True Grit

Basketball can be beautiful, but as John Wooden knew, it takes a lot more than style to make it to the top

In the beginning, which is to say not really the beginning but the day Jerry Tarkanian arrived on campus in 1973, UNLV basketball was all about the beauty. No team in America played a more fluid, aesthetically intoxicating brand of basketball. Games during the Tark era had the grand, liberating overtones of an Aaron Copland symphony and the reckless improvisational drive of a Jackson Pollock canvas. Fans might not have realized it at the time, but what they were witnessing was the birth of a great American modern art form: Someone ought to put up a run-and-gun video installation at the Guggenheim.

Las Vegans got spoiled, and even during Lon Kruger’s recent run of 20-win seasons, we’ve caught ourselves sniffing with highbrow disdain at the occasionally clunky music of Krugerball. This season in particular we’ve worn that lemon-sucking expression of the aesthetically offended. There were moments during UNLV’s Feb. 15 victory over Air Force—a 49-42 affair that wasn’t nearly as thrilling as the score sounds—when it appeared the Thomas & Mack faithful would march out en masse like a herd of Broadway critics at a Spider-Man preview. The “Entertainment Capital of the World” seems unlikely to develop a taste for winning ugly.

But guess what? The Rebels’ roller-coaster season—they crested at 9-0 and then lost seven of their next 16 games—is on the upswing. The squad is now 23-7 and set to make its fourth NCAA tournament in five years. Maybe winning ugly is pretty enough after all. Basketball at its best may be a sport of swiftness and grace, but the discerning critic can find plenty of other virtues.

When the greatest coach in the history of the game—John Wooden, whose UCLA teams won 10 NCAA titles in 12 years—assembled his most cherished traits into a Pyramid of Success, not a single block was marked “Beauty.” There is nothing about speed or fluidity or the pleasing of crowds. Instead we have “Industriousness,” “Enthusiasm,” “Initiative” and “Competitive Greatness.” In a stirring late-February road sweep of Colorado State and New Mexico, the Rebels showed they might possess all of these traits. A guard-dominated team developed a bruising inside presence; a gang that couldn’t shoot straight started hitting threes when it mattered most. And a leaderless team found the leader it thought it would have all along—senior guard Tre’Von Willis.

Style points don’t wind up on the scoreboard. As the Pyramid makes clear, success has many faces, and during a remarkable Mountain West Conference season—one that saw two conference teams pierce the national Top 10—Vegas basketball fans got to see plenty of them firsthand.

It has been 36 years since Wooden coached his final game, but when he died last June at age 99, his wisdom was as fresh and relevant as ever. As a tribute to Wooden, Vegas Seven assembled this MWC “Mountain,” matching stars and role players with the Pyramid’s hallowed virtues. These are the players who understand the rough glories of teamwork, and who know that the beauty of the game is much more than skin deep.

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@TRENDYBLACKGUY Success is my job. Pissing people off is a side hobby. @2girlsandpoodle Hey right on! Charlie Sheen’s a warlock. That’s awesome. How brave of him to go public. This changes everything. #what.