Thursday, Jan. 17, 2008 | 2 a.m.
The game was still scoreless when somebody who might have been BYU’s Jonathan Tavernari launched what might have been a 25-foot jump shot. Because from a cruising altitude of 33,000 feet, or however far it is from Section 229, Row H, at the Thomas & Mack Center to the court below, a college basketball game looks a lot like the approach to Kansas City International Airport. Somewhere down there you know there is life, but all you can see is a grid pattern and the occasional silo.
“Hit it, hit it, hit it!” the man sitting next to me said in a low voice. He was trying hard not to out himself to the Rebels’ fans who were training their spyglasses on the basketball court like Ferdinand Magellan looking for the coast of Indonesia.
When the ball nestled into the bottom of the net, the man silently pumped his fist. Then he wiped a trickle of blood from his nose.
“If it wasn’t for Jonathan, I wouldn’t be here,” Steve Westmoreland said as the silos wearing BYU uniforms retreated to play defense and two hikers passed us in the aisle on their way to Rushmore.
Westmoreland was sitting in the nosebleed section because those are the seats UNLV gives to the friends and families of the visiting players.
Westmoreland is both to Tavernari. Two years ago, when Tavernari’s visa was about to expire, Westmoreland opened his Las Vegas home to the Brazilian sharpshooter, who had struck up a friendship with his son, Aaron, at a basketball camp in Utah.
But by the end of Tuesday’s game, Westmoreland probably was wishing he had joined Mrs. Robinson at the candidates’ debate.
That bomb that Tavernari sank with 18:16 to play in the first half would turn out to be his only basket. With UNLV playing defense like crazed yaks, he made only 1 of 9 shots and finished with just three points in 26 minutes as the Rebels rolled to a stunning 70-41 victory.
The Cougars were flying home on a charter right after the game but Tavernari had said he would meet Westmoreland after the game. That didn’t happen either. After waiting for nearly 45 minutes, Westmoreland received a text message from Tavernari. Dave Rose, the BYU coach, wanted the Cougars on the bus for the short ride to McCarran Airport. And he wanted them on it now, which sometimes is what happens when you lose by 29.
Call you tomorrow, Tavernari said.
But that goes without saying or texting. Tavernari almost always calls tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the day after that.
They may not talk on every day that ends with a “Y.” But they do speak on most days that begin at the “Y.”
“He’ll call and say, ‘Dad, Dad, what’s goin’ on?’ He gets lonely sometimes and he wants to talk,” Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland smiles when Tavernari calls him Dad. Two years ago, others were calling him something worse.
Because of Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association rules governing transfers living with foster families, Tavernari wasn’t allowed to play basketball at a public school. So he had to choose between Faith Lutheran and Bishop Gorman. And wouldn’t you know it, he chose Gorman, touching off a brouhaha that nearly turned the high school basketball season into a Warren Zevon song.
Send lawyers, guns and money. The you-know-what has hit the fan.
OK, so maybe guns weren’t involved. But there were lawyers and there was money and so much you-know-what had hit the fan by the time everybody left the courtroom that Bishop Gorman’s rivals started talking about kicking the Gaels out of the NIAA. Only this time, they meant it.
Tavernari and Westmoreland were caught in the middle. After Gorman lost in the state championship game, Tavernari went to where NIAA chief Jerry Hughes was sitting, said he was sorry for making his life miserable, and shook his hand. That meant a lot to Hughes and says more about Tavernari than his jump shot ever could.
“You know the story. It was tough,” said Westmoreland, who insists he opened his home to Tavernari only out of the kindness of his heart and as a favor to his son.
It was the second time that he and his wife, Teresa, had done that. His other surrogate son, Nigel Moore, is a 6-foot-3 freshman forward at South Puget Sound Community College. He’s a pretty good player, too. But not as good as Tavernari. And Moore played at Bonanza, which is where Westmoreland’s kids went to school. His daughter, Alex, is a senior there this year.
Jamal Willis played football for the Bonanza Bengals on his way to BYU and the San Francisco 49ers. Before that, you’d probably have to go back to Little Joe’s senior year to find a time when Bonanza was any good.
Had Tavernari transferred to Bonanza, nobody would have complained. But he couldn’t. It was against the rules.
As for Westmoreland being in cahoots with the monsignors at Bishop Gorman, well, like Tavernari, he’s a Mormon.
As for Westmoreland doing BYU a favor, well, he’s the co-owner of the Sand Dollar blues bar. They sell booze in the Sand Dollar. Gamble, too.
“Is that allowed?” I asked, only half-joking.
Westmoreland said he’s in it only for the music. His partner, Pat McKnight, is a drummer whose father, Bama, played jazz with Al Hirt in New Orleans.
When I told Westmoreland that in a previous life I used to go to the Sand Dollar to listen to the Moanin’ Blacksnakes, he said I should come back, that he and McKnight had removed the bullet holes from the walls and cleaned up the place. And that the Blacksnakes are still playin’ the blues there every Friday night.
“I’m not comin’ back if you cleaned up the place,” I told him.
“Well, we haven’t cleaned it up that much,” he said.
Westmoreland said to let him know when I was coming out. Drinks on him, he said. At a table up front. None of this nosebleed section stuff.
So the next time he opens his home to a kid who can play, don’t be surprised if it’s the bottleneck guitar.