The story in the young man's mind starts not at death but in the last moments of life, with Hank Gathers frozen in the air that distant March evening, hands above the rim and the No. 44 stretched across his back. It's an image both beautiful in the power of a dunk and haunting in the knowledge that when he comes down his heart will stop and he will tumble to the floor of Loyola Marymount University's Gersten Pavilion. A life barely lived will be finished at 23.
How many times has Jordan Gathers watched the video of that night now 21 years past, grasping to understand the uncle with whom he shares a legacy and yet he never knew? "People always ask me, 'did you know him?'" he says. "Every game, everywhere I go, 'Gathers. Gathers.' It comes back."
He sits now in the stands of St. Bonaventure's Reilly Center where he is a freshman guard on the basketball team, a stranger in so many ways to his heritage, given that Hank died two years before he was born and he is not close to his father, Derrick, who is Hank's brother. Still, he feels this pull that comes from the name as if the story should not end on that long ago night in Los Angeles. And so he embraces it, wrapping all the curiosity and expectation into a single Twitter account: @44LivesOn.
"I feel like he's still around," he says, gazing into the afternoon light trickling in through the gym windows. "People are always asking me about him so I feel like he lives on through me and my family and that every time I dribble a basketball or shoot a basketball he lives on, his legacy still lives on."
Jordan has a half-brother he doesn't know well, another basketball player, named DJ Rivera, who was a star not far away at SUNY Binghamton. But there was trouble at Binghamton and Rivera left and even though they have the same father, they don't share the name, meaning Rivera never had the same connection as Jordan to that night in Los Angeles when Hank Gathers died.
If there is something of Hank Gathers to continue, Jordan will have to be the one to do it.
They say Hank Gathers' body left the Gersten Pavilion that night but that his soul remained. They say strange things happen inside the tiny gym in the hills near the Los Angeles airport. There have been newspaper stories about this. They say a face sometimes appears in the window. They say a fuzzy figure stands in the corner long after the building has been locked and emptied. One of Jordan's best friends has heard the sounds of a basketball dribbling inside the gym only to peek in and find an empty court.
"When she told me, I was freaking out," Jordan says. "I said, 'That's amazing.'"
He has never seen these things even though he believes he must have played more than 20 AAU and high school games in the building where his uncle died. But something is different whenever he is in there. Playing in a gym people call "Hank's House" makes it easy to sense the ghost. He feels someone watching him, dissecting his game, observing his moves. He is sure this is Hank. And because he knows his uncle is watching he's played some of his best games in Gersten. Later, other coaches and players from opposing teams approach and say: "Your uncle would have been proud if he could see you play."
Their words fill him with a warmth as if he is sure he has pleased this man he has never known. But there are also things he wonders about. Strange things. Like for instance even though he is naturally right-handed people tell him they think he is better when he dribbles and shoots with his left. He would give this no thought except that that Hank, of course, was left-handed, a fact memorialized in that NCAA tournament run when his childhood friend and teammate Bo Kimble shot free throws with his left hand as a tribute.
Jordan knows about Bo Kimble's free throws. He knows too how LMU with Hank and Kimble was transformed by coach Paul Westhead into the fastest team in the country, scoring more than 100 points a game. And knows how when Hank died in the semifinals of the West Coast Conference tournament, they cancelled the championship game, awarded the league's automatic bid to LMU and the Lions set off on an amazing NCAA tournament run that took them to within a game of the Final Four.
He has videos from that time. He has old newspaper articles. He has an old T-shirt with a portrait of Hank on the front that he left hanging in his room at home back in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park. He also has a jacket with the same picture on the back.
But most of what he knows comes from his mother, Leah Harden. She is the hero in his life. She is the single mother who worked days as an accountant, then worked to raise her children almost always by herself, seeing they got the best education she could find, steering them around trouble. "I'm just grateful," she says about Jordan. "It could have gone the other way for him. I don't know what it was, but I was blessed with a good son."
