March 4, 1990.
Quarterfinals, West Coast Conference Tournament.
Loyola Marymount vs Portland. 13:34 left, first half.
Hank Gathers had just scored on a dunk to put his Lions ahead, 25-13. Unfortunately, we all know what happened soon after.
Twenty years to the day have passed since that moment, one of the most tragic in the history of college basketball. Gathers, of course, was much more than the leader of the most exciting college team ever to take the floor, and what he meant to people as a friend and family member cannot be explained or summarized in a hundred articles on this or any other website, or by the various 20-year remembrances of both Gathers and that 1990 Loyola Marymount team that you’re likely to see in the next few weeks. After that moment, the entire WCC Tournament was stopped. As regular season champions, Loyola Marymount was awarded the WCC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. They were cast as a #11 seed in the West region, and given the “opportunity” to decline the bid for obvious reasons. This was a good basketball team; they had posted a 13-1 WCC record and were 26-6 overall. But if they chose to sit this one out — who could blame them?
The remaining Lions decided to play on, knowing that it was the most fitting way to honor their departed friend. What came after that was probably the most remarkable three-game run in NCAA Tournament history, and not just because LMU was an underdog in each game. Knowing that not playing was not an option, these guys had to find a way to go out and win games and enjoy basketball without feeling like they were minimizing the life of their fallen teammate. Working this out in your head would be difficult at any age, let alone when you’re a college kid between 18-22. Still, they found a way to get through the first game and defeat New Mexico State, 111-92. They found a way to annihilate defending champion Michigan 149-115 — that is not a typo — hitting 21 three-pointers and forcing UM into 27 turnovers. They found a way to endure and win the Sweet 16 game against Alabama, 62-60, a game in which Alabama would actually pull the ball out even when the Tide had 3-on-1 and 4-on-2 fastbreaks so as not to get caught up in the LMU style. It took the eventual champion in UNLV — one of the best college basketball teams of all time — to defeat them in the Elite Eight.
The entire nation had become fascinated with LMU even before Gathers’ death. Everyone remembers the hyperdrive, speed of light, is-this-really-happening pace that coach Paul Westhead employed (LMU averaged 122.4 PPG that year). Everyone remembers Bo Kimble’s tribute of shooting his first free throw of each game left-handed, and that he was 3-3 in the NCAA Tournament with the left hand. The greatest part of the LMU run, though, was the 41-point performance by Jeff Fryer in the second round game against Michigan. A perfect fit for Westhead’s offense, Fryer was a skilled shooter with classic form and unbelievable range who had the green light to go up with it pretty much as soon as he crossed half-court. Against Michigan, he entered a rarified state of shooting consciousness, hitting 15-20 on the night — and an unbelievable 11-15 from behind the three point arc. And if you ever get to see a replay of this game, you’ll notice — a lot of them weren’t exactly with his toes near the line. It was phenomenal. The 11 threes still stand as a record number for an NCAA Tournament game, and it was one of the great individual performances in the history of the event. Mr. Fryer still lives in California and was kind enough to answer some of our questions about those days.
RTC: To this day, when people think of Loyola Marymount, they think of the fast-paced style, the great tournament run in 1990, and Hank Gathers’ untimely death in the West Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinals that year. The WCC Tournament begins on Friday. It’s been 20 years. What has been the impact of Gathers’ death on your life?
JF: The impact of Hank’s life on my life would be the privilege of playing hoops with one of the best college ball players ever. I’m thankful that he decided to play his college years at LMU and the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. I try not to dwell on his death, just try to remember his life, and that everybody has a time to pass on, and that was his time.