The Once & Future Rebels

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This story originally appeared in the April 7, 2011 edition of Vegas Seven.

When Jerry Tarkanian arrived at the Indianapolis Hoosier Dome on March 30, 1991, for an NCAA semifinal game against Duke, he brought with him a seemingly invincible Rebel basketball team, the memory of the previous year’s title-game thrashing of the Blue Devils and the dynastic hopes of a fanatically devoted city. By the end of the evening, he had something just as enduring as glory, but more darkly sublime: the beginnings of a destruction myth that has haunted Rebel fans ever since. That night’s shocking loss came to symbolize all the miserable events of the year that followed—the hot-tub photo, the air-duct video, the power struggle, the forced retirement in the spring of 1992. It heralded the dismantling of everything Tarkanian had built in 19 years at UNLV. Everything but the memories.

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Theus and Tarkanian in the 1970s. | UNLV/Collegiate Images/Getty Images

These are the numbers Tarkanian left behind: 12 NCAA Tournaments, four Final Fours, one NCAA Championship. Here are the Rebels’ numbers in the dozen years that followed his untimely departure: four head coaches, four more interim coaches, two NCAA Tournaments, zero games won in those tournaments.

On March 15, 2004, Lon Kruger walked amiably into the rubble and promised to make it right again. It was a fool’s errand, and Kruger very nearly pulled it off. Now that he is gone, whisked away on April Fool’s Day by the University of Oklahoma and its deep war chest while the Nevada Legislature slowly starves UNLV, one is wonder-struck that he endured for seven years, a deceptively wily Kansan among the fast-talking hucksters of the Vegas boom and bust. He never promised more than he could deliver, and he delivered plenty—an average of 25 wins a season over the past five years, four NCAA Tournament appearances, one Sweet 16, zero NCAA violations, thousands of new fans, thousands of old ones regained. There were moments when it almost felt like he’d become a Las Vegan.

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Moses Scurry hollers on SI’s championship-game cover (April 9, 1990).

Somehow, though, the feeling remained unconsummated. The devil was both in the details (the Rebels’ chronic inability to beat San Diego State) and in the broad themes (Kruger’s failure to recruit a reasonable facsimile of Aztec star Kawhi Leonard or speak with a reasonable facsimile of passion). But the real problem lay not in Kruger’s abilities or his personality, but in his occupational predilections: He is the great American handyman; he fixes things and moves on to the next task. It happened in Florida, and at Illinois, and now it has happened here. He gives you the full focus of his formidable mind, but keeps his heart to himself. In the days after he left, slipping comfortably into his new Sooner skin and talking about the proud tradition of Oklahoma hoops, there was a chill of truth in the Vegas air: Kruger was a fine fellow and a very good basketball coach, but he had never been a true Rebel.

• • •

Through 100 years of breakneck growth and all manner of wild reinvention, our tourist town has rarely sought the affection of its businessmen or politicians or university presidents. All we’ve asked is competence, and sometimes not even that. But today, with our civic identity badly shaken—not only by the crash, but by the heedless years that preceded it—this town of quick comings and goings is looking for love and commitment. We want it from our mayor, and it seems we want it from our basketball coach, too. And this time, we’re demanding evidence: a verifiable track record of connection with our peculiar history and folkways. The present is broken, and we’re searching the past for our future.

Thirty months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers and more than a year into what experts in Washington and New York insist on calling a recovery, Las Vegas’ pain endures. Homes remain underwater; owners still quietly leave, leaving bills unpaid and children’s toys on the lawn; half-built condominium towers continue their decay at the far margins of the Valley; and the north end of the Strip has passed into some sort of post-apocalyptic chic. It makes perfect sense that this is the year when we embrace the memory of the mob and relive the tale of Tark the Shark on HBO and search for a coach who will make a final, lasting peace with his troubled and triumphant reign.

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Larry Johnson soaring above the competition. | UNLV photo services

Basketball has never saved an economy, but it can be an odd salve for the civic spirit, an opportunity to commit one’s “I” to the greater “We.” Some might say it’s a just a phantom of community involvement, and they’d probably be right. But in an immigrant city that must spend its days and nights fulfilling tourist fantasies, engagement has to start somewhere. There are worse things than to fall in love with one’s city—and perhaps the city’s university—through its basketball team. People reach for reasons to connect, reasons to believe, and even on April Fool’s Day—when Kruger’s departure was not a joke but mayoral candidate Carolyn Goodman’s announcement of Las Vegas’ new NBA franchise was—the city’s fans kept right on reaching.

