Editor’s note: Legendary UNLV basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian died February 11 at the age of 84. The following are reflections on what he meant to the Las Vegas community and the legacy he leaves.
In the beginning, there was this city: Its gods had always operated in half-shadow, so for those of us who lived here, Las Vegas was never half as dark as the world made it out to be. We knew the darkness was painted into the light—or was it vice-versa? In any case, we understood that our town was a complicated place, and we told stories about the complications, about ourselves, about the gods. Every community invents, or at least reinvents, its great men. We invented Ben Siegel, Moe Dalitz, Hank Greenspun, Howard Hughes. We invented Jerry Tarkanian.
The notion, of course, is an affront to the cult of the self-made man. After all, these men sweated and suffered and dodged threats—except when they didn’t dodge the threats. And they built things. Tarkanian, who died February 11 at age 84, built a basketball powerhouse, a cultural phenomenon and, one could argue, a community. He took over a troubled UNLV basketball program in 1973—a team that had won just 13 games the year before and was already under NCAA scrutiny. Tarkanian had been coaching Long Beach State’s squad since 1968. His teams had won 122 games and lost just 20. They had played with precision and patience. The formula was successful. So Tarkanian arrived at UNLV and scrapped it.
Yes, Tarkanian built things. He did it the way any good architect does: with attention to context. He did not carry unvaried blueprints from town to town. He came here, looked at his new city, measured the talents of the speedy players who arrived in his wake, and crafted something revolutionary. He kept the precision and dispensed with the patience.
He built it for us. He built it in response to our peculiar presence, our excessive freedom, our rootlessness, our longing for this to be our home. He understood our civic exceptionalism, our sense that the nation’s rules disrespected its reality, and that there had to be a better way. He had come to the right place.
Tarkanian’s Rebels went 20-6 in his first season, 24-5 in his second, 29-2 in his third, 29-3 in his fourth. In the third year, his team averaged 110.5 points per game and scored 164 in a game at Hawaii Hilo. Both numbers were the best college basketball had ever seen. In the fourth year, his team scored more than 100 points in 12 consecutive games—another record—and went to their first Final Four, where they lost by one point to North Carolina and a freshman named Mike O’Koren, who scored 31 that strange afternoon.
Everything had gone wrong that day, of course: The elbow of Rebel hero Glen Gondrezick had broken the nose of UNLV center Larry Moffett. Rebel floor general Robert Smith, who pretty much never missed a free throw, was ill and missed one that day. Perhaps he would have missed even if he was not ill. But that’s not the way the story goes. Tony Smith had sunk a 40-footer as time expired. Except there was no 3-point goal back then. If there had been a 3-point goal, those Rebels would still be playing, advancing forever in some celestial tournament. Everything had gone wrong, but we were writing a story, and the story needed to go wrong in an early chapter. The bitter must precede the sweet. As we thought about that day, that year, we were already putting down the first verses of the Book of Tark.
It is difficult to explain what it felt like to watch those early Tarkanian teams play. It was something like watching a dust devil lift fallen leaves and spin them down the street. If those games were music, they’d have sounded like Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” an unstoppable swirl of sound and momentum, one motion blending into the next with no discernible dividing line in time. If national commentators never realized that the Rebels’ defense keyed their offense, it was because defense turned into offense so quickly. Every team had to play fast against the Rebels, but no team could play that fast.
It was a greatness different than the greatness of all of the great teams that would follow. In a 19-season Rebel tenure with 509 wins, 105 losses, 12 NCAA tournament appearances and four Final Fours, Tarkanian’s early years stood out like a rare work of art. For those who witness it, the genesis of greatness always has an emotional edge over its worldly apotheosis. The Beatles in Hamburg pack a different jolt than the mop-tops at Shea. For all the majesty of Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony, the Rebels never again felt the way they felt in 1977.
That’s not a bad thing. The Book of Tark has many chapters, each told in a different register. The greatness of the man, remember, had to do with his extraordinary responsiveness to context. The muscular Rebels of 1989 to 1991, who won a national championship and followed it up with thirty-four thirty-fifths of the Greatest Season Ever Played, were not Copland’s Fanfare but Beethoven’s Fifth: They smacked you on the head with their virtuosity, then rinsed and repeated. The defense wasn’t sneaky quick; it was brutal. Let’s try a football metaphor: The Larry Johnson Rebels were Earl Campbell running through you; the Robert Smith-Eddie Owens-Gondo-Reggie Theus Rebels were Gale Sayers, who, as an opponent once put it, could divide himself in two and run around you on both sides at once.
When Robert and Eddie and Gondo and Reggie left, NCAA probation arrived. Some of it had to do with the old investigation of the program under former coach John Bayer. Some of it probably had to do with articles Tarkanian had written in Long Beach calling the NCAA to task for double standards. Some of it had to do with “extra benefits” the Rebels were said to be receiving. The NCAA ordered UNLV to suspend Tarkanian. Tarkanian, however, secured an injunction against the school. Never has a university benefitted so thoroughly from having its hands legally tied.
The years of that first probation (yes, there was that other one, amid the darkness and recriminations of 1991-92) were formative for the Tarkanian myth. The end of the 1970s and the dawn of the ’80s—when the Rebels were absent from the NCAA tournament, their name tarnished and their fortunes seemingly in decline—forced Las Vegans to come to terms with the way the rest of the country looked at our team, our coach and our city. We had to decide how to greet the national media’s unreflective certainty—at once effete and buffoonish—that the Rebels’ gains were ill-gotten and that nothing but rot could possibly emanate from Sin City. Our response during those years—told, like an ancient epic updated for the disco era, at cocktail parties and middle-school lunchrooms—became an enduring part of Las Vegas’ civic identity. It was at once the Epic of Tark and of the Saga of Las Vegas, and it was hard to tell where the concerns of the man ended and those of the city began.
The story that rose around Jerry Tarkanian in those years was novelistic and complex in the same way that the observations of Holden Caulfield were novelistic and complex: The Shark, we said, was a trickster with a heart of gold, a good man who couldn’t resist ripping pages from the rule book when he found them stupid or selectively applied, an overgrown college kid who couldn’t resist un-stuffing stuffed shirts and short-sheeting the residence-hall prefect. He was the Dean of Second Chances.
This much we knew—and all the years that followed, all of the darkness and all of the light, could not shake our certainty: Jerry Tarkanian made dreams come true that couldn’t have come true anywhere else. No other city could have been so elevated by the myth of the righteous misfit. In no other place could this restless, relentless man have transformed a town into a hometown. But even as Tark re-shaped our image, we shaped his. We saw in him an oddball, a Rebel, a Las Vegan. The man had his mysteries, but we were always happy to fill in the blanks. We saw ourselves in him, and wrote ourselves indelibly into the story of his life.