On ESPN Classic the other night was a game that I found really intriguing: a 1989 preseason NIT matchup between UNLV and Loyola Marymount. I found it interesting that ESPN chose to replay this game because the two teams would meet in a much more meaningful game later that season in the NCAA tournament. But I watched this game for a couple reasons: first, it had Hank Gathers, who would die in the first game of LMU’s postseason tournament, and second, because the players in this game were still just college kids, without any of the basketball baggage that an eventful season would place upon them. I focused on two players in particular, UNLV’s Greg Anthony and LMU’s Bo Kimble. In this preseason game, only the uniforms really distinguished the two players. But now they look about as different as night and day, which made me wonder: which one would I choose to be?
Greg Anthony was the floor general for a UNLV team that won the 1990 NCAA championship and featured several NBA lottery picks. He has had a good NBA career, serving primarily as a backup point guard and defensive specialist. When kids dream about a career in the pros, they never think of him, but anyone who aspires to play in the pros should be happy to end up as a Greg Anthony.
Bo Kimble did not have an NBA career to speak of, but he was the object of children’s playground aspirations. After Hank Gathers, the nation’s leading scorer, died on the court in March of 1990, Bo Kimble led his 11th seeded team on an amazing run to the conference finals that included a convincing win over defending champion Michigan. Kimble honored the memory of Gathers both as a leader (he helped fill the void by averaging over 35 points per game) and as a friend (he shot the first free throw of each game left handed in memory of Hank). He made the cover of Sports Illustrated, and for at least a couple weeks he replaced Magic and Michael as the player that youngsters wanted to “be”.
If basketball encyclopedias had room for only one, they would probably choose Kimble because he did something extraordinary. His is one of the greatest stories in NCAA history, and it is especially moving because it’s a story of friendship. Gathers died on the battlefield, and his friend picked up his sword and fought for him. The effort of the team was so amazing that it was easy to believe that it was not entirely their own. While Kimble’s story is about inspiration, Anthony’s is about hard work and consistency. Bo Kimble received a very short-lived glory, while Greg Anthony played much longer in relative anonymity.
During their second meeting, the 1990 West Regional final in which LMU’s dream came to an end and UNLV continued on to a title, I wanted to be Bo Kimble. Everybody did. I still would probably take Kimble’s glory over Anthony’s success, and I think most people would. The thing is, I wonder which situation Kimble would choose.
We have seen in many careers that one of the toughest things to deal with is being initially successful and being unable to back it up. Macaulay Culkin, Jennifer Capriati, and Vanilla Ice have all demonstrated the frustration of chasing after early fame. Presumably, when someone experiences dizzying heights very early, the rest of his life can turn out to be somewhat of a disappointment, at least without the proper perspective. Kimble’s NBA career was considered disappointing, and it’s not tough to imagine that he has longed for the kind of success that Greg Anthony enjoyed. The saving grace of Kimble’s situation, though, is that he will be remembered as a great and loyal friend. And even though it would be great to see Kimble win the NBA Finals with one of his tributary left-handed free throws, there’s something even more heartening about the idea that he shot those free throws long after he was no longer a star. It would be a great spectacle (and very well known) to have Marv Albert reminding the home audience of Bo and Hank, but to me it’s one of the purest forms of friendship that this tribute continued to be played out in bottom barrel professional leagues and barnstorming tours by a man who just loves the game, and his fallen friend.