He was sleeping when his father died. A little boy, 6 years old and safe in his bed, when his grandmother walked into the room and shook him awake and gave him the terrible news.
This was March 4, 1990; one of college basketball’s worst days ever. He was Aaron Crump, Hank Gathers’ only son.
Nearly 25 years later, Aaron still can remember the dark fog that fell upon him; still remember the confused thoughts and turbulent emotions that followed him for so long, chasing him through his teen years and right into manhood.“I never felt like he was gone,” Crump said over the phone from his home in Philadelphia. “Maybe it was because I was so young, and I wasn’t able to grasp the concept of death. I knew I couldn’t see him anymore, but I never felt like he was gone.”
Hank Gathers was a mountain of a man for a blossoming powerhouse from Loyola Marymount in 1990, leading the nation in both scoring and rebounding the season before. He and teammate and best friend Bo Kimble had so looked forward to that last March as collegians, when they planned to lead Loyola to a world-shocking NCAA tournament Cinderella march, and then move on to the NBA riches sure to follow. There was so much for which to live.
It was a semifinal game of the West Coast Conference tournament against Portland. Gathers had just taken an alley-oop pass and slammed home a dunk. He looked so strong, so healthy. Not like December, when he had collapsed at the free-throw line during a game. Doctors detected an abnormal heartbeat then, and promptly began treatment. But the drugs had affected Gathers’ moods and his play, and he had cut back the dosage.
Anyway, he seemed to be better. He scored 48 points against LSU and Shaquille O’Neal in February. Perhaps they could sort out the proper dose after the season. First, he had March to experience.
Gathers was going back down to the court after the dunk against Portland when he crumpled to the ground. He tried to get up, then went down again. As medical personnel grouped around to treat him, he went into convulsions. An hour later, after being rushed to a hospital, he was gone. Hank Gathers was 23.
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“I never felt like he left me. It’s a feeling I can’t explain.”
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The horrible television images of his collapse would soon be bounced around the nation, played and replayed. Eventually, they would be seen by a 6-year-old boy in Philadelphia.
“I went downstairs. My mom was crying. My grandma was crying. A couple of other people who were there were crying,” Crump said. “They all looked at me, and I cried. But I didn’t feel that way. I never felt like he left me. It’s a feeling I can’t explain.”
A few days later at the funeral, someone lifted up little Aaron to the casket so he could give his dad one last kiss. He recoiled in confused terror. He doesn’t remember much of that day. But he does remember that.
“I knew it wasn’t really him in there, so it felt kind of weird,” he said. “That took me a while to get over.”
It would stay that way for so many years. He went through withdrawal. He would bob and weave away from any conversation about his father. He would deny a connection with his silence. Who could say all what was going on within him? His father had not lived with his mother, and was a continent away with his basketball career. Aaron had some memories with his dad, but not a lot. So many of these other people, they knew his father, and he never really would. Not really. Not now. Something about that clawed at Aaron Crump’s soul.
Regret, anger, confusion, hurt. That would be a tough combination for anyone to tote through life, let alone a fatherless kid.
“I ran from it, I didn’t want to deal with the attention,” Crump said. “There was a little immaturity there. I felt like everybody else knew him better than I did and I didn’t want to hear the stories back then. I would always shy away from saying anything to anybody about being my father’s son.
“People would tell me, you’re not supposed to feel like that. You can’t feel like that. You should be proud. It wasn’t as if they didn’t make any sense, I just wasn’t ready to digest it.”
Crump wore his father’s No. 44 when he played in high school. He received a huge settlement from one of the lawsuits that came from Gathers’ death. He visited his father’s grave in 2000. He had not been there before. He has not been back since.
But now, as the 25th anniversary nears, the world for Aaron Crump has changed. He is in his 30s, with a 9-to-5 job in sales and a passion for non-profit work mentoring kids, and a young daughter of his own. His mother, Marva Crump, lives 50 minutes away. Parenthood, age, the rolling years -- maybe all of them have called to him, and told him it was time for him to be his father’s son again.
Anyway, Aaron Crump is on a trip to find Hank Gathers.
“For the last couple of years, I’ve been trying to piece together who my father was as a person and as a man, through other people,” he said. “I’m on a journey to find out who my father was.”
He has talked to Gathers’ friends, acquaintances, teammates, fans, opponents. Anyone who had a story to tell, long or short. “All those things are important to me,” Crump said. “When I speak to people now and mention his name, they light up. Anytime somebody says something about him, I’ve got a big grin, like a little kid.
“I matured to a point where I was ready to embrace being my father’s son. I just had always looked at it as some major shoes to fill, that I couldn’t fill. But now the stories other people have keep him alive.”
He has heard much about his father. How well he played, and how much he is missed. “I feel as if he was a good human being. I know he wasn’t a saint or an angel, but everyone I speak to says he was a great guy who impacted their life for the good.”
And something else he has learned, which would be important to any son.
“I feel like there are certain things I have now that come naturally, and I know it’s from my father.”
One who has watched this transformation with considerable joy is Bo Kimble. A lasting image from that NCAA tournament is Kimble shooting a free throw lefthanded each game, in Gathers’ honor, as Loyola Marymount went on an odds-defying, heart-touching campaign to the Elite Eight. It was like a four-game memorial service.
“I’m just so proud for him and happy for him,” Kimble said of Crump. “He’s now embracing the love of his dad. Everybody knew his dad but him.”
Aaron has an old sneaker and some cards of his father. Nothing else but memories that “are extremely personal to me. There are certain things I want to keep to myself.” Though he did mention the time his father gave him a haircut that his mother didn’t like, and had to endure her wrath. He still laughs at that one.
He also works with kids in his spare time, because that is one way he wants to forward the legacy of Hank Gathers. He wants to spread the word, after so many years of staying mute.
“I feel like I haven’t really honored him in the way he needs to be honored.”
Not long ago, he was watching highlights of his father on YouTube. Suddenly, there it was again: The collapse, the convulsions, death. Was he 6 again, back in bed, awakening to a tragedy?
“The image of my father passing on television is in my head for sure, but it’s not dominant,” he said. “I definitely don’t care to see it, but it’s not something that haunts me.”
And now, maybe it is time to at last revisit the gravesite. Or not. Aaron Crump had been an affable, enthusiastic young man when discussing his father. But on this one, he paused, he pondered, he hesitated.
“I’ve been there that one time,” he finally said. “I don’t really know how I feel about that. I don’t know.”
Twenty-five years after college basketball mourned Hank Gathers, his son still does not have all the answers. But he’s on his way.