Ken Johann’s Hemingway-like visage nearly disappears in a tobacco cloud. Decades of Winstons have produced a deep, raspy voice. My throat and lungs nearly seize. When UNLV soccer coach Rich Ryerson calls to ask if Johann wants to accompany him to the Rebels’ basketball game that night, the octogenarian booms:
“Does a bear shit in the woods?”
Ryerson cackles from Johann’s portable phone. Johann (pronounced JOE-han, because this guy’s American, dammit) keeps a straight face as sunlight splashes him through three large picture windows that feature the sixth green of the Las Vegas Country Club. His sharp khaki-felt Country Gentleman Dickens hat is tilted just right.
He sucks another Winston. He is quite pleased that he pays only 48 bucks for three cartons, every other month. The next package, he says, is due in the next day or two. Each cellophane-wrapped pack bears a small green seal from REPUBLICA MOLDOVA, which is surrounded by Ukraine and Romania. The bottom third of each red box screams FUMATUL UCIDE—Smoking Kills—in black type against a white background.
Two friends have tried to coax Johann to quit.
“Fuck that!” he says. “I’ve been smoking for 75 years, since I was 13.” Since he was shining shoes in Times Square, and working the turnstiles at the Polo Grounds and Yankee Stadium.
He gave two padded bench chairs from the 1990 Final Four—the one UNLV won over Duke at McNichols Arena in Denver—to UNLV coach Dave Rice. Johann beams when he says he has heard that Rice allows recruits to sit in those prestigious perches when they visit.
Johann howls when he recalls Moses Scurry getting sooo sick that championship night in Larry Johnson’s hotel room; Johann had presented both with magnums of champagne. That night, he danced barefoot with other UNLV boosters. The next year in Indianapolis, after Duke shocked the Rebels in a national semifinal game, Johann was so incensed he declined to sell his two title-game tickets to Blue Devils fans. He waves them like trophies in the office nook of his comfortable home.
We pass Lucy, his 2-year-old parrot in the sky-lighted atrium. He once kept 28 parrots, parakeets and other birds in a big cage in his Maryland Parkway real estate office.
We pass his dusty gray 2005 Jaguar, with only 15,000 miles of wear, hibernating in the garage. Ryerson and Jeff Wale, a former UNLV soccer player, regularly supply Johann with provisions and take him to see the Rebels play basketball, football and soccer. (Las Vegas soccer fans will recognize the Johann surname. After his son Peter died in a hang-gliding accident in 1974, Ken donated an annual scholarship to the Rebels and had the pitch dedicated as Peter Johann Memorial Field.)
Over a lunch of fish and chips, Johann sips a vodka and cranberry juice and smokes another cigarette. He moved from New York in 1948 and eventually eased into real estate, making deals on some prime Strip property. He retired a couple of years ago, celebrating by taking a few relatives and close friends on a weeklong deep-sea fishing excursion off Cabo San Lucas. The blue hooded sweatshirts he had made for his two dozen guests read KEN’S LAST HURRAH.
He has had six season tickets, in Section 107, since the Thomas & Mack Center opened in 1983. They’re about halfway down, but lately he has traded for seats on the concourse level so he doesn’t have to navigate stairs. He relishes triple-digit games by the Rebels and roaring student sections, and he calls star freshman Anthony Bennett “a whip.”
Johnson and Scurry occupy a favored place in his memory, but Johann hesitates when asked which Rebel he was most fond of. “I loved them all. I can’t say I have a favorite one. But I always kid Mo about that champagne every time I see him … Oh, that night!”
Johann’s passion for UNLV belies his gruff demeanor. “I grew up with the university. I think about the old days … There are a lot of memories—good memories.”