Leah is the one who taught him to play basketball, the one who supported him as his game grew better and allowed him to play on AAU teams that traveled around the country. Leah is the one who fielded the calls from the local youth coaches hoping to put her boy on their team. She's the one who dealt with Jordan's schooling and who got him to Loyola, an elite private school in Los Angeles because it is where she thought he would have the best chance at a future.
Then when people started asking Jordan if he was related to Hank Gathers and he came home with questions, it was Leah who told him the stories. She told him how she knew Hank before she knew Jordan's father, back when she was a student at UCLA and a friend of Pooh Richardson, the Bruins point guard who came from Philadelphia. Richardson introduced her to his two friends from back home, a pair first famously recruited to USC, Hank and Kimble, who transferred to Loyola Marymount after Stan Morrison, the coach who brought them to L.A., was fired.
At first Leah wasn’t impressed. Having played high school basketball herself, she thought she knew something about the game and she didn't see what exactly Gathers did well.
"You can't even shoot free throws," she told him. "How did you get a scholarship?"
She laughs now as she thinks about it.
"I personally didn't think he was that good of a player," she says. "Bo Kimble? Now that's a different story."
But what Hank did, she told Jordan, was work. She thinks Hank knew he wasn't as naturally skilled as Kimble and so he pushed and pushed and pushed to get better, to turn into that rare player who could both score at will and get rebounds despite being just 6-foot-7. She told Jordan too how in his junior year at LMU, Hank led the country in both scoring and rebounding with 32.7 points and 13.7 rebounds a game.
She even told her son how she talked to Hank the day before he died, chatting on the phone about the things friends do, hanging up without a thought that this would be the last time. The next night she didn't attend LMU's tournament game against Portland, going instead to the Forum to watch Richardson, who was in the NBA by then, play against the Lakers. When she arrived at the Forum someone in the group shouted: "Did you hear what happened? Hank Gathers died. It was on the news."
For the first half of the Lakers game, Leah stood at a pay phone frantically shoving coins in the slot, calling anyone she knew to see what her friend said was true. Nobody answered. Then at halftime the Lakers made the official announcement over the stadium speakers. Leah went cold.
"I was just shocked," she says.
In the following days she went to memorials, trying to fathom how someone their age could die of a heart attack. The autopsy said Hank had a heart defect called "hypertrophic cardiomyopathy," a thickening of the heart muscle. The news wasn't a complete shock, he had collapsed in a game earlier in the year and was taking heart medicine. Still the whole thing made no sense. He was so strong, so young, so alive.
All these memories remain locked in her mind along with the NCAA tournament; the drive to brink of the Final Four and even the television reporter, for whom Hank once interned, weeping on air as he tried to report a death that he too couldn't comprehend.
Sometimes there is surprise in her voice as she tells her Jordan about all of this.
"I didn't realize back then it would be such a big deal," she says. "It's amazing that people haven't forgotten what Hank did."
She pauses and considers her son and the legacy he carries.
"I think it's something to be proud of," she continues. "I don't think he is intimidated by it. I think he wants to make his uncle proud. I think he has something to accomplish."
Forty-four lives on. Jordan wore that number only once; his last year in high school at Taft, which is in the San Fernando Valley. He transferred there before his senior season because powerful Taft offered more exposure than Loyola.
By then he had gained a little fame around Los Angeles for being Hank Gathers' nephew. At Loyola he played with Westhead's grandson, a teammate he considered a friend. Westhead, himself sometimes came to practice, but never was a mention made. Neither grandson nor nephew knew their celestial connection until Loyola traveled to Bethesda, Md., to play Georgetown Prep and Westhead's son came and Jordan's father and grandmother drove down from Philadelphia, and they were hugging and smiling through tears while the two teenagers linked forever to all of this wondered just what was going on.
"It's just a small world," Jordan says.
If there is another hero in his story, it is Mark Jackson, the former NBA point guard who was named this summer as the coach of the Golden State Warriors. Jackson's son, also named Mark, and Jordan went to school together at Taft and on weekends they attended the church Jackson runs in the Valley neighborhood of Van Nuys.
