I was so sad today to hear about the passing of former UNLV Runnin’ Rebels men’s basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian. Less than a week after Dean Smith from North Carolina passed away. What’s with the legendary college basketball coaches this week? This isn’t a sports blog, nor do I have enough knowledge about Coach Tarkanian to make this any sort of meaningful summary of his life. Friends of mine know of my strange obsession for Vegas (is it so strange?), but before I ever set foot there, I had a strange obsession for the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.
I was in high school when basketball became an interest/hobby that would take up enormous amounts of my time and energy, and still does. I loved playing, and loved following the NBA at a time when Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were the 3 biggest superstars, and living near Toronto, we still didn’t even have an NBA franchise. I couldn’t get enough hoops, and a lot of kids I knew started following NCAA basketball. Living in Canada I had no local allegiance, so I could pretty much cheer for whoever I wanted. According to all the hats I saw people wearing, everyone liked Duke, or Michigan, or Syracuse, or Georgetown. I wanted to choose something unique. After weighing the options, realizing that I had a UNLV T-shirt that my dad got for my while on a business trip, I thought ‘why not these guys?’ As it turned out, my timing was good.
They were expected to be one of the best teams that year, so they got a fair bit of National TV coverage, even though they didn’t play in one of the bigger, and better known conferences. This was good for me, because if I was going to start wearing my shirt with pride and buying a hat to go with it, I wanted to know a lot about the team so I didn’t seem like a fraud. This is pre-internet, so I pretty much relied on their games being televised, and I had to be there to watch, or tape it on the VCR (OK I’ll stop talking about old technology now). When I started watching their games, I couldn’t believe how good they were. They were beating everybody, and not just beating them. Most of their games were laughers. It got to the point where I was as familiar with the guys on the end of the bench as I was with the starters, because a lot of these games were over mid way through the second half. Who was this coach?? Jerry Tarkanian!! The Shark!! Why is he chewing on a towel all the time (stories about this range from superstition to him wanting to keep hydrated, but not wanting to drink so he won’t want to pee). The eccentricity is right up my alley. I couldn’t have felt better about my college team.
They went on to win the NCAA championship that year. Thanks in part to having great players, but also to coach Tarkanian who taught and coached and developed these really young guys. His ‘Amoeba Defence’ created constant fast break opportunities leaving just about every team they played against completely overmatched. The following season after winning, all the starters came back for their senior year (which never happens anymore, especially when 3 of them were to be drafted into the NBA in the first round). To defend your NCAA championship is one thing, but if you’re going to turn down millions to do it, you better really love your coach, and by all accounts they did. That team went undefeated in the regular season that following year only to lose in the semi-finals in what was a complete shocker. Still they go down as arguably the best college basketball team in the history of the NCAA. I was wearing my shirt with pride until I grew out of it. The bragging rights I had from jumping on that bandwagon just slightly before all my friends did felt awesome. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. The March Madness has never been the same for me since. I don’t know if it was just the age I was when it happened that made it special, or just that they were a once in a generation type of team that comes around less and less often now that most of the best college players flee to the NBA as soon as they feel like they’ll have the chance. I do know that still being a UNLV fan isn’t nearly as rewarding as it was in the Tarkanian era (but I stayed true despite my bandwagon comment earlier, I don’t switch teams).
I still follow the Rebels when I can. If I go to Vegas in the winter, I’ll usually head down to the Thomas & Mack Center to catch a game on ‘Tarkanian Court’. It was nice that he was inducted into the Basketball Hall Of Fame before he died. An NCAA coach for 34 years, and 19 in Vegas. From what I’ve read, he was as great of a mentor and family man as he was a basketball coach. Sad to hear of his death, but a life well lived.