In the wake of the death of Cricketer Phillip Hughes, Mike Kasdan looks back at Hank Gathers and reflects on the rare tragedy of in game deaths by athletes.
About a month ago, the sports world was shaken by the news of the death of Phillip Hughes, the twenty-five year old Australian cricket star died after sustaining a head injury on the field. Hughes suffered a compressed vertebral artery after he was struck by the ball in a freak accident. He never regained consciousness after the injury. A nation mourned and honored their star.
Australia has promised to further scrutinize the safety of the sport. But at a time when the NFL and youth football are being forced to reevaluate the safety of the sport, due to the reports, studies, and lawsuits about concussions and CTE, this is a different kind of story.
This was a freak injury. The AP listed only four deaths since 1870 caused by cricket balls striking batters.
Though rare, these types of injuries do happen in sports, and when they do, they are devastating. Like any accident that takes the life of a young man or woman, there is the feeling of potential untapped, of a life taken away too early.
Death and sports may seem like a strange topic. But there is something tugging at me that wanted to take a deeper look at this.
Is the death of an athlete playing a sport any more tragic than another death, just because the person was a famous or well-known athlete?
No. I don’t think so. But there are aspects of it that make it feel perhaps bigger or different.
Athletes can be idols. They are also – perhaps more importantly – like big kids playing a game. And death seems incongruent with games.
When St. Louis Cardinals uber-prospect, Oscar Taveras, was killed in a car accident earlier this year, baseball and many fans mourned along with his family. (We wrote about it here.)
Why? Because we knew his story. We had been reading about him, watching him, and following him for years.
There is also undoubtedly a visceral draw to admire human beings with athletic talents. I’m not sure. Perhaps its easier to appreciate athleticism more universally than other gifts. Perhaps its because its beautiful to watch. But the death of a young Oscar Tavares, like that of a young Roberto Clemente, hit that area of your brain and heart that mourns untapped potential very hard.
And in game deaths – like Hughes – hit particularly hard because of how public they are. There is a crowd watching it happen, live or on television or both.
This past March, in Spring Training, Cincinnati Reds flame-throwing closer, Aroldis Chapman got hit in the head with a 100 MPH batted ball.
He went down in a heap. It was shocking to witness.
Luckily, the injury was serious but not fatal. He had broken bones above his eye and nose. But eventually, after extensive surgery and rehabilitation, Chapman was able to return to the field. He is OK.
But in that moment, we saw his death pass before our eyes.
When thinking about Phillip Hughes, my thoughts quickly turned to the death of an athlete that was etched in my memory.
I was in high school when Loyola Marymount became the fast-paced run-and-gun juggernaut of college basketball. They jacked barrages of three pointers and shared the ball, and ran up monstrous point totals. They out-ran out-hustled out-conditioned and out-scored you to death. And it was FUN to watch.
Their heart and soul was their superstar power forward, Hank Gathers. Gathers led the nation in both scoring and rebounding; he was dynamic, quick and strong . . . the next Karl Malone, perhaps.
In March of 1990 it all came crashing down. Gathers went up for a dunk, gave his teammate a high five at half-court, and then collapsed:
Gathers walks onto the court with his best friend, Bo Kimble, LMU’s other brilliant player. Gathers wins the game’s opening tip and LMU is off and running, building a huge lead over outmatched Portland State.
Gathers runs the break in LMU’s fast-paced attack and takes a long lob pass from Terrell Lowery. He grabs the ball in mid-air and slams it through the hoop. The crowd rises to its feet in mad hysteria. It’s the “Hank and Bo Show” at its finest. Gathers is running full speed, dazzling the crowd by scoring eight points with ease in the game’s opening minutes.
Standing near midcourt, Gathers gives Kimble a high-five, then gets in position as LMU goes into a full-court press. There is 13:34 left in the first half and LMU leads 25-13. Suddenly, Gathers falls to the court. The crowd gasps. He tries to get up, but slumps back to the floor, unable to muster enough strength.
To the shock of the nation, Hank Gathers passed away in the hospital that evening. He had a heart condition, an abnormal heartbeat, and it had been treated at one point, but he did not like the drug and had worked with doctors to reduce the dosage.
Watching him dunk, run to mid-court, and then collapse . . . and die . . . almost before our eyes was beyond chilling.
A punch to our collective solar plexus. An image that won’t go away.
When we watch world class athletes doing athletic things on a field that most of us can only dream of, it seems that they are untouchable. Even though we know that they are not.
We know that for them, just like for the rest of us, life can sometimes be unfair and is always too short.
Photo Credit: Associated Press/File