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.
For a man who didn’t think about his legacy, Tarkanian certainly owns an interesting one. There’s no clear-cut response among a group of fans when his name is brought up in conversation.
Some say he was a cheater. To others, he was a genius. Down the line you go, asking and wondering what he embodies. Rarely will one find consensus. Instead, there’s a clouded recollection or safe response to the man whom the NCAA made out to be a villain.
The association we now laugh at for their indiscretions wasn’t the only one against Tarkanian. The university he helped build turned its back on him too.
“The situation had become incredibly polarizing,” Chin said. “It was the president’s office versus the basketball program. There was not much of a mediation process; it was an either you accept this or you’re out kind of deal. We knew that even before the decision was made that his time was limited. We just didn’t know it was going to happen in one year.”
Chin started at UNLV as a student manager in 1974, one year after Tarkanian arrived from Long Beach State. He managed for the basketball team until 1992. He holds the distinction of being the man who prepared the towels before each game. It was uncommon, he admitted. But, superstition isn’t the rarest thing in sports.
“He liked the towel folded a certain way that he could grab it easily where he could grab it with two hands,” Chin described. “There couldn’t be any seams showing on any of the three sides of the towel he was going to bite on.”
As meticulous as Tarkanian was about his towels, he was even more obsessed with basketball. It was the tireless work of a man with humble beginnings in Euclid, Ohio.
In the end, the towels were thrown in the bin and became just another addition to the caricature. The superstition is remembered more than his incredible 78.4 win percentage. Somewhere along the way, Tark the Shark turned into a myth rather than a legend.
Villains usually do.
Like any writer, I found myself in a rut. There was nothing specific that created it, and nothing specific to solve it. I was tired of my words and assignments and wanted something fun to take my mind off of things.
At some point, I invented the idea of getting in touch Tarkanian. Not because I had a distinct topic or reason. Rather, it seemed like something I could sink my teeth into. It would be a project for me if I was lucky enough.
Sure enough, I was.
After seeing a blog post from Tarkanian in the Las Vegas Sun, I emailed Senior Editor Ray Brewer. In a flash, Brewer shot back. He asked me to pass along my phone number and the iconic coach would give me a call. After a reply, he offered me both of Tarkanian’s numbers.
I was shocked and nervous. I figured if his number was given out, he’d likely be eager to talk. He was. But, as things always are, talking to him was different than I imagined it. The person I called to interview was the portrait sports culture painted.
After a long bout with being terrified, I picked up the phone. Immediately, I heard the sound of a voice that only one man owned.
I realized soon after that the portrait proved farcical now. Whatever vivid colors he used to have had faded in the attic along with everything else that grows old.
There was no divisive figure on the phone, no villain. Instead, there was just an old man who was willing to talk to some young sportswriter over 2,400 miles away.
As a child, I researched what I could about the Shark.
When his book came out in 2005, I read it front to back as soon as I could. I researched the amoeba zone defense. In college I told a best friend about the school and the 1990 team that seemed larger than history to me. It piqued his interest enough to eventually attend the university in the desert.
My mother and I watched that friend graduate last December on Tarkanian Court. The court sits in the Thomas and Mack Center, a building Tarkanian’s success helped build.
There is something about Las Vegas that is well-documented but can’t be described with words. It’s a place that holds a grudge without knowing who it’s against. The city never sleeps, and at times it never wakes up either.
It’s a place to get lost and a place to find out who you truly are. It’s hot and it’s dry and it’s everything that forces you to adapt to something you aren’t used to. Somewhere in that, there’s a beauty that reminds me of something shattered.
In its own way, it’s beautiful. But, there’s something about shattered things that makes it difficult to describe in a beautiful way.
A lot like a revolutionary team in a time when things were changing, the desert heat was beautiful and swarming and I wondered if those old days with that old coach were really all they were made out to be – or if it was all just a mirage.
I realized as soon as I spoke to Tarkanian for the first time that he was an old man. It’s not a shocking development – he’s 82 years old – but it reminded me that things aren’t as they seem. The person who actively fought the NCAA (or, "N.C. Two. A," as he calls it) is now near the end of his road and isn’t fighting anything the way I remembered.
A heart attack in March 2012 made me realize his health was much like other 80-plus-year-olds. In discussions we shared, he sounded weak.
Although he sounds older, he’s still adamant about the way things were way back when. In a conversation over a year ago, he refused to comment on the NCAA. Later in the conversation, he threw aside his earlier refusal when asked about UCLA.
