The famous growl had diminished to a gravelly whisper. The cracking voice slowly spoke over the phone.
“I don’t think much about a legacy,” Jerry Tarkanian said several months ago. “I did the best I could, got along with other coaches and treated people well.”
Villains go hand-in-hand with sports. Entertainment value necessitates figures in a shroud of darkness. Tarkanian fit the bill. With a bald head, bags under his eyes and a towel in hand – or mouth – the embattled coach never fit the look of the good guy.
His teams thrilled. With fast-paced tempo based on the idea of creating offense off defense, the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV ran into an identity he couldn’t escape. They scored at will by suffocating the opposition first before breaking out with layups, dunks and alley-oops.
First built off junior college players, eventually successful enough to take on high school stars, Tarkanian thrived in the desert. He did it unconventionally. His ways changed the game. Some fingerprints never disappear.
Even those covered in the sand and grit of Sin City.
“We were a lot like Las Vegas,” UNLV Athletic Equipment Manager Larry Chin said. “People either love it here or hate it, and that’s how they felt about the basketball team.”
For every person who fell for the fast breaks and the highlight-reel dunks, there were plenty who assumed something was awry. In the lights and glitz the city produces 24 hours a day for 365 days out of the year, the Rebels basked in success. Outside of the bubble, detractors moaned and groaned. While pop culture increased the school’s imprint on basketball’s landscape, others soaked it in.
“I remember when a cable television station approached Tark about playing our games tape delayed in Los Angeles,” Chin said. “They would put our games on after the live UCLA games on Saturday night. Eventually, they told us more people were tuning in to watch our tape delayed games than the UCLA games.”
It was intoxicating. More than 2,400 miles away in Northwest Virginia, the fad of the Rebels caught on. I know because when I was young, there was a Starter jacket too small for a man and too big for a child with UNLV across the chest. It was shiny and cheesy and belonged to my teenage brother. Hats accompanied the jacket in the closet.
“You could say UNLV and no one knew what it meant,” Chin explained. “Then, you had people on the east coast who knew. I was traveling with a team in the 70’s and someone asked me what it stood for, the University of Northern Las Vegas? But, right after the ’77 team, people knew. They really did.”
The 1977 team – Tarkanian’s first Final Four team – provided the spark.
Eventually, UNLV’s brand of basketball created a bandwagon that kids could hitch themselves behind. Michigan’s Fab Five did the same thing more recently. Perhaps that’s why some forget about the Rebels’ impact. However, a recent HBO documentary reopened some eyes. Tarkanian’s book did as well.
Yet, the notorious Fab Five and its troubled past remains more endearing to some. When Chris Webber appeared at the National Championship game last Monday, social media erupted. Never mind what happened earlier that day. It was something much more important.
It was something long overdue.