In many ways Jackson became the fatherly voice Jordan was seeking, relating life to the Bible. When his uncle's name arose, Jackson told him: "Embrace your family history but at the same time, be Jordan Gathers."
"In my conversations with him I think he understands that," Jackson says. "He's an extremely bright young man who understands that his uncle had his time but now it's his time."
Jordan does not talk much about his father. He says only that his mother and Derrick Gathers split when he was young and that he doesn't know his father well.
"He's not a part of my life," Jordan says. His words are not filled with contempt, but rather he uses the phrase to explain why they haven't spoken much about Hank Gathers. When they have, he says, he can see the topic makes his father sad.
"He was really crushed when it happened," Jordan says. "I think it still has bothered him to this day. My uncle was such a big part of his life and because they didn't have their dad in their lives it was my uncle who was his father basically, the guy he looked up to."
Last year, partly to improve his basketball but also in an attempt to better know his father's side of the family, Jordan enrolled at Rise Academy, a prep school in Philadelphia. The effort helped slightly but there still appears to be gaps in Jordan's connection to his relatives. For instance, he says he has never seen his uncle's grave.
"For me the door was open, (Derrick) decided not to walk through it," Leah says. "You can't make somebody take that responsibility on."
Several messages left for Derrick Gathers asking him to talk about his son were not returned.
So when it came time to figure out the options for college basketball, it was Jackson who helped Jordan sort through things. Jackson, despite a full schedule as a broadcaster, was glad to help because he had come to be fond of the young man who showed up regularly to church, who listened to the lectures and who on every Sunday, despite being all the way across the country, makes sure to text Jackson and give him a note of encouragement for the day's sermon.
And eventually the colleges did call. For a time the primary pursuer was Loyola Marymount. This terrified Leah whose response to the idea was: "Oh, absolutely not." LMU would have been too much with everybody wanting to make comparisons between the famous uncle and his nephew who doesn't even play the same position. Fortunately for everybody, a scholarship never arrived.
But it wasn't until Jordan was almost done with school, and playing an AAU tournament in Neptune, N.J., when St. Bonaventure coach Mark Schmidt first saw him. Immediately Schmidt was attracted to the way the 6-foot-3 Jordan played -- a natural scorer who could play either point or shooting guard. Schools like St. Bonaventure, despite being in the Atlantic 10 Conference, need to find recruits who are more obscure and hope to develop them into stars. Gathers seemed exactly like the player they were trying to get.
"I think he was under-recruited to be honest with you," says St. Bonaventure assistant Steve Curran who did most of the work on getting Gathers to the Bonnies where ironically the school's best player, Andrew Nicholson, a preseason All America candidate, wears No. 44.
Then came the first weekend of practice at St. Bonaventure and everything came faster and harder than anything he ever had in high school. The Bonnies practiced for close to three hours that first night and then came back with another workout the next day. At the end of the second practice Jordan's legs began to throb. He assumed he was cramping. But the pain grew worse and shot up through his thighs, across his waist and into his sides. He shivered. Soon his arms ached too. This didn't feel like any cramping he ever felt before.
The coaches were worried. Here they had the nephew of Hank Gathers and his body was convulsing after just two days of practice. The trainers were saying "cramps" but no one knew for sure.
"Obviously with the history you think of the worst thing that could happen," Curran says.
They took Jordan to the local hospital where doctors pumped fluids into his body. But concern was settling in. What if something more was happening? What if this was worse than they knew?
Nobody wanted to find out even as Jordan insisted he was fine. So a decision was made to send him to Buffalo so tests could be taken on his heart.
For two nights Jordan lay in a bed in the Buffalo hospital undergoing every test the doctors could imagine. They found nothing. His heart was fine. No defects. No hardening of the muscles. Whatever happened that March night at Loyola Marymount would not happen to him.
The doctors said he could play again.
And 44 will live on.
Editor's Note: After publication, Derrick Gathers called writer Les Carpenter and said he has been working for some time to be closer to his son. "Jordan is my lineage, that's my son," he said. "I want the best for Jordan. The success story you are going to be hearing about is me and my son's relationship getting stronger."