Seven Questions for Danny Tarkanian

The former UNLV point guard and political candidate on his dad’s Hall of Fame induction, the agony of losing an election and fatherly lessons learned

Photo by Jim K. Decker

Photo by Jim K. Decker

What are the moments that will last in your memory from your dad’s induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame, and was that essentially the capper on Jerry Tarkanian’s career?

When he was announced [at the induction ceremony], the ovation he received and the smile he had on his face were the most wonderful things you could possibly imagine. But, no, the national championship was a more crowning achievement. When you win something on the court, that means you’ve won something. When you get voted in by, whatever, 22 or 24 people, it’s their opinion. And, quite frankly, for 20 years their opinions were pretty flawed.

On October 30, a statue of your father was unveiled outside of the Thomas & Mack Center. What does that mean to you and your family?

It’s a great feeling. In 1992, when the university requested that my dad resign, Joe Foley, who was on the Board of Regents, grabbed me outside of the meeting and said, “If your dad will walk away and not fight us, we’ll build a statue for him. We’ll make a Hall of Fame at the university, and he’ll be a primary part of it. But if he fights us, we will eliminate his name from the university.” And I thought at the time, “What a stupid comment, because all that’s going to do is hurt the university, not my father.” Fortunately, things have changed, starting with Jim Rogers getting the basketball court named after him, and then [former coach] Lon Kruger coming in and reaching out to the former players and my dad. We’ve come full circle. So it’s funny that 21 years after Joe Foley’s threat, there’s finally going to be a statue there.

If your dad had gotten the chance to sit alone in a room with the NCAA officials who hounded him for so many years, what would he have said to them?

He actually had several conversations with David Berst, the investigator who was the driving force against my father, and he asked Berst, “Why are you coming after me and our program when we have done so little compared to UCLA and USC?” This was early in his career, and Berst didn’t have an answer.

Excluding yourself, who’s the one former Rebel you think your dad is most proud of?

Larry Johnson, definitely. My dad would say unequivocally he’s the best player he ever coached, and he thinks Larry is as good a person as he was a player, so that says a lot.

Which UNLV team would your dad say is his favorite?

It would be tough between the [1990] national champion team and the ’91 team [that was undefeated until losing to Duke in the Final Four]. I guess I’d say the national championship team because they won it all. I like the ’77 team, because I thought they were more exciting and fun to watch, and far exceeded their abilities.

How would you assess this season’s Rebels?

They don’t have that many returning players, so it’s hard to say. You can really gauge a team by how much experience it has coming back—and is it good experience? This team has just three players [Khem Birch, Bryce Dejean-Jones and Carlos Lopez-Sosa] who saw significant time last year, so it depends on how the new players gel with the old players. There’s just no way you can answer that without having seen all the new players play.

You played point guard at UNLV, and this year’s team has a heated battle at the position. Who’s the best point guard in Rebels history?

Robert Smith, without a doubt. He was the most effective at what he did. The ’77 [Final Four] team, although it didn’t have the talent of the ’91 team, was the most successful, considering the talent level. They should have won the national championship, and I think most people believe they would have if [UNLV center Larry] Moffitt hadn’t gotten his nose broken [in the loss to North Carolina]. And Robert led that team. He had the school record in free-throw percentage, assists and steals. He was a great shooter. He only shot when he was supposed to, but he made everything. He was just a great, great player.

Who is currently the best athlete in the Tarkanian family?

My niece Dannielle [Diamant]. She’s playing basketball overseas now in Europe, and she was the starting center for Northwestern.

What was your favorite on-court moment that you experienced?

When we beat Fresno State in the 1983 PCAA [Pacific Coast Athletic Association] championship game. They came in having won 12 in a row or something like that. I hit a shot at the end of regulation—the only shot that I made that really determined the outcome of a game—that sent it into overtime, and then [Eric] Booker hit the winner in overtime.

You worked as an assistant alongside your dad at Fresno State. How much do you miss coaching, and do you think you’ll ever go back?

I know I won’t go back to it; I’m past that point. You have to be young enough and be willing to be away from your family long enough. The best thing about me not coaching is I get to spend so much time with my kids, which I love. Do I miss coaching? Every March, during tournament time; I don’t think you could have been in coaching or involved in March Madness and not miss it when that period comes around.

