For this question, as for most others, Jerry Tarkanian draws his answer from the game he coaches: Why didn't he want his son Danny to play basketball for him at University of Nevada, Las Vegas? Oh, Danny has been playing—and splendidly. He's the 6'2" point guard on a Runnin' Rebel team that at week's end was 22-1 and ranked No. 7 by SI, and his average of 9.5 assists per game was the second best in the nation. All things considered, says Lois Tarkanian, Danny's mother and Jerry's wife, the son's playing for the father "has been a beautiful experience for our family."
But Jerry had been dead set against it, was sure it wouldn't work out. He'd thought long and hard about it, called around, talked to other fathers who had coached their sons, guys like Al McGuire (see box, page 35) who had counseled him not to do it. Plus, Tarkanian had a good reason of his own, and last week he bounded to the chalkboard in his office, to explain.
Tark doesn't just have a basketball answer to the question. He has got an entire play. If the 53-year-old Tarkanian sometimes expresses himself in X's and O's, it's because the sport is all he has ever lived for—save for an occasional high school football game when Danny was quarterbacking Vegas' Bishop Gorman High to an 11-0 record and the 1979 state championship. Says John Schumacher, who covers UNLV basketball for the Las Vegas Sun, "Ask Tark about Grenada and he'll want to know what league it's in."
"So we're playing at Wyoming, the end of the '79-80 season," Tarkanian is saying at the board. "And nobody wins in Laramie. But if we win we go to the NCAA tournament. And we're up by one, four seconds to go, with the ball out of bounds under their basket. So I put in [reserve guard] Billy Cunningham, who'd been a quarterback in high school, to inbound. And I call this play."
February 20, 1984
And Tark diagrams it. A pair of Rebels will set up a diversionary screen in one corner, while Michael (Spiderman) Burns fakes and goes long. A fly pattern with play action. "It works perfectly," Tark continues, chalk dust flying. "Spiderman is wide open. And the kid with the ball freezes, passes to someone else, who gets fouled and misses the first of a one-and-one. Wyoming rebounds and throws in a halfcourt shot at the buzzer to win. Afterward, no one'll even talk to Billy. So I put my arm around him and tell him it's not so bad, we're still going to the NIT. And he says, 'College basketball has been a bad experience for me. It's caused me a lot of pain.' And I realized it's the same for a lot of other kids. I knew right then I didn't want that for Danny."
In a city whose existence depends on losers, Danny's dad has been a stubborn winner. Including the five seasons he spent at Long Beach State (1968-73), Tarkanian has the highest winning percentage of any active major college coach (368-84, .814). Last season, with a team that wasn't even a clear-cut pick to win the Pacific Coast Athletic Association title, UNLV won 28 games and the PCAA regular-season and postseason championships. Tarkanian was UPI's Coach of the Year. The Rebels' 1983-84 preseason prospects seemed even shakier, yet Vegas is only a game off its '82-83 pace. Tark wins by favoring simple execution over highfalutin strategy and by recruiting inner-city kids, usually from junior colleges or other four-year schools, who find Tarkanian's background—a childhood of poverty and a father who died young—easy to relate to. "Tark ain't white, man," one of his former players, Lewis Brown, used to say. "He's Armenian!"
Tarkanian likes to call his two most recent clubs "teams of character, not characters." Yet the public's long-held perception of the Runnin' Rebels makes it hard for Tark to sell that assessment. Year in and year out, no team in America has played so true to its nickname. The two stiff probationary sentences the NCAA slapped on Tarkanian teams, first at Long Beach immediately after he left that school in 1974 and then at UNLV in 1977, have only reinforced the outlaw images of the coach and his program. "The NCAA gave Jerry something," says Lois, who reacted to both investigations by falling into depression. "He's got it now, and it's not going to change."
Back when Tark was known as the Shark and he could find an NCAA investigator behind every clipboard, his Runyonesque mien and nervous manner didn't exactly inspire trust. Take, for instance, the towel. Of course, lots of coaches find security in towels. Georgetown's John Thompson drapes one over a shoulder, and Houston's Guy Lewis wrings his like Wednesday's wash. But Tark, fidgety and obsessive, dips his in water and sucks on it throughout the game.
