Moving to Las Vegas was like walking in at the end of a movie. Just as I sat down and saw the last flicker of what must have been an epic drama, the house lights went on and everybody got up and left.
It was March 30, 1991, and after I unpacked, I did what all Las Vegans did that Saturday afternoon: watch the undefeated Rebels somehow lose to Duke in the NCAA semifinals. All I remember was the stunned silence drowning out the usual Vegas noise, and it spilled over into Monday, which was April Fool’s.
Just like that, I began my new job and the city began a brand-new era. I’ve always been a little haunted by the timing, not just because I missed out on the glory days that Greg Blake Miller magically recaptures in our cover story, but how could I not feel like The Cooler, the guy who shows up and instantly changes everybody’s luck? My first days here were not about community togetherness and Rebel glory but infighting, scandal and the collapse of the basketball program.
One day, years later, when I finally got to meet Lois Tarkanian, the first thing that came out of my mouth was a joking apology for my ominous arrival to her town. She laughed, but the smile quickly disappeared as she launched into Bob Maxson and the bitter end. Luck, she said, had nothing to do with it.
A lot has changed since those days. In fact, I’ve now been in Las Vegas as long as Jerry Tarkanian was UNLV’s coach. And the memories of the NCAA’s Pyrrhic victory over us (if I can now include myself in “us”) have finally faded, thanks in part to the dawn of hope for another Rebel run.
“There’s no way to duplicate the mood of that year,” Miller told me after I’d mentioned this. “But the memory of it can offer inspiration for something different, something new.”
A championship is unlikely to happen this year, but in the air is the chance that—a million or so people later—the new we will get there again. I can’t help but think this inspiration might do us good, especially given that (is there any doubt?) Las Vegas is going to lag behind the rest of the country in the economic recovery. Winning at basketball is a welcome distraction during hard times, for sure, but it also can be an outlet for the frustrations of a young, fractured community desperately trying— against the odds and all alone, as always—to reach a new period of prosperity.
I may have missed the joy of vindication the last time around, but I still feel the chip on our shoulder (think Yucca, Obama and all those “worst” lists). I’ll never know for sure, but just maybe the last two words of Miller’s story ring as true now as they did back then.