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Jerry Tarkanian, legendary UNLV men's basketball coach, gave Las Vegas sports fans hometown team.
Jerry Tarkanian, legendary UNLV men's basketball coach, gave Las Vegas sports fans hometown team. Courtesy photo/The Coast News graphic
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Tarkanian put Las Vegas on the sports map

Another college basketball season has come to an end. It only brings reflections of many evenings sitting and talking to a legend. Being with him was like walking with Elvis. They shared the same town, Las Vegas, and both became icons of the desert.

UNLV, a school once known as “Tumbleweed Tech,” became a powerful college basketball program, and Jerry Tarkanian, the legend, was the coach.

It has been said that a ticket to the Runnin’ Rebels game at the Las Vegas Convention Center (capacity: 6,800) was harder to get your hands on than tickets to a Frank Sinatra performance.

At the time, there was nothing there in the desert. No sports teams of any value. Mostly everything revolved around casino and gaming life. Vegas was a transient city whose people had no one to look up to or root for. Until Tark the Shark arrived in 1973, that is.

His job was to build a basketball program and so he did — one that become a brand that spread quickly and universally. The Rebels were America’s team in college hoops, Las Vegas embraced them and fans traveled everywhere to support them.

I met Tarkanian late in life and for over 20 years, we were the best of friends. A friendship that was valued and nurtured. A friendship that sparkled and was filled with more fun and excitement than one could ever suspect. Being with him was truly like being with Elvis.

Tark was larger than life. The fun was immeasurable.

Tarkanian was beloved. On the many hundreds of times we were in attendance at great events, gatherings, parties and functions, he was so gracious and so in tune with the room. Tark loved people and he loved conversation. His humor was genuine and his laugh contagious. People migrated to him. He was a magnet.

But more so, Tarkanian was a basketball coach and a damn good one, priding himself on teaching the game the right way. He cared about all people, not only the underdog or the person of color who was rejected by other universities. Tark gave second chances to those who might have had no other options. He saw no color.

I have hundreds of memories and life experiences with him that I could share. Never a dull moment and many, many laughs were always a part of the deal. He was just one tremendous human being.

Like the time he drove to the Thomas & Mack Center, which succeeded the Convention Center as UNLV’s home court. On this occasion, he arrived only to find the place empty and locked. He forgot it was Christmas Day. He always praised his wife, Lois, for leading him to the education route (Fresno State) where he and Sid Craig, husband of Jenny Craig, were roommates.

Or when the Chairman of the Board himself, Sinatra, called Tarkanian personally and asked why his bodyguard (Jilly Rizzo) had been taken off the back door pass list. Tark thought it was a prank call. But it was really Sinatra calling and thanking him in advance. Jilly was immediately reinstated. When the man who helps you raise millions for your athletic programs calls, you listen.

Or when his team landed in Laramie, Wyoming, 7,165 feet above sea level. One of his wacky players ran to him before exiting the bus, asking if the Rebels could play at this elevation, noting its thin air. Tark replied, “That’s outside. We’re playing inside.”

He created Gucci Row for top-line casino executives to have a great seat to the hardest ticket in town, an event filled with indoor pyrotechnics and a light show that has since been copied by every NBA franchise. UNLV had a consecutive sellout streak that lasted years.

He might have been recognized as the most powerful man in Las Vegas. The only thing, he didn’t know it. All he knew was that he was a basketball coach. Tark never had a losing season in his career, earning more than 700 wins at three universities. In 19 seasons at UNLV, he was 509-105.

Basketball fans adored the Runnin’ Rebels. They built their brand and ironclad following from the ground up, and Tarkanian was the center of attention and in command. He never disappointed.

Tark would bite on a wet towel the entire game. Something that began when he was a high school basketball coach in Pasadena. People still remember that more than the fact that he led UNLV to the NCAA championship in 1990 in addition to four Final Four appearances.

Tark sued the NCAA and won. They tortured him for years and pressured UNLV to fire him. His own school president, Robert Maxson, jealous of the attention and love that was showered on Tark, turned on him. But one thing always remained: Las Vegas was Tark’s town and he didn’t go easy. He brought a losing town to national prominence. He was their guy.

Tarkanian was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2013. He questioned if he would ever get in. He thought his decades-long legal battle with the NCAA would keep him out. He was wrong. He was voted in and I can tell you he was so honored and elated. Not to mention, deserving.

In a town known for its stars, he was the brightest one. One who roamed the sidelines of a basketball court like none other. A basketball genius, and born to coach.

Tarkanian passed on Feb. 11, 2015, in Las Vegas. The Strip went dark. And its light will never be the same again. He put Vegas on the sports map and those who knew him will never forget this man. I surely won’t.