On March 25, 1990, the defensive samurai Stacey Augmon, who had averaged 13 points a game for a UNLV basketball team that did not need him to score much, went on the offensive. Thirty-three points later, he left the game—it was no ordinary game, mind you, but the West Regional finals of the NCAA tournament—and was greeted by his coach. “You played as well,” Jerry Tarkanian told him, “as any forward could possibly play.”
Who, one wonders, was guarding that man?
The Los Angeles Times put it this way: “whoever was bold enough or close enough to try, sometimes two at a time.”
UNLV 131, Loyola Marymount 101. This was the moment when we Las Vegans began to feel invincible. We certainly hadn’t felt that way after the Rebels’ 69-67 victory over Ball State two days earlier. But on that Sunday in the ponderously named Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum Arena, the Rebels had been everything we dreamed them to be, everything we knew them to be, the extension of our own self-image as a dazzling, swaggering, misunderstood city on the brink. Only we understood what Las Vegas really meant to this great nation of ours—that we were not its wicked id, but its vital, beating heart.
That spring’s big meme portrayed a potential Duke-UNLV championship game as a Manichean struggle between Good and Evil. The narrative cast the kids from Las Vegas as outlaws and thugs. For Rebel fans, it took no great sociological leap to see that Augmon and his teammates were vilified not simply for their swagger or their school or their beloved Shark, but for the peculiar place where they lived. Within four years, Time would proclaim our sinful town, on the cover no less, “The New All-American City.” But in 1990, we were still alone in our self-belief. And it felt so good. Lois Tarkanian once described the feeling to me as “electric togetherness,” and if I can’t seem to stop using the phrase, it’s only because it’s so perfect that it has no synonym.
The triumphant Rebels returned home from Oakland for a brief stay before leaving for the Final Four in Denver. Las Vegas had already been through two heartbreaking UNLV losses in the Final Four—in 1977 and 1987, by a combined five points—but the performance against Loyola bore the unmistakable scent of greatness. The preseason media guide had made a bold promise: “The Big Year Is Here.” Now it was down to the Big Week. All through those long, late-March days, the desert air crackled with sweet tension. UNLV dispatched Georgia Tech in the national semifinal, and the showdown with Duke was set. We were ready, a whole Valley’s worth of chip-on-the-shoulder dreamers: The Good vs. Evil storyline had fused us with our team. It’s a fan’s most sacred cliché to refer to his favorite team as “we.” But that week we felt justified in believing that, when victory came, it would indeed be “ours”—all of ours.
The record shows that on April 2, 1990, our Rebels defeated Duke 103-73 to win the NCAA championship. No title game has ever been a bigger blowout. “You can call us bad guys,” UNLV forward Larry Johnson said. “You can call us thugs. You can call us hoodlums. But please, at the end of that, just put ‘national champions.’” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, who before the game had been a model of graciousness, telling anyone who would listen that when he looked at the Rebels he saw no evil, was equally classy afterward: “They’re better than us.”
The Rebels returned home to their adoring city. There was a parade down Fremont Street, when Fremont Street still looked like a street. The glorious year 1990 ended, as all years must.
In the spring of 1991, in the national semifinals, Krzyzewski’s Blue Devils cast the Rebels out of heaven. UNLV had been 34-0; national commentators had spoken about them less as villains than as conquerors. The world had asked: Are the Rebels the best college team of all time? We had answered: Yes. It had all ended with two free throws by Christian Laettner.
Less than two months later, the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a 1989 snapshot of four men in a hot tub. Three were Rebels, one was a guy whose nickname was “The Fixer.” In the weeks that followed, Las Vegans split into mutually loathing battle camps: One side supported UNLV President Robert Maxson, who—tired of the tireless NCAA gumshoes who had pursued the university for two decades—believed he might remove the school’s black hat by removing its basketball coach. Tarkanian’s supporters, meanwhile, reasoned that the perception of Vegas villainy came with the territory, a figment of the stunted national imagination. What did it mean to be a Rebel if not to laugh off the haters and just keep winning?
On July 7, Tarkanian announced that he would retire at the end of the 1991-92 season. Our city was just beginning its magnificent rise, but the electric togetherness was already over.
Twenty-five years. A quarter of a century remembering a feeling that we can’t seem to recapture. We try to explain it to the newcomers: There were about 750,000 of us in the county back then; now there are more than 2 million. That’s a lot of explaining. It would be so much easier if the feeling could only come back. But, suppose—dream, really—that our Rebels could once again rise to that level. Would they ever truly be “ours” in the same way? Would “electric togetherness” ever return?
Let’s go to the tape:
⇐ In 1990, Green Valley was a few years old, Summerlin was just breaking ground, Maryland Parkway was still the center of the local universe, and most Rebel fans could get home from work, pull on a red sweatshirt and drive to the Thomas & Mack Center in 15 minutes. Try doing that these days from Lone Mountain and Fort Apache. Sprawl—which scattered the Rebel fan base just as the post-Tark program was falling into disarray—doesn’t kill civic unity, but it makes it a lot more tempting to stay home for a syndicated episode of Shark Tank.
⇐ In 1990, Republicans and Democrats still spoke to one another, shoppers still shopped at stores and your physician was self-employed. Now my family doctor, who’s been practicing here since the day after the Big Bang, finds himself Employee Number 8429 of a national health care corporation. He’s still there, but all the old waiting-room pictures of him with Las Vegas celebrities are gone. (“What’s that got to do with electric togetherness?” you ask. Well, you try ginning up some civic love under these conditions.)
⇐ In 1990, Steve Wynn was just sinking his teeth into the Strip, and into the idea of being a Vegas King. Now he’s outgrown us, become an emperor and, reasonably enough, is focused on the real growth opportunity, which happens to be on an island off the Chinese coast.
⇐ In 1990, Sheldon Adelson was turning the ring-a-ding Sands into a convention empire, which would evolve into the Venetian. Now he is not only, like Wynn, a viceroy in the Chinese casino biz, but one of the most powerful political insiders in the world.
⇐ In 1990, Downtown meant Jackie Gaughan, who was keeping the Vegas in Vegas. Now, Downtown means Tony Hsieh, who is putting the Bay Area in Vegas.
So every sign in our jaded, impersonal, adversarial, digitally addled, geographically scattered 21st-century metropolis says that electric togetherness is gone for good.
But of course it’s not. Winning, like cash, changes everything. In our crazy, mixed-up world, the problems of one little college basketball team don’t amount to a hill of beans. But the victories of such a team would add up to a whole lot of beans. If a latter-day Stacey Augmon—perhaps under the tutelage of the original—were to lead the Rebels to the land of silk and money, our imperial Las Vegans would sail in from the farthest reaches of the realm and wash up on the beaches of Gucci Row.
And when they looked up into the stands, we’d all be there to greet them.