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A Tribute to Those Who Changed My Life

Posted by johnnieraz on March 27, 2021 at 3:00 AM

By John Rezell

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is an excerpt from the opening chapter of my book "A More Simple Time: How Cycling Saved My Soul."  Just why did my soul need saving? When Hank Gathers died on the basketball court on March 4, 1990 it shook me to my core. I knew Hank quite well from covering him for two years and spending a lot of time interviewing him for an indepth feature I wrote for The Orange County Register

BEGIN EXCERPT

     I wrote a feature on Gathers almost one year to the day before he died. I shared his amazing story with thousands of readers. It was the greatest story I had written, on a multitude of levels. Most of all, for me, the story of Hank Gathers represented hope and confirmation of the one element of covering sports that drove me on and on and on: Dreams do come true.

     You see, Hank grew up in North Philadelphia, where everyone goes into an eerie hibernation in the cold, desperate winters. The vigor of the ghetto that thrives under the summer sun disappears.

     Father Dave Hagen described the scene outside the window of his North Philly row house on a February afternoon when we spoke. "This is the pits. The buildings are falling down. There are probably 22,000 abandoned units around here. The whole place is just falling apart. Each year it gets older, and worse."

     Across the street from Hagen's house sit the asphalt courts of Franklin Douglas School. On that cold day a handful of kids shoot hoops. It's nowhere near the turnout of crowds that emerge when the weather warms up. Many kids spend winter days at school. Why? Simple. It's a warm place to stay.

    "There's always someone playing basketball," Father Hagen said, "that never changes."

     Hank found an escape from the hopelessness of the slums at Father Hagen's house and on those Douglas School courts. Basketball forged the ambition and ammunition he relied on to escape North Philly.

     "When I was growing up, if I wasn't at home, I was either at Father Dave's house or across the street playing basketball," Hank told me in one of a series of interviews. "Father Dave's house was like a little island. It was a place to hide from the rest of the neighborhood. If you were with Father Dave, nobody messed with you."

     Hank grew up in the Raymond Rose Housing Project, a circle of 13-story apartment buildings that tower over the blocks of older, beaten down row houses. In the projects, the elevators seldom work and the dark, trash-littered stairways reek of urine.

     "In the winter, I don't know where they all go," Father Hagen said of the locals. "The scary day is the first warm day of spring when everyone comes out again and the streets are buzzing. It's a creepy feeling, wondering where they have been all these months."

     A culture shock, not to mention three time zones, away in Los Angeles, the winter was neither quiet nor cold for Hank. Interviews and photo sessions kept him busy off the court when he wasn't earning them on the court.

     I watched as the 6-foot-7 junior center, led the nation in scoring at 33.5 points a game and rebounding with 13.7 per game. He provided the spark and the fuel for the highest scoring team in NCAA history. While he bathed in the sunlight and spotlight, he never forgot his roots, those folks back home, and those chilling winters.

     "Raymond Rose is just a bad place," Hank said, shaking his head and rolling a long draw on the word bad for emphasis. "It's the slums. It's not one thing; it's everything. I remember growing up just thinking that there had to be something more than all this.

     "It's not a great place to grow up, but I have great memories. I loved my childhood there. I have a lot of friends there. It's important to remember where you came from."

     Even more important to remember the people..

     Although North Philly was decaying, a spirit survives in those special individuals who refuse to let the place tear them down. Hank couldn't talk enough about the people who helped fire his drive to get out and do better,. People who were still back there gazing out their windows.

     "It's just starting to snow right now," Gathers' mother, Lucille, said, looking out the window of her row house just down the block from Raymond Rose where she raised three sons in a small apartment on the ground floor. "The snow makes it look a little nicer for a while. But this is a tough place."

     Lucille competed against the overriding influence on most kids when Hank was growing up — gangs and turf wars. She watched those wars eventually be replaced by drug-induced apathy that permeates North Philly.

     "You almost can't not be in trouble," said Father Hagen, then 50, a priest, former basketball coach at St. Elizabeth and close friend of the Gathers family. "It's nearly impossible to live here without being influenced by everyone else."

     Impossible without a mother such as Lucille Gathers and a friend such as Father Hagen around.

     "It was tough on my Mom," said Hank, sounding like a 21-year-old going on 40. "Looking back I realize how tough it was raising three kids in the projects, where the kids can be so bad that it's a miracle if you can get out of the neighborhood."

     Lucille Gathers wouldn't tolerate apathy from her sons Hank, then 21, Derrick, 20 (who played at Cal State Northridge) and Charles, 19, (who played at Keystone Junior College in LaPlume, PA). They lived under her constant vigil.

     "Hank says I was overprotective," said Lucille, 42, who worked in general services at a hospital as she has for years. "Sometimes, I guess I was, but it was for his own good."

     She was a single parent just as her mother had been, one of the legacies and realities, she said, of life the ghetto. Gathers' father was an alcoholic who stayed away, according to Lucille. She didn't have a lot to offer, but what she had, she gave.

     "You wouldn't do anything bad because if you did, you'd have to answer to her," Hank said.

     Said Lucille, "Hank never did like spankings."

     As an adult, Hank became the one who dishes out punishment. On the court, his wrath is unleashed on opponents who try to deny him his specialty: rebounds. If you asked Hank, he would say that he led the nation in scoring simply because, "If you shoot enough, it isn't hard to score 30 points per game."

     He led the nation in rebounding because it reflects his life, his struggle, and his personality.

     "Rebounding is from the heart," Hank said proudly, his beaming smile bursting across his face while his eyes blaze. "There's really no half-stepping in terms of rebounding."

