The most prominent moment in the 30-year history of the Thomas & Mack Center very nearly didn’t happen. It was April 5, 1984, less than six months after the arena opened. The NBA’s Utah Jazz, with attendance dwindling in Salt Lake City, had scheduled 11 games here that season, including one against the Los Angeles Lakers and superstar Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who took the T&M court that night needing 23 points to overtake Wilt Chamberlain as the NBA’s all-time leading scorer.
With the Lakers comfortably ahead early in the fourth quarter, Abdul-Jabbar was on the bench, just four points from breaking the record. The team played in Los Angeles the following night, so it seemed likely he would not return to the court. However, in his desire to end the media attention, Abdul-Jabbar asked to come back in the game, thrilling the crowd of 18,359, and set the record on a 12-foot sky hook over 7-foot-4 Jazz center Mark Eaton with 8:53 left in the Lakers’ 129-115 victory.
Before the Thomas & Mack existed, such a moment would never have happened in Las Vegas. Even though the city had already established its “Entertainment Capital of the World” reputation by 1983, our city was without a venue that could back that boast. The Aladdin’s Theatre for the Performing Arts, which opened in 1976, was a great place to catch touring musical acts, but its seating capacity was 7,500. And the Convention Center’s rotunda provided an almost familial feel for UNLV basketball games, but with just 6,300 seats, the venue made Rebel tickets a tough get for the common fan.
That changed after two Nevada bankers, E. Parry Thomas and Jerry Mack, established the Nevada Southern University Land Foundation and donated $500,000 for feasibility studies and initial architecture renderings for a new arena, and also helped UNLV acquire the land for the project. Ground was broken on October 21, 1981, and after a construction cost of $30 million, the Thomas & Mack Center opened on November 21, 1983, with the Runnin’ Rebels hosting the University of Victoria, Canada, in an exhibition game.
The new arena classed up Las Vegas right away. The grand-opening gala on December 16 featured entertainment by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Diana Ross, who stepped in for an injured Sammy Davis Jr., and included the UNLV basketball team wearing white tuxedos and red-and-white Nikes. Rebels coach Jerry Tarkanian worried that the 18,500-seat arena would be impossible to fill for basketball games, but he was quickly proven wrong as his perennial Top 20 team drew sellout crowds regularly. UNLV also was dominant at the Mack under Tarkanian, going 130-6 at home through the coach’s final season in 1991-92.
The House That Tark Built also has hosted a variety of other sports teams over the last three decades, most notably the Thunder of the International Hockey League for six years (1993-99), along with two Arena Football League teams (Sting and Gladiators), two indoor soccer teams (Americans and Dustdevils), a roller hockey team (Flash) and a few minor league basketball teams.
Starting with Loverboy on December 18, 1983, the T&M became the top concert venue in town before casinos began adding their own facilities a decade later. And since 1985, the National Finals Rodeo has called the arena home, attracting more than 170,000 fans each year for its annual 10-day run. The T&M has also hosted the Professional Bull Riders World Finals since 1999, plus two ArenaBowls, numerous championship boxing matches, wrestling events, ice skating shows, graduation ceremonies, equestrian events, tractor pulls and even the 2007 NBA All-Star Game.
The Lakers also play an exhibition game at the T&M every year, but maybe, somehow, we can entice them to play another regular-season game here.
After all, Kobe Bryant is only 6,770 points behind Kareem.