Release: Saturday, April 3, 2010
Directed by: Bill Couterié
When Loyola Marymount University’s Hank Gathers dropped to the hardwood without warning, his teammates and close friends thought he was fooling around. It was a fair assumption to make given the charismatic player’s inability to take anything seriously off the court. But an irregular heart rhythm wasn’t anything to joke about. After the frightening event he was put on medication in an attempt to control the condition, but as the combined pressures of being in the West Coast Championship Tournament along with his greatly reduced efficiency on the floor due to the prescribed drugs began to mount Gathers’ overwhelming confidence in his ability to overcome anything foreshadowed tragedy.
On Sunday, March 4, 1990 in the WCC semifinal against the Portland Pilots Hank collapsed again after a blistering drive to the basket for a slam dunk. This time he wouldn’t be getting up.
Documentarian Bill Couterié presents an emotional but restrained film that pays tribute to the obscenely short lifespan of a talented college player whose prospects of going pro were more than decent. However, Guru of Go centers around the controversial fast-break playing style (known nationwide as ‘The System,’ where the team would run virtually non-stop the entire game) enacted by LMU head coach Paul Westhead and how this may have played a role in the premature death of the school’s star player.
One of the more common criticisms leveled at the game by non-fans is that too many points are amassed for the individual shots to really mean anything. However you feel about the scoring system in basketball, there’s a caveat to bear in mind: no one scored more than Westhead’s squad during the 1990 season, who averaged 122 points per game. Though it’s an outdated style of play for LMU, particularly in the wake of that tragic game, some aspects of ‘The System’ have survived generations of play. After all, modern basketball has adapted to a much faster pace, played with superstar athletes who exist in many fans’ minds as gods and goddesses. In Westhead’s mind ‘The System’ is a thing of beauty, an application that has defined who he is as a coach and the teams he’s implemented it with over a 40-plus-year span. Most recently that would be the WNBA team the Phoenix Mercury. He currently is the only head coach to claim both an NBA (with the Los Angeles Lakers) and a WNBA title (with the Mercury).
Guru of Go, in such a brief running time, makes time for interviews with Gathers’ former LMU teammates, his brother Derrick, and Coach Westhead, while setting up enough context at the beginning for viewers to get a feel for the time and place in which this particularly talented athlete — undoubtedly the pride and joy of the Californian college of the late ’80s — ran into one of the most brutal game strategies ever implemented. ‘The System’ was designed to condition LMU to be able to strengthen as the game clock ran on, whereas typical teams unaccustomed to running so much would by and large be weakening. It really was a beautiful concept, but was it too much for players, even ones as talented and seemingly built to last like Hank Gathers?
Couterié briefly delves into the ugly reality following LMU’s strong run in the college championship tournament when the Gathers family sued both the school and Hank’s doctor for negligence. While this side of the story may have deserved further examination, Guru of Go is clearly aimed at lifting spirits rather than drowning viewers in sorrow and finger-pointing. In some way, the questions left unanswered in this documentary serve to add to the legacy of Gathers. How could such a triumphant player go down so suddenly? Of course life is not fair, but this is one example of how sobering that sentiment really can be.
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Recommendation: If you find yourself a fan of college basketball I doubt I need to recommend this important bit of film to you. You either have it lined up to watch at some point or have already seen it, possibly many times. Guru of Go comes highly recommended to anyone wanting to know a bit more about the landscape of college basketball in general. (I knew zilch about Loyola Marymount, personally, so that was cool.) The story of Hank Gathers and Coach Westhead’s approach to the game is not one to miss.
Running Time: 60 mins.
[No trailer available, sorry everyone.]
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