Friday, April 25, 2014 | 2 a.m.
Dedan Thomas is shouting words of encouragement to a group of Las Vegas-area youth basketball players he coaches during a defensive drill at a recent practice.
Thomas, a former UNLV point guard, is schooling the players — most still in grade school — in what he calls the Rebel way. That, he says, starts with a suffocating effort on defense.
“We play hard; we share the basketball,” said Thomas, who ranks No. 6 in assists and No. 8 in steals in UNLV history. “It’s a good, fun brand of basketball. We changed the way they play AAU basketball out here. We brought our style of play at UNLV to the (youth) side.”
It’s been more than two decades since the 6-foot Thomas orchestrated the UNLV offense, but judging by his stamina with about 100 players in the AAU program, the 43-year-old still appears in shape. And he still has the passion for the scarlet and gray, naming the AAU franchise the West Coast Rebels.
He’s always asked what it was like being a Rebel during the "Glory Years," the era of UNLV basketball from the late 1980s to early 1990s that included three trips to the Final Four in five seasons. Thomas’ first season eligible was Jerry Tarkanian’s last year, when the coaching icon’s tenure ended because of conflicts with the NCAA and UNLV administration.
UNLV closed the 1991-92 season with a 23-game winning streak, but it wasn’t eligible for the tournament because of the NCAA punishing Tarkanian. An early March game against Utah State at the Thomas & Mack Center was the end of the season and the end of an era.
Jerry Tarkanian Rebel Alumni Charity Basketball Game
Where: Centennial High School, 10200 W. Centennial Parkway
When: 7 p.m., May 2
Players scheduled to attend: Freddie Banks, Anderson Hunt, Eldridge Hudson, Dedan Thomas, Evric Gray, Chancellor Davis, Reggie Manuel, Sam Smith, Robert Smith, Wink Adams and Warren Rosegreen. Former UNLV football players Ryan Wolfe, Casey Flair, Ervin Johnson and Hunkie Cooper will attend.
Cost: $30 for game; $500 for social beginning at 5 p.m. (Players will participate in social). Proceeds go to Centennial athletics.
Contact: 702-799-3440, Ext. 4202
“I remember coach Tark walking off the court with his jacket right here,” Thomas said, pointing to his shoulder, “and with all of the cameras in front of him. I was just thinking to myself, all these years and he has to quit. It was sad. It was really sad.”
What was lost in the shuffle in Tarkanian’s exit was the players on his final roster. They are the forgotten Rebels; the team nobody talks about, never getting a chance to lead the Rebels to a third straight Final Four.
Initially, the postseason ban was supposed to be for the 1990-91 season, when the Rebels were undefeated until they lost to Duke in the national semifinals. That team, regarded as one of the best in NCAA history, received a chance to defend its championship after UNLV compromised with the NCAA for the ban to be enforced the following season.
“The reason all of that stuff happened, we had nothing to do with. We were 5, 6, 7 years old when all the illegal things supposedly happened,” Thomas said. “We went 18-0 in conference, we won 26 games and we weren’t able to go to the tournament.
“We finished the year 5 or 6 in the country. We had Elmore Spencer, who played in the NBA; J.R. Rider, who played in the NBA; Evric Gray, who played in the NBA. We had a great team. We would have made a heck of a run.”
Because they weren’t able to make that run, and because most of the same group of players didn’t reach the tournament the next two seasons with coach Rollie Massimino, they are rarely mentioned when listing the program’s legendary players. After Tarkanian’s departure, it took UNLV until 2007 to win another NCAA Tournament game.
“We didn’t get anything,” Thomas said of the 1992 season. “We got thank you, and the party’s over. Take your winning streak and go watch the tournament at home on TV.”
If Tarkanian hadn’t been forced out, Thomas is convinced the Rebels would have continued making deep postseason runs. Tarkanian was eyeing a group of blue-chip recruits capable of winning another championship.
“This was absolutely the No. 1 place to go to school,” Thomas said. “I remember seeing the recruiting list. It was Shawn Kemp, Chris Mills, Ed O’Bannon, Sean Tarver, guys like that could have come here. This was the place to be. It was a breeding ground.”
Although most fans blame Massimino for starting the program’s decline, Thomas says the responsibility shouldn’t solely fall on his shoulders. Massimino lasted just two seasons when it was revealed he had a secret contract with then-UNLV President Robert Maxson for a higher salary, ending a controversial tenure with a 36-21 record.
“Coach Mass stepped into a very tough situation having to follow the footsteps of such a legend who laid such a strong foundation,” Thomas said. “That was a very, very tough situation. I commend him for taking the job.”
UNLV has enjoyed a rebirth in recent years, first with Lon Kruger and now Dave Rice, a player on the consecutive Final Four teams, as coach. Kruger welcomed former players back to the program and championed naming the court after Tarkanian. Rice, who was an assistant during some of the dormant years, has made sure all former Rebels are included in alumni events.
At 7 p.m. May 2, Thomas will be front and center at Centennial High for the first Jerry Tarkanian Rebel Alumni Charity basketball game, which isn’t affiliated with UNLV. The event will raise money for Centennial athletics.
Centennial football coach Leon Evans, who has two children in Thomas’ AAU program, suggested the former Rebel help coordinate the game. With Thomas’ assistance, Evans has been able to book notable Rebel alumni such as Anderson Hunt (the 1990 Final Four MVP), Freddie Banks, Gray, Warren Rosegreen, Eldridge Hudson, Reggie Manuel, Robert Smith and Sam Smith to participate. They’ll play against the Centennial basketball team, which includes top 2017 prospect Troy Brown Jr., a UNLV recruiting target.
It will give Thomas a chance to dish out one more assist — just one.
“I’m getting up in age. I don’t want to get hurt,” he said.