On March 4, 1990, Hank Gathers died on the court while playing basketball for Loyola Marymount University, the most high-powered offense in the country. A year earlier he had become only the second player in NCAA history to lead the nation in scoring and rebounding in the same year.
Gathers had a heart condition, for which he took medicine, but the meds made him sluggish, and that just wasn’t happening for a guy who was a surefire first-round NBA draft pick. So he reduced his own dosage of the medication, didn’t take it all on game days, and began skipping doctor’s appointments to test for his condition. An autopsy revealed no traces of any kind of the drug in his system. He had played high school ball with Bo Kimble, who he went to USC with before both transferred to LMU
Kimble was right-handed, Gathers was a lefty on free throws. LMU was an 11 seed in the West Region of the NCAA Tournament. In their first game, they destroyed sixth-seeded New Mexico State 111-92 as Kimble shot his first free throw left-handed and made it. That trend of makes continued and so did LMU’s remarkable run as they dismantled defending champion Michigan 149-115 on their way to the Elite Eight.
Gathers’ tragedy is just as painful today as it was 2-½ decades ago. Here’s a look at nine other NCAA college basketball tragedies.
Butler: In February 2016, Butler mourned the loss of Andrew Smith, a former player who died of cancer at the tender age of 25 after being an academic All-American who played in two title games for the Bulldogs. A mere 18 days later, the program was crushed again when the infant son of assistant coach Emerson Kampen died of a rare, fatal genetic condition called Leigh’s disease. Two funerals in one month for the players and coaches. Two young lives, gone for no good reason.
Baylor: Dave Bliss was a trash coach running a trash program in the early 2000s, and his inability to see what was in front of him got one of his players – Patrick Dennehy – murdered. Teammate Carlton Dotson shot and killed him during an argument. Both players had previously bought pistols and shotguns after feeling that they were in danger from other, unidentified men. Dotson removed the license plates from Dennehy’s car, which he ditched 1,500 miles away in Virginia, and tossed his body in a gravel pit near Waco. Dotson received 35 years in prison. He is eligible for parole in 2021.
Evansville: The Evansville basketball team was on its way to play Middle Tennessee State when their flight – Air Indiana Flight 216 – crashed after taking off on December 13, 1977, killing all 26 passengers and three crew members. Two pilot errors and an overloaded baggage compartment all contributed to the crash. Only one member of the team did not take the flight, and in a miserable addendum, he was killed when hit by a drunk driver two weeks after the crash. A memorial was erected on.
Oklahoma State: In January 2001, a plane carrying two Cowboy basketball players and six coaches, announcers, and other members of the basketball program, crashed 40 miles east of Denver after getting disoriented in a snowstorm. All eight representatives of the university along with two crew members were killed. The university erected a memorial “Remember the Ten” outside Gallagher-Iba Arena.
Len Bias: He was a two-time all-American for Maryland and was 6’8” with jump-out-of-the-gym ability. His senior year he averaged 23.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game, shooting 54.4% from the field. Because of a previous trade, the powerful Boston Celtics, fresh off an NBA championship, had the No. 2 pick in the draft in 1986 and selected Bias, seeing him as the next superstar as Larry Bird, Robert Parrish, and Kevin McHale entered the latter stages of their careers. Two days later he freebased cocaine for several hours at an off-campus party. He had a seizure and collapsed a few hours later and was rushed to the hospital, where he died of cardiac arrhythmia. At a memorial service at Maryland’s basketball arena, Celtics owner Red Auerbach told Terrapin fans he’d been planning to draft Bias for three years, and gave his never-used Celtics #30 jersey to his Bias’ mother.
Wayne Estes: Estes ended his career at Utah State in 1965 as the school’s third-leading scorer ever. Driving home after the game, he saw a car accident and got out to render his assistance. One of the cars in the wreck had struck a telephone pole, and as Estes crossed the street, a high power wire fell to within six feet of the ground, striking Estes and fatally electrocuting him.
Jed Bedford: A three-point specialist with NBA aspirations, Bedford collapsed suddenly at practice in 2003 for Columbus State University. Rushed to the hospital, he died an hour later of cardiac arrest. A further autopsy showed that Bedford’s heart was a ticking time bomb – twice the size of a normal person’s.
Ryan Francis: Proving how hard it is to escape your neighborhood, Francis was a rising star at USC but was gunned down in his hometown of Baton Rouge just a few days after the end of his freshman year of college. He started at point guard as a freshman for the Trojans. He was at a stoplight at 3:30 a.m. when another driver who he had gotten into a dispute with earlier that evening recognized his car, got out, and opened fire on Francis, who was sitting in the back seat.
USC received permission from the NCAA to pay for the entire funeral as well as team expenses to attend it. Defying long odds, USC made the NCAA tournament. Francis’ mother, Paulette, had promised her son she would attend the first NCAA tournament game that USC made after he began attending the school. She spoke to the Trojans before their opening game, then watched them trounce Arkansas 77-60.
DeAndre Adams: A guard for Winthrop, he had played in the team’s first NCAA tournament win, defeating Notre Dame, the year before. He had dropped a friend off at his home in Atlanta where Adams was involved in a summer league. He swerved to avoid a tree that had fallen on the road and hit another tree. He suffered head injuries that saw him fall into a coma, eventually dying after being taken off a ventilator in May of 2007.