Tuesday, January 13, 2009

RUNNING UP THE SCORE--THE RISE AND FALL OF LOYOLA MARYMOUNT BASKETBALL

For those of you who cheer on Goliath as he's piling on little David, or perhaps the lions attacking the Christians, consider the Loyola Marymount University (LMU) men's basketball team, the Lions, in the 1989-90 season. The Jesuit school was the product of a 1973 merger between the all male Loyola University of Los Angeles and the all-female Marymount College. The school has a beautiful campus on the Palos Verdes Peninsula near L.A.

The men's basketball team in the 1989-90 season averaged a record 122.4 points per game, running up the score against teams like U.S. International (152-137); Nevada-Reno (145-102); Gonzaga (144-109) and San Francisco (157-115). Dr. Naismith would have never recognized this game, and the ascetic St. Ignatius Loyola would have been shocked at the fun they were having. The LMU Five rolled through their schedule like Attila the Hun, reached the Elite 8 of the NCAA Basketball Tournament and finished the season with a record of 26-6. Unfortunately, it was a season marked by tragedy when a star player died suddenly, and I'll explain later.

LMU was coached by Paul Westhead, a veteran former NBA coach who employed an unorthodox run-and-gun style. Back in 1963, the other Loyola (Chicago) employed a similar style of play under Coach John Ireland which resulted in a national championship. It was popularly called "firewagon" basketball. Essentially the team usually put up a shot within 10 seconds after gaining possession, often from 3-point range.

Using well conditioned players who could run up and down the court for 40 minutes, the Lions could go into a game and tell the opponent, "I don't know if we're going to win tonight, but you're going to be tired." Westhead developed his coaching philosophy while coaching in Puerto Rico in the 1970's. He told the interviewer, "I would pick up a team and I observed that they were going up and down the court and making on the fly 22 foot jump shots. I said to myself that it takes my guys six passes and five good screens to shoot that open 22 foot shot--and then my guys miss. These guys are running down the court, catching the ball and shooting an open 22 foot shot without any problem." "That said to me that if they can play fast and score, why do we have to do all this hard work on offensive schemes?" It sounded crazy, but Westhead was willing to try it when he arrived at LMU.

Westhead had previously coached the Los Angeles Lakers to the NBA championship in 1980 with superstars like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the rookie Magic Johnson leading the way. Fans and management have short memories, and after losing in the playoffs the next year, Westhead was fired, ostensibly because he couldn't get along with Magic. It's easier to fire the coach than to fire the players. In any event, Westhead moved on to coach the Chicago Bulls (pre-Michael Jordan) for one losing season and he was gone.

He returned to college ball at LMU in 1985 and employed the non-stop fast break combined with a pressing defense. He turned an obscure team into a contender with records of 27-3, 20-10 and 23-5, earning NCAA tournament berths each season.

The key to any system, of course, is finding the right players to carry it out. He recruited former high school All-Americans Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, both of who had transferred from the University of Southern California (USC) after their freshman year when USC coach Stan Morrison was fired. The two stars were playground buddies from the streets of Philadelphia where they learned to run and gun on outdoor courts year around. In their first year at LMU, the 1989-89 season, Gathers led the NCAA in scoring and rebounding.

In their magical 1989-90 season, the team had 3 players among the top scorers in the NCAA. Bo Kimble led the nation in scoring with 35.3 points per game. Hank Gathers averaged 29.0 points per game, and shooting guard Jeff Fryer averaged 22.7, while making 121 3-point field goals. The team as a whole shot over 40% from beyond the 3-point line. Another remarkable statistic is that the team with its constant full court pressure defense averaged over 14 steals per game. On the other hand, with all that running, they turned the ball over more than 18 times per game.

Though Loyola Marymount was not a traditional basketball power like, say, UCLA, they scheduled games against against tough non-conference foes on the road. In a 117-113 win over Oregon State, Kimble scored 53 points. The OSU star, Gary Payton scored only 48. In an overtime loss at Louisiana State, Gathers scored 48 points and Kimble scored 32. the final score was 148-141. LSU star Shaquille O'Neal scored a triple double, and their guard, Chris Jackson scored 34. LMU also lost at home to Billy Tubbs' run and gun Oklahoma Sooners squad 136-121.

Tragedy struck on March 4, 1990 in the first half of a conference playoff game against Portland. Gathers had just slam dunked a basket on an alley-oop pass when he passed out on the court with heart failure. Rushed to the hospital, he was pronounced dead on arrival. The game was suspended and the conference tournament was cancelled.

In an earlier game on December 9, 1989, Gathers had collapsed at the free throw line in a home game against U.C. Santa Barbara. He was found to have an abnormal heartbeat and missed several games. The school doctors gave him beta blockers, but cut down on his dosage when the medication adversely affected his play. After his death, Gathers' family sued the school and settled for an undisclosed amount.

After Gathers' death, the team rallied around his buddy Bo Kimble in the NCAA Tournament. Kimble, to honor his friend, shot the first free throw of each game left handed. (He made them all.) In the opening round, the short-handed, 11th seeded Lions blew out New Mexico State 111-92, as Kimble scored 45 points. The second game was against defending national champion Michigan, and the Lions were unimpressed. The Wolverines never knew what hit them. LMU came out running and shooting 3's and blew out Michigan 149-115. The team sank 21 3-point baskets, led by Jeff Fryer who hit 11 on his way to a season's best 41 point performance.

In the Sweet 16 game against Alabama, the Crimson Tide slowed down the tempo, but LMU prevailed 62-60 in by far their lowest scoring game of the season. Kimble led the Lions with 19 points, but attempted no free throws. The party ended on March
25, 1990 the same way the season began, with a loss to eventual national champion Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) 131-101, despite Kimble's 42 points.

The season ended, Kimble graduated, and Coach Westhead moved on to coach the NBA Denver Nuggets. The run and gun style didn't work with that crew. Although they scored almost 120 points per game, they allowed the opponents to score 130 points per game. Without Coach Westhead, the LMU team drifted gack into obscurity, in the shadow of the major LA schools UCLA and USC.

KENNETH SUSKIN

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2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember that year very well. I was a 13/14 year old college hoops junkie in that 1989/90 season, and I loved to watch the up-tempo, helter-skelter, chaotic style that was played by teams like LMU, UNLV, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.

When Hank died, I wrote "#44" on the back of my basketball shoes as a tribute. Mom and Dad weren't real happy about it, but my friends all loved it.

Now I'm almost 33 and still like college basketball, but over the years, I've lost some of the passion that I had back then. Some of my favorite players ever to play college ball played at that time. I wish that season never ended and I could still watch all those teams and players running up and down the court.

That 1989/90 season still ranks as my all-time favorite season of college basketball (even though Memphis [State at the time] sucked that year, and I liked Duke at the time and they got smoked by UNLV in the championship game).

January 15, 2009 at 1:35 PM  
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January 15, 2009 at 8:43 PM  

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