If the tales its rivals tell are to be believed, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball team has blackjack tables at courtside, Howard Hughes as its athletic director, the point spread on the scoreboard, laundered money, Robert Vesco's jet and horizontally striped uniforms, complete with balls and chains.
All of the above is merely the wailing of disappointed men. The fact is that the most lurid thing about the UNLV team is its nickname—the Rebels. Sure, Las Vegas has dazed its opposition by averaging almost as many points as the Golden State Warriors and dazzled some of its recruits by having Frank Sinatra croon to them. Indeed, the plush Strip is within easy walking distance of the campus, and the coach is considered a fugitive from justice by many of his peers. But in the eyes of their opponents, the most irritating thing about the Rebels, who were unheralded before the season, is the quiet way in which they have built a glittering 24-1 record. In a town replete with unfulfilled promises, UNLV has become that rarest of rarities, an almost sure thing.
And Las Vegas' foes are not likely to stop complaining. Even though most of the Rebels' victories have been against weak opponents, they have looked so impressive that they are a genuine threat to break the bank when NCAA tournament time rolls around next month.
In one game a wary opponent attempted to slow down the tempo and Las Vegas scored only 69 points—in the first half. The Rebels are pumping in 108.8 per game and shooting to break the collegiate record of 105.1 set by Oral Roberts in 1972. Meanwhile, Coach Jerry Tarkanian is improving his record as the winningest active coach at a major college; he has won 85.9% of his games in eight seasons. Tarkanian also leads the nation in biting things—fingernails and towels, but never the hand that feeds him—and in being most investigated and persecuted for some alleged white-collar crime. The NCAA has everybody except Fearless Fosdick on his case, but Tark the Shark continues to proclaim his innocence. Either Tarkanian is being unjustly hounded, or he is the most steadfast stonewaller since Watergate.
Perhaps the investigators' senses have been knocked askew from watching too many of the Rebels' SRO home-game spectaculars. The school is located only half a mile from the glitter of the Strip, and a lot of show biz rubs off. A visiting coach once showed up wearing a tuxedo. Players are introduced in the darkened Convention Center as a band plays, fans clap and whirling, multicolored spotlights zigzag wildly. Stars such as Wayne Newton, Bill Cosby and Totie Fields stare from the stands, mesmerized by behind-the-back passes, between-the-legs dribbles, over-the-rainbow jump shots and a helter-skelter offense that needs only start and finish lines to turn into a genuine track meet. No wonder everyone in the city has tired eyes.
It is a mistake to laugh off Las Vegas as an uncontrolled bunch of outlaws, even if Assistant Coach Ralph Readout once worked in a reformatory. The Rebels' style may be high tempo, but they play with discipline and intelligence. They practice long and hard, with Tarkanian screaming at them like the boss of a chain gang, and they are not allowed to converse during pregame meals on the road. Las Vegas picks apart zone defenses, is impossible to press and defends tenaciously. Guard Glen Gondrezick took so many charging fouls last year that he developed a cyst on his chest and needed an operation. The Rebels have beaten good teams—Michigan, Arizona, New Mexico and Houston—and their average margin of victory is 20.9 points, partly because they mashed one hapless opponent, Cal, Irvine, by 72.
The Rebels' success is predicated on their explosive offense. Vegas was down by nine points at halftime against Nevada, Reno, scored 75 points in the second half and won easily. After Las Vegas came to Albuquerque and beat New Mexico, losing Coach Norm Ellenberger said, "We've never seen such quick hands. They're the best ever to come in here."
As good as the Rebels are, none of their fans are getting flush on them—at least not legally. Las Vegas betting shops, which handle action on college games all over the country, are not allowed to list UNLV contests. This is fine with a lot of Rebel supporters, many of whom complained when the band played Jesus Christ Superstar at a game this season. And how many teams have a backer who wears an orange "Jesus Is The Lord" shirt while watching his team play? He is the same man who rode his bicycle to Tempe, Ariz. last year to see the Rebels perform in the NCAA West regional.
Despite his glittering records at Long Beach State and Las Vegas, Tarkanian has not slept well for years. The NCAA probably has a wanted poster of him hanging in its mailroom. He built Long Beach into a national power during his five years there, using mostly junior-college transfers, a breed that has as bad a reputation as New Jersey politicians. Long Beach eventually was put on probation by the NCAA, but by then Tarkanian had moved to Las Vegas. Some thought "escaped" was a better verb. The Long Beach president subsequently proposed to the NCAA that a coach who leaves an institution that is put on probation be put on probation himself at his new school. It is commonly called "The Tarkanian Rule."