Fandom, though, is a sublime torment. It is insidious and infectious; it makes unnecessary and unreasonable demands on the heart. It introduces us to moments that loom larger with passing time rather than fading. It transforms moments into narrative, narrative into myth, and myth into obsession: In the beginning, there was only darkness. Then Jerry Tarkanian turned his sad eyes to the desert floor and the stones began to shift and an arena grew where once there was none and, lo, a town became a community and the community began telling itself the story of how it all had come to pass.

The story, like all creation myths, has been both a blessing and a burden. Once we accepted the narrative that basketball had, in some way, made us a community, we also granted it the power to unmake us: The battles between supporters of Tarkanian and UNLV President Robert Maxson in the 1990s were not provincial skirmishes over intercollegiate athletics but total wars for the soul of a city. Some fans became as devoted to the battle as they had been to the team; over time, thoughts of the university faded, and of the city, too, and all that remained for them was a devotion to rival aesthetics of self-presentation: slick vs. square, cynical realism vs. airy sanctimony.

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David Rice (right) celebrates the 1990 NCAA title with Tarkanian and teammates

Meanwhile, a more wholesome nostalgia endured, one dedicated to the beauty of the basketball itself. When the Tarkanian era ended, we were left with all this useless beauty hovering in our memory: His teams played with a sort of balletic violence; the defense created chaos, and the offense turned chaos into art. It was like watching a dust devil take form and tear through everything in its path, subjecting every tumbleweed and Albertsons sack to its fierce and playful will.
How could any fan have seen such a thing and not long devoutly for its return?

• • •

The notion that the past can be restored is, of course, a sort of illness—a weird, pleasurable illness—and one Kruger was well aware of when he arrived. He understood that his task within Rebel mythology was to ensure that the post-Tarkanian period was over and prepared for entry into the Rebel Book of Days as a completed chapter under the title “The Interregnum.”

His first great victory was securing Tarkanian’s blessing. His second was to reanimate the heroes who were slain that day in Indianapolis—Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony—and convince their revivified Rebel souls to return to the embrace of the alma mater.

The séance seemed to work: Even in Kruger’s first season, when the Rebels went 17-14, there was some strange magic at play: On Feb. 12, 2005, exactly 15 years after Anthony broke his jaw against Fresno State and cemented his Vegas legend, Kruger’s Rebels came back from 10 points down with 28 seconds left to defeat San Diego State. The next year’s media guide featured the words, “The Fever’s Back.”

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Kruger getting a message across to Oscar Bellfield, Chace Stanback and Derrick Jasper. | Photo by R. Marsh Starks/UNLV photo services

Kruger had gotten out in front of the Vegas memory boom, picking up on the same need Mayor Oscar Goodman had spotted—a Las Vegas that forgets what it was might wind up not being Las Vegas at all. But Kruger’s sense was more remarkable than Goodman’s—Goodman, after all, had lived the history; Kruger, on the other hand, was utterly alien to this place. His sunny, bland and uncompromisingly ethical approach to life brought nothing to mind so much as the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz without all the dancing. He played dumb with the press—I thought our guys came out with a lot of energy, and you’re always happy to come out with a win—but it was plenty clear he had a brain.

Three years after Kruger’s arrival, he cajoled 30 wins out of a inspiringly unified yeoman squad. When the team flew home on March 18, 2007, after defeating second-seeded Wisconsin in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, adoring fans greeted them at McCarran International Airport. It was the Rebels’ first moment in the national spotlight since Anderson Hunt had missed his last-second 3-pointer against Duke 16 years earlier. It almost felt like the old days. Almost.

• • •

The visions of the Rebels’ future that surfaced in the days after Kruger announced his departure seemed replete with longing to somehow stitch the Tarkanian era directly to the to 2011-12 season. The two leading candidates, Reggie Theus and David Rice, both played under Tarkanian; there was nary a whisper that Kruger’s top assistant, Steve Henson, might be considered. On newspaper comment threads and social media, it was clear that the city was hungry for one of its own. Even among fans immune to fiscal restraint, there was no outcry for a big-name savior as there had been in 2001 when the Rebels whiffed in their attempt to hire Rick Pitino, or in 2004 when many erstwhile Tarkanian supporters threw their weight behind George Karl. This time, with the city reeling but the basketball program—thanks to Kruger—stable and perhaps on the verge of something special, Las Vegas wants a Rebel.

