The Runnin’ Rebels’ Stacey Augmon flashes downcourt with one long, elastic Mr. Fantastic arm outstretched— calling for the ball. Teammate Larry Johnson is on the other wing, muscles rippling, ready to take flight. Guard Greg Anthony pushes the ball up the middle. Which way will he dish? Duke guard Bobby Hurley sure doesn’t know, but either way the next sound you hear will be the kwanng of a rim-rocking dunk and the deafening roar of a frenzied mob.
It’s April 2, 1990, the 52nd NCAA championship basketball game, a battle of polar opposites. Duke, college basketball’s “good guys,” against UNLV’s “outlaw program.” Academic exemplar vs. a commuter school known as Tumbleweed Tech. Jackets and ties vs. thug hoodies. Coach K.’s Xs and Os vs. Tark the Shark’s running gunners. Vegas oddsmakers say the game is likely to be close. UNLV fans have a two-word answer to that: “Duck, Duke!”
Jammed to capacity, Denver’s McNichols Sports Arena can’t contain the decibels. Millions at home crowd their TVs to see if college basketball’s outlaws—the Rebels of the University of Nevada–Las Vegas—can crown their season with a first national championship. In Vegas, gamblers, showgirls, politicians, high-level mobsters—all are tuned in to the action. And on the sideline, the ultimate outlaw—UNLV’s coach, Jerry Tarkanian—marches back and forth with all the intensity of a pugilist charging into the ring, except he’s stuffing a towel into his mouth and chewing it.
This is the story of Tarkanian’s UNLV Runnin’ Rebels, a band of gifted misfits who lit up scoreboards, ruled Las Vegas and showed the world what a blast college hoops could be. All the while, they broke every rule in the book. Or did they? As the Rebels filled highlight reels with speed and acrobatics, they incessantly dodged the iron fist of NCAA officials and, at times, the law itself. Never had the NCAA seen anything like them.
They made a run at history that night in Denver, a run that had begun many years earlier, the day Jerry Tarkanian first appeared in Las Vegas. The Strip would never be the same.
“People forget how small Vegas was when Tark came to town,” says documentary filmmaker Stan Armstrong. With a population of 125,000 in 1970, Las Vegas was smaller than Jackson, Mississippi and Evansville, Indiana. The local commuter college was called Nevada Southern until 1969, and even after becoming the University of Nevada–Las Vegas it kept its Old South mascot, a rootin’, tootin’ Confederate cartoon wolf named Beauregard—not the best symbol if you’re recruiting in the city’s fast-growing black neighborhood. “Vegas was totally different in those days,” Tark recalls, looking back on his arrival almost 40 years ago. “Still a small city. You could get a nice hotel room for $19. People didn’t think of Vegas as a basketball town, but I thought it could be.”
Sin City’s racial history wasn’t pretty. In the 1940s and 1950s, black stars such as Sammy Davis Jr. headlined at El Rancho, the Sands and other whites-only resorts but weren’t allowed to rent rooms there or show their faces in the casinos. The lone exception was light-skinned chanteuse Lena Horne, a favorite of Flamingo owner Bugsy Siegel. Horne was allowed to stay in a Flamingo bungalow as long as she didn’t eat or gamble in the hotel, and after she checked out, her towels and bedsheets were burned. Even after the hotel-casinos were integrated in the 1960s, local blacks were confined almost exclusively to a downtrodden neighborhood called the Westside, uncelebrated, mostly unseen.
Then came Tark the Shark, a basketball coach who trolled Westside streets where white men weren’t welcome. A balding, slump-shouldered Armenian American with the sunken eyes of a sleep-deprived raccoon, Tarkanian appeared in Vegas in 1973, fresh off a 26–3 season at Long Beach State. He’d won four straight Pacific Coast Athletic Association titles at Long Beach, challenging the west-of-the-Mississippi dominance of mighty UCLA. “In those days nobody knew there was college basketball west of Bloomington and Lexington except for John Wooden and UCLA,” says Las Vegas Review-Journal hoops writer Steve Carp. “Hell, from 1964 to 1973 UCLA won every NCAA championship but one. Tark was the upstart.”