The NCAA is investigating Tarkanian anew. It has interviewed all of his present and former players, and the majority of those he tried unsuccessfully to recruit. Not long ago sleuths were going through old campus parking tickets to see if Tark had fixed those his players had received, and an investigator visited a local automobile dealer to determine what kind of car Ricky Sobers, now a rookie guard with the NBA Suns, drove when he played for Las Vegas. "It was a '68 Mustang," says Tarkanian. "He was probably the only All-America in the country driving a '68."
Tarkanian's wife Lois is his avenging angel. She is writing a book about the NCAA and coaches who live in glass houses. If everything she says is true, its title could be: Graft Is Their Craft. "We heard that the NCAA told one coach that Jerry was trying to blackmail its investigators with prostitutes and marijuana," says Lois. "We're neurotic here. How would you like to live 4½ years with people asking you questions every day? Now they're checking into where our players get their clothes. They wear T shirts and jeans. Well, once in a while Reggie Theus will look nice, but he had those clothes in high school. And they want to know who paid for our house." That is the five-bedroom, $100,000 edifice with the swimming pool, the Jacuzzi and the high-ceilinged, air-conditioned garage with a basketball goal inside so the kids can play during the hot summers.
Before junior Forward Jackie Robinson's mother died last year of cancer, she gave Lois a notarized statement condemning an NCAA investigator for harassment. The Tarkanians briefly considered adopting Robinson, but the plan was dropped, probably because Tarkanian yells at him so much in practice that Robinson did not want to have to listen to more of the same at home.
"The NCAA's always buggin' us," says Forward Theus. "Look, if they want to get you, they'll get you," says Robinson. "All schools do something illegal. They have to, because the money they are allowed to give the players isn't enough to live on. I was considering quitting school because I didn't have money for food and no parents to give me any. The place I lived in last year was like Watts, holes in the wall and everything."
"He didn't have rugs on the floor," interrupts teammate Robert Smith. "He had dirt."
"Now I live with my girl friend," continues Robinson. "One NCAA guy asked me if they gave me $100,000 to come to school. I said, 'If somebody offered me that, I'd take it, and I wouldn't tell you about it.' Wow, $100,000! They don't even offer Jabbars that much. I can't change no program around."
Tarkanian still can laugh, a little. He saw a friend in a new Thunderbird and said, "If I were driving that, the NCAA would machine-gun it." And after John Whisenhant, an assistant at New Mexico who also has been investigated by the NCAA, kidded Tarkanian about joining the Las Vegas staff, Tark said, "If I hired you, the NCAA would parachute in the investigators."
In more serious moments Tarkanian claims the NCAA, which will release the results of its preliminary investigation of Las Vegas soon, has nothing on him. He says he has been so cautious that he makes school boosters carry copies of the NCAA recruiting rule book.
Unfortunately for him, Tarkanian looks the part of a master criminal. He is short and balding and has dark circles under his eyes. He is so nervous that he bites his fingernails down to where it hurts to look at them. And he is superstitious. Tark keeps two towels under his seat at courtside and munches on them during games. Other rituals range from the selection of clothing and hotel rooms to strict procedures for pregame walks and handshakes. Then there is the clipboard that sits on the seat next to him. Once he forgot to take it to an away game, and Manager Gil Castillo, who has been with Tarkanian for seven years, had to return to Las Vegas to retrieve it.
Tarkanian's players have one major criticism of him; they say he is too hard on them. During preseason conditioning drills he made them wear 20-pound weighted jackets, and they complain that he never congratulates them after a good game. "Aw, they all want to be kissed on the ear," responds Tarkanian.
By keeping his kisses to a minimum, Tarkanian has won 12 league championships in 13 years of coaching on the junior-and major-college levels. While he was at Long Beach, his teams had never dropped a home game. When the Rebels lost to Texas Tech in the Convention Center two years ago, one of only two defeats there under Tarkanian, booster Sig Rogich went home and threw up. Rogich was the man who lured Tark to Las Vegas with an offer that was widely reported to include a $22,000 salary, a house, furniture, two cars, an unlimited expense account, free medical and dental care, houses and cars for his two assistant coaches and a $3,000 clothing allowance.