What’s the best advice you ever got from your dad?

That’s a good one. [Long pause.] I can’t recall my dad giving me specific words of advice as much as just following his actions. The thing I learned most from my dad was how he dealt with people, how he treated people with respect, gave them his attention and made them feel good—people from all walks of life, from very wealthy to very poor and everything in between. My dad was great at that. … I haven’t been nearly as successful with it [laughs], but that’s the lesson.

Who took losses harder: you, your dad or your mom?

Losses just killed my dad. He would be miserable for days; he couldn’t sleep. He came to a tournament here in Las Vegas when he was coaching at Long Beach State, and he lost both games. Afterward, he told the reporter if he could have gotten to the balcony, he would have jumped off the roof that night, he was just so miserable. He’s legendary for how hard he took losses. But my mom is much more competitive than my father, and will push herself even further than my dad would to be successful, but she certainly didn’t take the losses as bad as my dad did.

More difficult: running a political race or playing point guard against a Top-10 team?

A political race is much more competitive and intense; it’s more vicious. I enjoy it a lot more than playing basketball.

What’s it feel like to lose an election?

I haven’t experienced the death of a close one, but there’s been nothing more painful than losing a political race, and each one has gotten worse. The last one was very, very hard to overcome. I assume the death of a close one will be worse, but I hope it’s not much more.

What is your political future?

I don’t really have one at this time. I ran some very tough races, and I’ve taken some good lumps, so I have to step back and regroup. I don’t have plans for the future, but I will say I hope that there is an opportunity for me to run for political office again.

So aside from running the Tarkanian Basketball Academy, what are your immediate plans?

Right now, I have a really good commercial center that I built in ’07, so anybody who knows the real estate market knows it’s been challenging to keep that property. We’re very close to getting it stabilized, and it would be wonderful security for my family if that happens. I’m concentrating on that, and I’m spending a lot of time with my family that I hadn’t had a chance to over the past three years because I was running for the Senate and Congress. And I’m spending a lot of time with my dad, with his health issues. Those are my priorities at this point. I’m also working on a book about my dad, which I hope is going to get published and turned into a movie.

What are the similarities between politics and basketball?

Playing sports is very competitive, obviously. The people who compete to the best of their talents are going to win. And I love that part of life. A guy like Michael Jordan, you hear it all the time, they can’t be satisfied in life unless they’re involved in something competitive. So the competitiveness of sports is very similar to the competiveness of politics, except politics is at another level, which makes it even better.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from running for political office?

I learned different lessons in each race. First of all, I was never a good public speaker. I was scared to death to speak in public, and I had to get better at that, so I learned that during my first race. And then in my second race, the commercial I did, I look back at it and, God, I looked mean. My eyes looked mean. I said, “That’s horrible. No wonder people didn’t vote for me.” So I really tried to get better in my commercials, and I thought I did a good job with that in the last race. The lesson I learned the most, though, is that you need to have enough money to get your message out. I think I would have won the Senate race if the Tea Party express didn’t come along and put a million dollars into Sharron Angle’s campaign. And [lastly], you really need to run in a realistic district. My district had 14½ percent more Democrats. Now, when I got in it was 12 percent, then it went down to 8½, then it went back to 14. But in a nutshell, I felt like I could overcome the huge numbers, and you really can’t. There’s a limit to what anyone is going to be able to overcome in an upside-down district.

Who will be elected president of the United States in 2016?

I hope it’s Marco Rubio. First of all, he’s a Las Vegas guy. Secondly, when he came to Las Vegas to campaign, and I went to his event, he walked out to speak and he saw my dad, and he spent the first three or four minutes telling the crowd how much he loved my dad, and how much the Rebels meant to him growing up here.

And, third, the story of his parents working as a maid and a bartender here in Las Vegas, and now he has an opportunity to be in the White House—that’s just amazing. Fourth, I think he’s the most dynamic speaker without a teleprompter that our country’s had since Ronald Reagan. And he’s right on the money with most of his policy issues, so I hope he wins.

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