     Half-stepping isn't Hank's style, not his way. His chiseled body: thick chest, bulging biceps and powerful legs show off evidence of his greatest asset, which pounds feverishly under his shirt.

     "His personality is one of tireless effort," Loyola Marymount coach Paul Westhead said. "Nothing is ever enough. He wants to be in every play. He wants to take every shot. He wants to rebound every miss. He's like a kid in the candy shop, you let him in and he wants it all. He's an upbeat, aggressive person."

     He molded his style on the courts at Douglas School, where Hank said he would sometimes fight for his chance to play and sometimes cry when the opportunity didn't come.

     A chance was all he wanted.

     "What I like best about Philadelphia ball is they respect your reputation, but once they throw the ball up on the court they come right at you," Hank said. "You have to prove yourself every time you play."

     That means pouring out his essence whenever he steps on a court.

     "I would probably describe myself as being very dependable, independent," Hank said. "I'm witty. I'm caring. I carry all that onto the basketball court.

     "The thing about the projects is that if you are an athlete, everyone leaves you alone. They respect you and leave you be. That's something I respect about the projects."

     Hank concentrated on basketball, playing for Father Hagen at St. Elizabeth. Later, he starred at Dobbins Tech with teammate Bo Kimble. They both went to USC as freshmen. At the end of that season, coach Stan Morrison was fired. Gathers and Kimble saw their scholarships taken away, so they both transferred to Loyola Marymount.

     They led Loyola Marymount to its best record (28-4) and an NCAA tournament berth in their sophomore years. Hank garnered gaudy statistics and raised enough attention that many wondered whether or not he would leave school early for the NBA draft, where he was considered a sure-fire first round pick.

     Lucille Gathers wanted Hank to stay in school. At that time she was taking night courses with hopes to begin college herself the next fall. Her influence wasn't lost on Hank.

     "Right now I'm about 60-40 to stay because I put a lot of work into school and it wasn't easy to find discipline within myself to do schoolwork," Hank said, adding that his ability to work through college classes is a source of pride. Something he never thought he would be able to do.

     Just like his mother, he would like to be a strong parental example for the kids who read about him from clippings hanging in the window at Izzy's corner store. And, for his 5-year-old son Aaron, who lives down the street from Lucille Gathers with his mother.

     "It's important to me that I go back and teach the kids there now what I learned," Hank said.

     Fathering Aaron at the age of 16 was one of Hank's' toughest lessons.

     "I made a big mistake and it was hard," Hank said. "The worst part was I thought I'd have to give up basketball, but my mother stepped in and said we'd find a way to get through it."

     Aaron is raised by his mother, but Father Hagen and Lucille keep a close eye on him.

     "Whenever I call anyone back there the first thing I ask is, 'How's Aaron?' " Hank said, his bright eyes firing up to another level of brightness when he speaks of his son.

     Hank wonders about the future. If he has the means, he might be tempted to pull Aaron out of the projects. He leans toward keeping him there.

     "I guess it's tougher there now," Hank said. "But I made it out. I might keep him there, but keep a close eye on him and not let him get into trouble. There's a lot to learn there."

      The biggest lesson Hank learned is one he never forgets.

     "If you can get out of Raymond Rose Projects," Hank said, "you can accomplish anything you want."

     When Hank told me that line, we were sitting alone on the bleachers in the practice gym. No one else around. He took a deep breath and paused. He looked out at the empty floor and squeezed the basketball rolling around in his huge hands. Then he repeated it again, just a little quieter. And one more time, just barely audible, he simply said, "Anything."

     It had been years since someone reintroduced the magic of sports back into my life. The magic that sparked the flames of possibilities over and over and over again in my childhood growing up in Wisconsin.

     Magical moments like Bart Starr sneaking his way to put the finishing touches on the Lombardian Legend for the Green Bay Packers. Lew Alcindor and Oscar Robertson somehow coming together in Milwaukee, of all places, to give two legends — one rising, one fading — a championship for the ages with the Bucks.

     There was Oregon’s All-American runner, Steve Prefontaine, coming into my life through the magnificent prose of Kenny Moore in the pages of Sports Illustrated, and leaving it just as abruptly. And, of course, Marquette’s Al McGuire and his scintillating farewell trip to his NCAA Championship, part of which I got to witness through my own, teary, eyes.

     Those events and those incredible larger-than-life personalities seemed gone forever. Their imprints in my mind slowly had been buried, if not erased — worn down by the egomaniacs who have taken sports hostage as they demand compensation and public reverence for their God-given talents.

     I fought hard to keep that cynicism out of my writing and out of my life. It isn't easy when your job brings you up-close-and-far-too-personal with the jerks who make up most of professional sports.

END EXCERPT

FINAL NOTE: The story I wrote prompted the greatest compliment I ever received for a piece. The copy editor called me immediately and told me how good the story was. That was great and all, but what happened next made it the best. He said there was one problem: I didn't include the dateline, should it be Philadelphia or North Philadelphia? I said neither. I never went to Philly, and garnered all that material through telephone interviews. He was blown away. Now, the rest of the story. I was pissed when they refused to send me to Philly to research this story. That's when a great friend and even greater editor, Robin Romano, stepped in. Robin challenged me to find a way to make the story everything it should be. Robin had an amazing gift to know how to push someone to the next level. She taught me with this story that being creative is more than writing a clever line. Creativity is finding a way to use all your talents to rise above and deliver. We lost Robin much, much too soon. She changed my life.



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