Hank Gathers’ son carries the weight of basketball legend’s tragic death 30 years later

LOS ANGELES — Aaron Crump traveled here last week still thinking about the grief he said he experienced after Kobe Bryant and Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, died in a helicopter crash.

Crump, a thin and unassuming man from Philadelphia, said he had to take time off from work even though he felt no special connection to Bryant before the Jan. 26 accident.

“I found myself crying for three days,’’ he said. “It was off and on crying and just talking about it and at the end of the three days that’s when I realized, ‘Oh, wow,’ wasn’t all for Kobe.’ ”

Crump said it suddenly became clear he was grieving the loss of another legendary basketball player: his father, Hank Gathers, who once electrified college basketball as a star at Loyola Marymount.

Aaron Crump attends last week's unveiling of a statue of his father, Hank Gathers, who died 30 years ago after collapsing on the court in the middle of a game for Loyola Marymount. (Photo: Kelvin Kuo, USA TODAY Sports)

“I’d never done this before,’’ Crump said. “Honestly, that’s when I was able to grieve, when Kobe passed. Then everything came out, everything came out.’’

Thirty years ago Wednesday, Gathers collapsed on the court inside Loyola Marymount’s arena during the semifinals of West Coast Conference tournament.

He was pronounced dead at nearby Daniel Freeman Marina Hospital about two hours later. An autopsy found Gathers died of cardiomyopathy, a heart-muscle disorder. Gathers had been diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat after collapsing during a game earlier in the season. 

He was 23.

His son, Aaron Crump, was 6.

For most of the three decades since then, Crump said, grief has remained buried inside of him — and perhaps partly responsible for his troubled past.

On the 20th anniversary of Gathers’ death, Crump was in Rockview State Prison in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania, serving a five-year sentence for aggravated assault with a weapon.

Crump’s daughter, Dasia, was less than a year old when he was arrested on the original charge of attempted murder before a plea deal was struck.

And when Crump was released from prison in 2012, he said, the $1.5 million he received from from legal settlements tied to Gathers’ death had been squandered.

Still embarrassed by his felony conviction, Crump nonetheless flew to Los Angeles with two friends for the unveiling of a statue honoring his father on Saturday.

Would my father be proud?

The dedication ceremony at Loyola Marymount took place five days after a memorial service was held for Bryant and his daughter at the Staples Center. Many of Gathers’ teammates and coaches were among hundreds of people who gathered outside the basketball arena and counted down in unison — five… four… three… two… one… — before a white unveiling cloth dropped.

A bronze statue of Gathers came into view, and it captured the barrel-chested forward as many remember him — wearing jersey No. 44, soaring through the air, basketball cocked in his right hand as if ready to dunk.

Members of the 1989-90 Loyola Marymount basketball team gather to remember their former teammate, Hank Gathers, who was honored with a statue nearly 30 years after his death. (Photo: Kelvin Kuo, USA TODAY Sports)

Members of the Loyola Marymount basketball team carry the coffin of teammate Hank Gathers into the school gym for a memorial service two days after his death. (Photo: Nick Ut, Associated Press)

He led the nation in scoring and rebounding as a junior during the 1988-89 season, and his signature game came the next season when Loyola Marymount played mighty LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Listed at 6-7, Gathers got his first five shots blocked by Shaquille O’Neal — yet he kept calling for the ball and taking more shots.

Gathers finished with 48 points and 13 rebounds and almost willed his team to an improbable victory before Loyola Marymount fell 148-141 in overtime.

Fearless and relentless, Gathers embodied the spirit of those high-scoring Loyola Marymount teams. He was a projected lottery pick for the June 1990 NBA draft, too, before it all ended in tragedy.

As the crowd began to disperse after the statue unveiling Saturday, Crump stood at the base of the statue. He gazed up at the bronze statue of his father. His eyes welled up in tears.

“Crazy,’’ he said, as if trying to process it all. “Unbelievable.”

For weeks, Crump had been asking himself and others the same question: Would my father be proud of me?

As a senior at Cheltenham High School, Crump was the starting point guard and wore jersey No. 44 in honor of his father, who stood about half a foot taller than his only son ever would.

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“Didn’t have Hank’s body by any stretch,’’ said Scott Eveslage, then the boys basketball coach Cheltenham. “He was the point guard for us. Really long arms, good lateral movement and was an excellent athlete. Dunked the ball pretty easily for a guard and turned into a good player.

“He was really, really a fun kid to be around. Even teachers that might have wished he was a better student appreciated his humor and presence because he didn’t bring negative energy to other kids.’’

But Crump said that’s about the times things began to change. He spurned interest from Division II college programs because he thought he was he was good enough to play Division I. He skipped out on college and didn’t bother looking for a job, because he decided to bank on something else.

Upon turning 18, Crump received $1.5 million from settlements tied to his father’s death. He said he bought a house, a Cadillac Escalade and had no plan for his future.

“I didn’t have the desire to do anything with myself because I felt like I had what people were working for,’’ Crump said. “That’s where my trouble came from. And so within that I started hanging around the wrong group of people, being at the wrong place at the wrong time on several different occasions. Doing drugs, drinking, things like that.’’

