Our Daily Dread: Loyola High hoops — the Gathers and the Westheads — and the circle of life

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The Loyola of L.A. boys basketball team (school site linked here) takes its 20-5 record into the first round of the Division II-A playoffs as the No. 3 seed, playing a home game tonight at 7:30 p.m. against J.W. North of Riverside, sporting a less-than-impressive 7-20 mark and tied for seventh in the Big VIII.

Take a look at the photo above of coach Jamal Adams’ Cubs team.

Standing on the far left, No. 23 … Jordan Gathers. A 6-foot-3 junior guard, one of the top players on the squad.

Seated near midcourt, No. 31 … Nick Lucenti. A 6-foot-2 junior swingman coming off the bench.

A while back, the two may not have known much about their one degree of separation connection to one of the most memorable stories in college basketball history. They do now.

Gathers is the nephew of the late Loyola Marymount basketball star Hank Gathers, who 19 years ago next month died (story linked here) during a WCC tournament game at LMU. Jordan’s dad, Derrick, a Cal State Northridge grad, is Hank’s brother, but really doesn’t see his son play much in person, living on the East Coast. Jordan’s mother, Leaha, has a strong bond with him. Both live here in Los Angeles.

Jordan was born after Uncle Hank’s passing and never knew him.

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Lucenti is the grandson of former Loyola Marymount basketball coach Paul Westhead, who was Gathers’ coach on the tragic night.

This is a photo of Westhead, left, at an NCAA press conference in 1989 with Gathers, third from left, flanked by teammates Corey Gaines and Jeff Fryer.

Westhead’s daughter, Monica, is Nick’s mother, and the family lives in Manhattan Beach. Westhead, who coached the Lakers to their 1980 NBA title, guided the Phoenix Mercury to a WNBA championship two seasons ago and recently an assistant to P.J. Carlesimo with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder until ownership wiped out the coaching staff a few months ago, lives back on the Palos Verdes Peninsula with his wife, Cassie.

Nick was born after the whole legal mess that evolved from Gathers’ death — the family filed a $32.5 million lawsuit on behalf of Gathers’ then 8-year-old son against the university, coach Westhead and the team trainers.

The Gathers’ suit included an allegation that Westhead induced Hank’s doctors to reduce Hank’s dosage of Inderal — a medicine used to treat his irregular heartbeat. Westhead then sued the Gathers’ family lawyers for $1 million in defamation after Bruce Fagel of Beverly Hills blamed Gathers’ death on Westhead.

“I still feel deeply the loss of Hank Gathers, and that’s something that’s not easy to have diminished,” Westhead said in 1991 after filing his suit. “But the recent court actions and comments specifically by Bruce Fagel have really attacked my personal integrity and I just made a decision that I cannot allow that to go unnoticed.”

Westhead was eventually dropped from the family lawsuit two years later. The scars lasted much longer.

We remember this whole legal process to be almost as tragic as Hank’s death, that lawyers stepped in and tore apart the relationships that bonded the Westhead family with the Gathers family and led to even more allegations that were really the result of such an emotionally-charged incident.

In 1991, Shelley Smith of Sports Illustrated wrote this piece on the legal aftermath (linked here). In 2000, Daily News columnist Steve Dilbeck did this story (linked here) on the 10th anniversary of Gathers’ passing, which previewed a retirement ceremony at LMU where Hank’s No. 44 jersey — as well as Bo Kimble’s No. 30 — were put up for all to see.

Earlier this season, the Loyola high team traveled back to Georgetown, in Washington D.C., to play in a tournament. Jordan Gathers’ grandmother, Lucille — Hank’s mom — came over to see him play. So did Jordan’s dad, Derrick.

Nick Lucenti’s father, Rob, made the trip with the Cubs’ team. Lucille recognized him from those days in court long ago. She saw Nick. She saw Jordan. She saw them playing together. She cried. She talked to the two boys after the game and let them know a little bit more about what happened.

“I saw Lucille in the stands with Derrick at halftime we embraced,” said Rob. “The first question Lucille asked: ‘How is Paul.’ All three of us — Lucille, Derrick and myself — were overjoyed to see each other. Lucille could not get over how much Nick looked like Paul. After the game Derrick, myself, Nick and Jordan took a picture together, one I will not forget. Lucille hugged the boys. Again, I am sure there were a lot of memories running through our heads, the boys were focused on their task at hand. But again, in the back of their minds, they know the connection.”

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That’s trainer Chip Schaefer , who now works for the Lakers, trying to revive the 23-year-old Gathers on the LMU floor that night. Paul Westhead stood just a few feet away, watching the life slip out of one of his favorite people. Many remember the aftermath of that — LMU had a surreal run in the NCAA tournament, getting all the way to the Elite Eight before losing to eventual champion UNLV. More try to forget the other residue of that incredible event.

Westhead now attends his grandson’s games and sees how Jordan and Nick are pretty good friends, for being almost two different kinds of people from two very different backgrounds. Jordan has the pressure to perform with a famous name, having been on the varsity team since his freshman year. Nick is the kid who loves to surf, a “lunch pail guy,” according to his dad, noting the difference between Jordan’s star potential and his son’s role-playing ability.

“The great thing about kids,” Rob Lucenti says, “is Jordan and Nick’s first connection is they are teammates and the special connection they have is unspoken but they both know it’s there.

“I speak to Jordan and Nick a lot about Hank. Mostly about Hank’s tenacity as a person. Hank never even thought of giving up on anything. It’s funny when I told them the story of Hank going for 46 or 48 — I can’t remember — against Shaquille O’Neal and LSU. They were in awe. I told Jordan and Nick the fact that Hank went up against two 7-footers that day, Shaq and Stanley Roberts. It didn’t matter it was another day at the office for Hank.”

For the record: On Feb. 3, 1990, a month before he died, the 6-foot-7 Gathers scored 48 points and had 13 rebounds in LMU’s 148-141 overtime loss at LSU. O’Neal, a freshman, had a triple-double: 20 points, 24 rebounds, 12 blocks. Roberts had 21 points and 12 rebounds. Kimble had 32 points and 12 boards. LSU’s Chris Jackson had 34 points and 9 assists. Most amazing that day — Gathers hit 8 of 11 free throws. (see the box score linked here). The game is still talked about, for several reasons (story from USA Today in 2008 linked here).

Next season — when it’ll mark the 20th year of Hank’s passing, and Jordan and Nick are in their senior year — this story may become even more poignant. But for now, embrace the fact these two kids have completed a circle of life, where basketball has brought their families back together again. To a place where they should have been all these last two decades.

Comment here or email to thomas.hoffarth@dailynews.com.

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