Las Vegas Sun
Saturday, Sept. 7, 2013 | 2 a.m.
This weekend is a celebration of and for Jerry Tarkanian as he gets inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. Locally, though, people have never stopped celebrating the Rebels’ legendary leader.
As the basketball community takes some time to honor Tarkanian, we reflect on the reasons he’s always been a Hall of Famer around Las Vegas:
1. It was likely the underdog in Tarkanian that led him to the players who would define his career at UNLV. That and the realization that by going after kids with some perceived deficiencies — either in their games or personal lives — Tarkanian wouldn’t have to compete with the country’s established basketball powers.
Tarkanian was a junior college player and a junior college coach before he got to Las Vegas. He had an affinity for players who would come in with a chip on their shoulder. Tarkanian could get the most out of those players perhaps because that’s how he saw himself, too.
The practice earned Tarkanian a reputation with some as a guy who only cared about winning because he brought in talented players with troubled pasts. But to those players, most of whom swear by Tarkanian to this day, he was the guy willing to give them a chance. And they gave him everything they had to repay Tarkanian for bettering their lives on and off the court.
Tarkanian was willing to take a guy with rough edges and try to smooth them over. That made him a hero to anyone who understood it’s not wrong to give someone a second chance.
2. Recent home basketball games have brought back a familiar feeling to UNLV fans of a certain age. And that feeling is akin to the one that existed 30 years ago when Tarkanian’s success paved the way to open the Thomas & Mack Center, or a few years later when UNLV games were the hottest ticket in town.
Tarkanian’s teams were some of the most exciting in the country, and they won. Tarkanian brought the towel. He brought the shark theme. He brought Gucci Row.
Current games harken to that feeling, but to this day there’s nothing in town that matches what those nights felt like for fans. The fact that Tarkanian built UNLV from Tumbleweed Tech into a national power that captivated the Entertainment Capital of the World remains one of the most impressive program turnarounds in college basketball history.
3. The 1977 Final Four. The 1987 Final Four. The 1991 Final Four. The 1990 National Championship.
We can talk about the reasons why Tarkanian was so big at the time and why he still means so much to so many people. But the truth is he never would have meant so much if the Rebels didn’t win.
Tarkanian guided UNLV through multiple conference affiliations and won in each situation. Just going to the NCAA Tournament was a big thing for UNLV at the time but getting to that first Final Four opened a whole new world of possibilities that the Rebels would realize years later with the national title.
Las Vegas loves a winner. Tarkanian did a lot of other things to endear himself to this town, but winning is what made everything else possible.
4. The points, and more specifically the dunks, are probably what people remember best from Tarkanian’s teams. They played fast and they piled up points in a flashy manner.
Ask any former player, though, including current coach Dave Rice, and they’ll tell you the reason UNLV could play offense like that is that everything started with suffocating defense. Tarkanian worked through all kinds of defensive looks over the years as his team changed and required different sets to fit his various personnel groups.
He’s best known for the amoeba defense, a high-risk and high-reward attack that created a lot of turnovers the Rebels would convert into fast-break points. Assistant coach Tim Grgurich was key in getting the Rebels to make that defense work.
5. At most home games, at least once, fans will see Tarkanian up on the video board. After overcoming a rough history with the university, Tarkanian is still at almost every game, sitting either behind one basket or courtside with fans who have been there since he coached.
People like seeing him around and on good days, Tarkanian will still break down the X’s and O’s like he has a game coming up. As long as he’s healthy enough to keep coming to games, Tarkanian will always be a pleasant sight for home fans.