“When I was coaching, they had it made,” Tarkanian said. “They got away with murder. They never got caught because the NCAA protected them.”
The organization was still a sticking point to him then. He claimed he fought back, “for himself,” in a court case that saw him as the first person to settle with the NCAA. Tarkanian was awarded $2.5 million out of court in 1998.
I mentioned that after talking with Chin about the seemingly never-ending investigations of his team that I thought he may have been unfairly targeted.
“You got good reason to feel that way,” Tarkanian responded.
Last Monday, something happened that changed things. Some will forever hold the ghosts of past against Tarkanian, but the Naismith Hall of Fame voters finally let the issue rest.
Before Chris Webber showed up to the national title game that Louisville won, Jerry Tarkanian was formally announced as a member of this year’s Hall of Fame class.
A once-shattered reputation now is seen as beautiful. With the stamp of approval, we can finally dismiss the elephant in the room.
What more is needed from the former coach to put him in the white bread list of the game’s best teachers?
He won against the organization that witch-hunted him out of Las Vegas. He took a national title with one of the sport’s greatest teams. His win-loss record of 729-201 speaks for itself. Now, he’s where he belongs – enshrined among the other basketball gods.
It was beautiful to see the joy on his face when interviewed after the announcement. That joy seemed too real to come from a villain.
That’s because he never was one to start. Although conventional wisdom wouldn’t say it, he was as good for the game as any college coach. He pushed the envelope on the court and off, much like we preach to people in any walk of life.
In the end, Tarkanian stood up for what he believed in – giving kids a chance – even when it burned him.
“He was loyal to his team, and in return his players and team were loyal to him,” Chin said. “He actually cared about if his kids would be a success on the floor because it would translate to life.”
Chin felt like time healed the wounds in the Hall of Fame voting process.
“I’m absolutely delighted,” he said. “It took a long time and I think he should’ve been in years ago, but sometimes you need a generation away to look back on it.”
In the past two years, I’ve reached more than a handful of conclusions on Tarkanian. Many are meaningless; they keep my mind fresh with little things that make no difference to anyone else.
I found my way out of the rut that started the project. As for the project itself, it never made it any further than this page.
At one point, a friend suggested it as a book topic. But, the book had been written. A feature piece felt important. But, I missed Tarkanian in three trips to the desert before the media resurgence covered him again. I was beaten to the punch because I didn’t punch fast enough.
Finally, I sat down to write this because there was a time when I worried he’d never make it into the Hall of Fame and he’s there now. At some point along the way, I feared he’d be inducted posthumously.
Thankfully, my fear is gone.
I’m grateful for the chance to speak with the man I researched thoroughly. I picked his brain on basketball and became overjoyed with our conversations.
We covered the amoeba zone, and he laughed before explaining that his teams rarely used it. It just so happened to be in the 1990 title game against Duke when it worked to perfection. The Rebels stayed in the defense during the game. The chief consequence was a fad that followed that saw Tarkanian gain notoriety – and money – off books and instructional videos.
Still, he said, the defense was found few and far between on the court.
“In some ways, he was a rebel,” Chin said. “He was bucking the trend for years.”
I remember after the 2012 game between North Carolina and Duke – in which Austin Rivers hit a game-winning three-point shot at the buzzer – I spoke with Coach Tarkanian. During the final minutes, it was clear that the Tar Heels stood back with apprehension while holding a lead.
The collective subconscious of the team changed. Instead of running up-and-down the court as it had all game, Carolina played not to lose. The Blue Devils played to win, and that’s exactly what they did.
“Coach, do you ever remember a game when your team got nervous with a late lead and slowed down?” I asked. “How do you guard against that with an up-tempo team?”
It seemed like a tough and good question. He met it with a simple answer.
“No,” Tarkanian said. “We just kept running.”
The short sentence explained everything. I set out looking for the mirage and hoping for the legacy. With four words, that’s exactly what his scratchy whisper provided.
Jerry Tarkanian ran his way, and his teams did too.
In the end, when the time was right - and a generation passed - he ran right into the Hall of Fame with the other non-villains.
Exactly where he belonged.
Sports are all I know. Writing came naturally. Sports writer by night & sports writer by night. Philosophy major who thinks the unexamined sport is not worth watching. Always for hire, never for sale. I believe that silence is the virtue of fools and I can't hear you.