While UCLA coach Wooden was seen as a saintly figure, his program was less than pristine. NCAA players were forbidden to accept cash, gifts, even a free newspaper. According to Bill Walton, who starred for Wooden before going on to a Hall of Fame pro career, “UCLA players were so well taken care of—far beyond the ground rules of the NCAA—that even players from poor backgrounds never left prematurely.” In Walton’s view, if the NCAA had investigated the Bruins, “UCLA would probably have to forfeit about eight national championships and be on probation for 100 years.” And yet it was UCLA that dropped a dime on Tarkanian. The year after Tark’s Long Beach State team gave the top-ranked Bruins a hellacious scare in the tournament’s west regional, UCLA athletic director J.D. Morgan suggested—confidentially, of course—that the NCAA look into possible recruiting violations by Tarkanian.
Tark’s career-long war with the powers that be was under way.
In 1973, the year the MGM Grand opened and vice cops arrested 52 hookers at Howard Hughes’s Frontier Hotel—after rumors of an orgy featuring “six girls and a German shepherd”—Tarkanian took over UNLV’s basketball program. Elvis Presley was selling out the International Hotel and Frank Sinatra was about to make his triumphant return to Caesars Palace. Sinatra had vowed never to play there after a spat during which a Caesars manager pulled a gun on him, but Sinatra relented after the manager was sacked. His prospects looked better than those of the local basketball coach.
Tarkanian inherited a 14–14 Rebels unit that played home games in the crumbling, half-empty Convention Center downtown, where fans waved giant Confederate flags. With no size and less talent, his team played a 1-2-2 zone. On offense they walked the ball up and worked it into the low post. It was boring but effective enough for UNLV to go 20–6 in Tark’s first season, the best record in the school’s Division I history. Then, that winter, the NCAA put Long Beach State on probation for infractions such as letting players watch a $7 movie in their hotel, which Tark defended as perfectly legal entertainment. There was talk that the association’s chiefs were out to get Tarkanian. He was unsavory. He seemed to have a fondness for poor, academically challenged kids who were desperate for a shot at college hoops, the kind of kids college-basketball boosters were always wooing with cash, cars, girls. Urban black kids who seemed like gangbangers to lily-white crowds in Provo, Utah and Pocatello, Idaho.
Tark’s rising stature didn’t help his popularity with enemy recruiters, who scared recruits’ parents with tales of how their sons would rub elbows and more with hookers, gamblers and Mafia dons if they went to UNLV. Tarkanian hated his enemies’ backdoor tactics. He understood their drive to beat him—nobody burned to win more than he did—but not the way they stooped to sneak and snoop on him and send secret reports to the NCAA. He never talked down other programs to recruits or their parents; he talked up UNLV. He knew he was losing players to rule-breaking schools. Recalling the booty UCLA players glommed from a booster named Sam Gilbert, the Bruins’ notorious “sugar daddy,” Tark joked that coach Wooden’s team was “way over the salary cap.” But he never dreamed of turning them in.
“I would never be a rat,” Tark said.
It wasn’t as though Tark was drawing aces in the recruiting wars. He lost all the blue-chippers to bigger, more respectable schools. (By the time his UNLV career crashed and burned, he had signed a total of only four McDonald’s All American prospects in 19 years.) But in 1974, his second season as the Rebels’ coach, he realized he couldn’t compete with the national powers unless he outsmarted them. So he threw out his playbook.
“We had no size. We had no stars. But we had a couple of things going for us,” Tark recalls. “Good athletes. Good speed.” So he reinvented UNLV basketball. From that moment on his team would be more than the UNLV Rebels. They’d be the fast-breaking, record-breaking Runnin’ Rebels, the highest-scoring team in college hoops. But at what cost?
“We started running and never stopped,” Tarkanian says. “People loved our style of play, but that’s not why we played it. We played it because it worked.”
With holdover Ricky Sobers, a cat-quick point guard, and the new wave of Tarkanian’s Rebel recruits—“a bunch of six-foot-six guys who were good athletes”—Tark installed a pressure defense and a fast-break attack designed to get shots off before opponents had time to set up on D. The team’s scoring average jumped from 78 points per game in his first season to 91 in his second. To coaching legend Pete Newell, the move was a stroke of genius. “For years Tark was the best zone coach in the country. He had a very controlled offense,” Newell told sportswriter Terry Pluto. “In one year, he ripped up his whole book of coaching and tried something entirely new. There aren’t many coaches who would have the courage to try that, because if you flop, it looks like you lost your mind.”
Tark shrugged off talk of how ballsy he was. “We had no choice. Our kids weren’t going to get any taller.”