Earl Evans isn’t among the most celebrated UNLV basketball players of all time, but he was one of the most gifted. Unfortunately, his achievements never came close to matching his potential as injuries derailed his professional career. His life ended too soon as well, as Evans died Christmas Eve in Edmond, Okla., at the age of 57.
Evans played for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV from 1977-79, and averaged 16.7 points and 10.2 rebounds in 55 games with the Rebels. He was the Texas High School Player of the Year in 1974, when he averaged 28.6 points and 19.5 rebounds per game as a senior at Dallas’ Lincoln High School, was a Parade All-American and was ranked the No. 2 prep player in the nation behind future NBA Hall of Famer Moses Malone, who that year became the first player to go pro straight out of high school.
Evans initially signed with USC, but the 6-foot-8 forward transferred to UNLV after his sophomore year. After he sat out the 1976-77 season, when the Rebels went to their first Final Four, UNLV was put on two years’ probation, limiting Evans’ national exposure. However, after leading the Rebels in scoring (17.9) and rebounding (10.1) his senior year, including a career-high 37 points against Idaho State, he was invited to play in the Pizza Hut All Star Classic.
The game was played at the Las Vegas Convention Center, and locals who saw it still speak of it with a sense of awe: Evans got the better of Larry Bird, leading all players in the game with 21 points, pulling down eight rebounds, and helping to hold Bird—then an Indiana State superstar fresh from an NCAA Finals showdown with Magic Johnson and Michigan State—to 17 points on 5-for-17 shooting. After Bird was named the game’s MVP, Texas coach Abe Lemons, who had coached Evans’ West team, said, “It didn’t make any sense at all. On that particular day, Earl was the best player on the floor.”
Evans had been selected in the eighth round of the 1978 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons as a junior-eligible player, but elected to return to UNLV for his senior year. He signed with the Pistons in 1979, but spent just one season in the NBA, averaging 4.4 points and 2.1 rebounds as ankle injuries limited him to 36 games.
Although Evans played in a largely forgotten period for UNLV basketball—sandwiched between the glory years of the mid 1970s and the remarkable run from 1982-92—he will always be remembered by those who saw him on the court.
“Earl had more all-around talent than any Rebel I knew, including J.R. Rider or Anthony Bennett,” says former UNLV guard “Sudden” Sam Smith. “Earl was tough. He had more moves than anyone I’d ever seen. He could shoot, he could run, he could handle the ball, he could jump out of the gym, he could defend. Earl had the whole package.”