rabbits – they ran, ran, ran you into the floor and lit up the scoreboard like a pinball machine. All offense. Maybe a little defense, if it didn’t cramp their style.
LMU’s unlikely NCAA Tournament run was preceded by heartbreak during the regular season. Just a few weeks before entering the NCAA Tournament as the No. 11 seed in the West Region, Gathers – a certain NBA lottery pick in the upcoming NBA Draft – collapsed during a home game against conference opponent Portland and died on the court, from a heart attack caused by an irregular heartbeat.
ESPN later showed his final minutes alive on SportsCenter, over and over again. Gathers had thrown down a thunderous alley-oop dunk that shook the backboard so badly it looked like it would fall. Gathers landed on his feet … accepted some high-fives … walked toward the tipoff circle … and collapsed. Coincidentally, he fell at the feet of Portland guard Erik Spoelstra, now the head coach of the NBA’s Miami Heat.
Horrified teammates, paramedics, trainers and coaches rushed to his aid. At one point, he was able to sit up just long enough to see his face, looking dazed as his body began to shut down. His family was visiting from Philly, and his mom made her way to the middle of the court, sobbing and pounding the floor.
Dreams are supposed to begin – not end – on basketball courts. He and his best friend, teammate Kimble, had flourished at LMU after transferring across town from USC’s moribund basketball program, shortly after George Raveling took over as the Trojans head coach. Ying and yang, they were a great duo to watch. Gathers was physical and explosive, while Kimble was quick and smooth (and the team’s leading scorer at over 35 ppg, to Gathers’ 29 ppg). Both were prolific scorers in Westhead’s fast-paced offense, which dominated the small-school West Coast Conference. (Check their stats here, nerds).
There was a lot to love about these guys even before they became the nation’s sentimental favorite. A quarter-century later, I think I know why: Aside from a small handful of starters, these guys reminded me of my friends from pickup hoops – a bunch of mismatched, unathletic dorks who, once in a while, kept it together long enough to stay on the court.
The Swede, Stumer, looked like a stork. He could shoot the rock like many European players, but unlike other soft Euros, he was known for gritty hustle plays and blue collar defense – they called him “The Human Bruise.” Fryer, who was the third leading scorer at 23 ppg, was a local South Bay kid who learned to account for the ocean breeze on his rain-making jump shots. Bench enforcer Tom Peabody was simply a goofy white dude whose name was “Tom Peabody.”
Right-handed Kimble’s tribute to Gathers during the tournament was a left-handed shot for his first free throw attempt of the game – a nod to his southpaw friend. He made three of four during the tourney, blowing the roof off arenas, as LMU fans and bandwagoners cheered them on toward big wins over New Mexico State, defending national champion Michigan and a nail-biter over Alabama. As LMU powered toward a West Regional Final against No. 1-seeded UNLV, I mimicked Fryer’s high-arcing jump shot while playing pickup ball and, apparently inpired by Stumer, occasionally watched pickup teammates dive for loose balls while my skin remained conspicuously asphalt free.
Nothing was going to prevent UNLV from winning the national title that year, certainly not a pickup hoops team from suburban L.A. The Runnin’ Rebels had three future NBA starters on that team (Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Larry Johnson), a deep bench and dominant athletes who smothered the Lions. The final score was 131-101, and the game ended with the brash UNLV bench giving an exhausted Kimble a standing ovation as he walked off the court for the final time in an LMU uniform.
This is my favorite time of year, but I doubt any tournament will feature a Cinderella run like LMU’s 25 years ago. Do Hank a solid by shooting lefty at the free throw line. Pull up an extra TV this Thursday and enjoy the show.