Tarkanian's record is outstanding, but the statistic his players like best is the one that shows he is averaging better than one man in the pros for each year of major-college coaching. "He's hard to play for, but he gets the most out of you," says Robinson. "He sees everything," says Forward Eddie Owens. "It's almost a privilege to play for him, looking at some of the people he has turned out." The best are Sobers, Ed Ratleff (Houston Rockets) and Leonard Gray (Seattle SuperSonics), and even though Tarkanian's teams are usually high-scoring, all three players made quick reputations with their pro teams for their defensive expertise.
And Tarkanian has not always been playing with $100 chips. When he was in high school, Gondrezick wrote two letters to UCLA and never received a reply. Several other Rebels were barely recruited by other colleges. Tarkanian is most proud of landing Theus, because he is the first player Tark has ever signed whom UCLA also wanted.
The player who most frustrates Tarkanian is Lewis Brown, a 6'10" reserve center who, the coach says, "could be the best big man in the country." At practices Brown lumbers around, shooting weird, off-balance shots. "He keeps me mad at him all the time," says Tarkanian, "but he's a nice kid, an honest kid."
Tarkanian parcels out playing time almost evenly among eight players, only one of whom is a senior. Leading scorer Owens is averaging 23.2 points, even though he is playing only 27 minutes a game. Unless Brown is making a rare appearance with the regulars, the Rebels start what amounts to four forwards, each of them 6'7", and a guard, six-footer Robert Smith. "We eat up those slow, fat forwards," says Owens, a half-Japanese lefthander with a quick first step and a deft outside shot.
Boyd (King Cobra) Batts, the only senior among the top eight players, is the Rebel captain, an honor he takes seriously. Tarkanian has had to talk to him about riding his teammates too hard. After one game the Cobra complained to a reporter, "We'd be better if everybody'd quit trying to lead the country in scoring and stop throwing showboat passes that you can't catch." Assistant Coach Readout gave Batts his nickname, because "he slithers around, then strikes at you."
Unlike most run-and-shoot teams, Las Vegas has time for solid defense. "Tark calls the blocked shot the worst play in basketball," says Theus. "He wants us to take the charging fouls."
"And everybody takes them," says Gondrezick. "Even Lewis."
Gondrezick takes so many that he could get a job as a bull's-eye, and the fans love him for it. Las Vegas merchants are sold out of the extra-high socks he wears—they are called Gondo Socks—as well as an item called Gondo Shirts.
Still, this is a team of hot shooters, and the best is JC transfer and reserve Guard Sam Smith. He scored seven points in 15 seconds once this season. Smith previously played at Oklahoma's Seminole Junior College, where, he says, "There'd be 200 people in the stands. Indians on the one side—cowboys on the other." Shooting came naturally at Seminole.
Las Vegas receives a lot of help from its fans. Stars like Frank Sinatra have been known to influence recruits, although this might not be a very good year for Old Blue Eyes. Tarkanian asked him to speak to New York's 6'9" Jim Graziano, one of this season's most intensely recruited high schoolers, and although Sinatra reportedly gave Graziano his best paisano-to-paisano patter, the youngster has signed to go to South Carolina. That is not likely to make Sinatra unwelcome at this spring's team banquet: he was the headliner at a similar affair last year.
Dave Pearl and Dr. Wayne Pearson headed an athletic fund-raising program that amassed $458,000 in 1975. More than 600 fans will fill three chartered planes to follow the Rebels when they make a two-game trip to Hawaii this week. That is quite a change for Tarkanian, who could not get his team games on AM radio at Long Beach.
In the city that loves a winner more than any other, enthusiasm for the Rebels is hardly surprising. And it is not startling that the UNLV players, like everyone else in town, have a lucky charm. He is balding substitute Center Don Weimer, whose head is always available for rubbing before games. In Las Vegas, it's great to be good, but better to be lucky. The Rebels don't miss a bet in either regard.
With a montage of glittering Vegas landmarks as backdrop, Coach Tarkanian is on stage with some of his Rebels: (standing) Theus, Brown, Robert Smith, Gondrezick; (kneeling) Owens, Sam Smith, Robinson.