For Rebel fans, the prospects were thrilling. Theus had been a dazzling guard on Tarkanian’s 1976-77 Final Four team, an NBA star, a successful head coach at New Mexico State from 2005-07 and, for 18 months, a somewhat less successful head coach of the Sacramento Kings. Rice, meanwhile, was a popular reserve guard on Tarkanian’s 1990 national championship squad and an assistant at UNLV to Tarkanian, Bill Bayno and Charlie Spoonhour. Since 2005 he has been an assistant at BYU.

After seven years in which the party line was that Kruger had healed the gaping wounds of the post-Tark era, it was fascinating to follow the way they were pried open again as rival camps formed around Theus and Rice. Theus became—with no small help from Tark himself, who was swift and impolitic with his initial endorsement (he later balanced his praise of both candidates)—the choice of the Tarkanian forces. Rice, meanwhile, found himself bizarrely framed in comment threads as the candidate of the squares. Perhaps his symbolic potential as a direct conduit to the golden age is sullied by his exposure to the coaches of the Interregnum Years. Or could it be that Rice—a Rhodes Scholar candidate with a 3.95 GPA at UNLV—bears the stain of seeming too much like Kruger, a straight arrow with no understanding of the special physics of Las Vegas, where the rakishly crooked reputedly fly farthest?

On April 2—the anniversary of the Rebels’ 1990 national championship—a third candidate appeared: Larry Johnson, the greatest Rebel ever to put on a uniform, a man who exists in the Vegas imagination precisely as his 21-year-old self, sprinting to the sideline after a loose ball and firing it behind his back to a teammate in the 1990 title game. This vision is utterly uncomplicated by a coaching résumé. It would make sense to acknowledge Johnson as an outstanding potential assistant, whether to Theus or Rice. But here was the Las Vegas Review-Journal reporting in absolute earnest Johnson’s candidacy for the head job. It was absurd and wonderful and disturbing and utterly pure—nostalgia undiluted by either passing time or reason.

• • •

Las Vegas history runs in periodic spurts of in-the-moment heedlessness and nostalgic exploration of lost pasts. Outside the increasingly quiet environs of the Thomas & Mack Center, Las Vegas in 2004 was in a deeply unreflective mood. Kruger had arrived in a city that was building schools, hiring teachers, planning libraries and community centers, sketching out new dream hotels and tearing down old ones to make way. It was a Valley that imagined overflowing itself, spilling over the mountains, merging with Sloan, maybe even Jean, oozing down Interstate 15, surrounding a new international airport on a prehistoric dry lake bed in Ivanpah. It was a town of swinging county commisioners and invincible real-estate sharps, a city that had all but dismissed the hoary notion of crafting a desert community and was fanatically intent on transforming itself into Manhattan without the pesky Landmarks Commission. It was a Las Vegas that felt itself defiantly not in need of help—except in one area: It wanted to ease the pain of losing Tark, and the only way to do so was to make UNLV basketball great again.

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R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Photo Services

The pain, at that moment, was just sharp enough that the city was willing to accept not only an outsider—we’ve got no qualms with taking an outsider so long as he knows how to speak Vegas—but precisely the wrong kind of outsider. In a city where success means never having to say you’re sorry, Kruger was a square—a nonjudgmental square, mind you, and that was his saving grace—but a man who actually breathed the words, “We’re going to run a clean program. I’d have no satisfaction in winning if we didn’t.”

No satisfaction in winning? Where the hell did this guy think he was?

Kruger’s teams played frantic, inspiring defense and a patchwork perimeter offense that was never pretty but strangely successful. The Rebels shot too many 3-pointers and made too few of them. They went through games at a time without acknowledging the existence of their big men. Kruger substituted with metronomic regularity, seemingly with no reference to whether the player exiting the game was in a flow or not. But if he never brought Las Vegas the hoops wholeness it dreamed of, he did win, and the wins were satisfying. There was no greatness in the Kruger era, but surely there was a kind of goodness worth celebrating.

Vegas Seven

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