LOS ANGELES -- Eight months ago, when Loyola Marymount center Hank Gathers collapsed on the floor of Gersten Pavilion during a game and died shortly thereafter, it all seemed like a surreal dream.
So did the next three whirlwind weeks, as the Loyola team focused its pain and sorrow and anger into a series of improbable NCAA tournament victories dedicated to their fallen leader.
Now, with a new season beginning, a banner hanging over the Pavilion court proclaiming, "Hank's House -- Here the Lion's Spirit Dwells," is the only visible reference to Gathers or the March 4 tragedy.
For that matter, there's no sight of Paul Westhead . . . or Bo Kimble . . . or Jeff Fryer. The coach and players who were so long the central characters in Loyola's rise are gone, and last season's tale of tragedy and redemption seems a closed chapter. There are no "44" patches or black bands on the uniforms, no 44s written on sneakers. There are six new players on the team who never knew Gathers. No further ceremonies or dedications are planned this season. The team and the athletic department have returned to their normal routine.
"We're still in Hank's House," Westhead's successor, Jay Hillock, says, "but this is our team."
Athletic Director Brian Quinn said: "It's a new team, a new year, time to move on. I think if we hadn't continued on to the playoffs, it might still be hanging over us. The banner's up, the memories are there, but we've moved on. The best thing that could have happened was for the team to vote to play in the NCAAs. That was where the healing took place. They were definitely playing for Hank."
This season, the Lions, strangely enough, may be playing for respect, despite their three consecutive West Coast Conference tournament titles and NCAA appearances. Although they had the best record on the West Coast in the Gathers-Kimble era, the general feeling seems to be that with those star players gone and Westhead having moved on to the pros, Hillock and the Lions are in a what-have-you-done-lately posture.
That doesn't seem to faze the players, who will continue to run the fast break, full-court press system, and say they continue to draw inspiration from Gathers' memory. They enter the season upbeat and determined to prove they can forge a post-Gathers identity.
"We were just telling the freshmen funny stories about him at dinner," senior co-captain Tom Peabody said one night recently. "I think about him every day. It's a personal thing now. I can think back to how he used to fire up not only me but the team. I knew that would stay with me."
Tony Walker, the returning point guard and co-captain, said: "We talk about him all the time, the good times we had with him. We tell ourselves we're going to play hard, like he did. We tell the freshmen how it was, how he used to make us laugh, how hard he practiced. I think about him all the time, mostly when we step in the gym. He's here, he's always going to be here."