In 2007, Crump pleaded guilty to aggravated assault with a weapon after shooting a man in the back. Crump said the victim was a drug dealer with whom he’d exchanged words with after the man accused Crump’s younger brother of theft. The men came face-to-face in public.

“He flipped me over on the ground and the gun slid across the ground and at that point there was a struggle for the gun,’’ Crump said. “Once I got the gun away from him is when I made a horrible decision and shot him.”

The man survived, according to Crump, who said he was forced to pay the victim about $40,000. He also said he still has a steel rod in his left arm after undergoing surgery when he was shot in an unrelated incident about a year earlier.

“After that is where things really snowballed for me,’’ he said. “I started to think how I was going to protect myself and going to the gun range and buying a gun.

“This is not something I’m comfortable speaking about. But it’s something that’s helped me become who I am now. And so I can’t leave it out.’’

Feeling out of place

Now 36, Crump has a full-time job as the business services coordinator for Mt. Airy Village Development Corporation near his home in Philadelphia.

He also works for Philadelphia Youth Basketball as a coach and said he plans to serve as a mentor for high-risk adolescents in the program.

”I’ve gotten to a point now where I’m kind of finding myself and finding how I can be of service and use all of my life experience to help,’’ Crump said. “It’s something I’m really proud of and I wish I could share that with my dad.’’

He also said he wishes he could have shared the weekend with his daughter, now 13, who stayed behind in Philadelphia.

“Aww, that’s my baby, man,’ ” he said. “Financially it just wasn’t feasible for me. I let her know that and I told her I was going to bring some fancy stuff back.’’

But it might be hard to explain to her the complexity of it all.

At times during the dedication ceremony, Crump looked at peace with himself. At other times, he looked understandably out of place.

For example, he held up his palms in confusion when he discovered he didn't have a seat, much less a seat in the front row alongside Gathers’ mother and three brothers. (One of Gathers’ brothers gave his seat to Crump.)

He sounded hurt that he was not acknowledged during public remarks by Craig Pintens, Loyola Marymount’s athletic director, or Timothy Snyder, the university president. Both men did acknowledge Gathers’ mother and Gathers’ three brothers.

Crump noted he learned about the statue unveiling from one of his friends, not from school officials. 

“The dedication of the statue was well publicized and open to the public,” said Matthew Lerman, Director of Communications for Athletics at Loyola Marymount, “and LMU was thrilled to welcome the Gathers family back to campus."

Crump got a big embrace from Bo Kimble, who was Gathers’ best friend and co-star at Loyola Marymount. He also got a warm reception from Paul Westhead, the retired Loyola Marymount basketball coach.

“Sure, Aaron,’’ Westhead said when Crump introduced himself, “I remember when you were a little boy."

Crump smiled as Westhead told the story of Gathers bringing Crump to one of the team’s shootarounds in January 1990 in Philadelphia between games against LaSalle and Saint Joseph’s. He recalled that Gathers had a bag of candy for his son.

“And he gave you anything you wanted,’’ Westhead told Crump as they stood near the statue. “You asked for something, he gave it to you.’’

Crump laughed and acknowledged he could get anything from his father when they were together.

Later, Westhead added, “I didn’t know the whole background, but Hank was very proud of the situation and he said, ‘This is my son.’ So we embraced him.’’

Gathers was just 16 when his son was born. Crump’s mother, Marva, was 19.

“He found out I was pregnant and he didn’t trip,’ ” Marva Crump said. “He was like, ‘OK.’ His family was angry, but, oh, well.''

In 1985, before Aaron Crump was old enough to understand it, Gathers had moved to Southern California to play college basketball — one season at USC before transferring to Loyola Marymount for his final three seasons.

“When Hank was home from school, he came to see and spend time with Aaron,’’ Marva Crump said. “When he went away to college, he would call all the time. He would write, he would talk to Aaron, he would send gifts. He was present.’’

Hank Gathers is attended to after collapsing during Loyola Marymount's game against Portland on March 5, 1990. He died that evening as a result of a heart condition. (Photo: Daily Breeze/Associated Press)

Aaron Crump said he still remembers the night of March 4, 1990, when his grandmother Phyllis woke him up to tell him his father had died.

Marva Crump said her son remained confused and tearful for days, repeatedly looking at images of Gathers on TV and asking where his daddy was.

Aaron Crump said he often felt numb in the presence of people grieving over his father’s death. But he also said he felt an emotional shift when he cried uncontrollably after Kobe and Gianna Bryant were killed. As if grief buried inside of him since the death of his father had been unlocked.

When the statue of Hank Gathers was unveiled at Loyola Marymount, his mother, Lucille, burst into tears as her three sons comforted her.

Crump’s eyes filled with tears. He cried a lot while wondering if the father he knew for only six years would be proud of him today.

“Who could be more proud of the fact that you fell down and you learned from your fall?’’ Marva Crump recalled telling her son. “You came out of that and look what you’re doing.

“Hell, yeah, he proud of you.’ ”

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