He still does, though nowadays he makes an altogether different impression. He looks a little more world-weary, a little more resigned—like a man who has spent too much time in a pressure cooker. Tarkanian admits there's substance behind that impression—"I'm more mature," he says—and people who know him well credit Danny's presence for that maturity. "I've seen a transition in Jerry," says Lonnie Wright, a former Rebel player. "And a lot of that has to do with his son being on the team." Adds UC Santa Barbara coach Jerry Pimm, "Coaching Danny has been a real good emotional break for him at this time in his life."
Danny's arrival at UNLV is both a prodigal son story and a tale full of Turgenevian twists. He'd been a marvelous athlete—not to mention an excellent student—at Gorman, when he was twice selected to all-state teams in both football and basketball. During his senior year in high school it wasn't even clear which sport he would play in college. "I wanted him to go to the University of Redlands [in Southern California], play both, join a frat and chase girls," says Jerry. "Lois wanted him to go to Stanford or Harvard." But Danny settled on Nevada, Reno for a number of reasons, including assurances from Wolf Pack coach Sonny Allen that Reno needed a point guard.
But when Allen's son Billy, himself a gifted playmaker, decided to play for his dad, Danny enrolled instead at Dixie College, a two-year school in St. George, Utah. There he averaged 14.4 points and 6.7 assists during the 1980-81 season, and, with a 3.85 GPA, was named freshman student of the year.
As Danny excelled, Jerry was suffering through a miserable 16-12 season, the only sub-20-win record of his 22-year college coaching career. Pimm, who was then at Utah and interested in Danny, remembers meeting with the two Tarkanians just after the Utes had embarrassed UNLV 95-83 in Salt Lake City. "Danny could hardly talk after the game," Pimm recalls. "He couldn't believe how those guys had quit on his dad. He was in tears. That's when I decided I wouldn't recruit him. His heart, his life, was with his dad."
Jerry had a similar revelation, but his didn't come so melodramatically. In vain he had tried out two different floor leaders with his 16-12 team: Burns, a natural wingman who felt lost at the point; and Greg Goorjian, a 40-point-a-game scorer in high school who was miscast as a passer. Danny was clearly the answer, and after some father-son soul-searching, he enrolled at UNLV in September 1981.
Goorjian stayed through a portion of the '81-82 season, and there was a certain novelty to having an all-Armenian back-court. "We could serve shish kebab at halftime," said Jerry. But Goorjian transferred to play for his father, Ed, at Loyola Marymount, leaving backcourt leadership exclusively in Danny's hands.
After fewer than three full seasons, he holds the school's career assists record (756 and counting). By the time he leaves, he'll own the Rebels' steals mark as well. When Utah State threw a box-and-one at him last Thursday night, Danny, whose scoring average is only 6.5 points a game, turned in his typical line—no points, 12 assists and no turnovers in 28 minutes. UNLV won 97-75. Three days later he went 37 minutes without a miscue in an 86-76 victory over San Jose State. "If you're runnin' your lane, he'll get it to you," says Jeff Collins, his backcourt mate.
A Tarkanian assist is as likely to come from the left hand as from the right. A natural righthander when it comes to writing, throwing, eating, etc., Danny had somehow become a strictly lefthanded basketball shooter by the time he got to high school. "Growing up, I first shot two-handed at a six-foot basket with a volleyball," he says, "and I guess my right hand just began coming off the ball sooner." Dixie coach Neil Roberts persuaded Danny to shoot righthanded, but Jerry didn't like the way the ball would rotate and switched Danny back to shooting with his left hand when he came to UNLV Danny switched again as a junior and has shot righty ever since.
Switching shooting hands after the '81-82 season may have been a symbolic means of putting that year behind him. He was roundly criticized for not scoring—though he wasn't supposed to. Says one rival coach, "People would stand up and yell things like 'Get him out!' or 'He's only in there because he's your son.' Lois would stand up and stare them down." Says Danny, "Everyone thinks I'm doing a great job now. I'm playing better defense and making fewer turnovers, but that's not what the criticism was about." Sons who play for their fathers know these things.
Danny's greatest contribution to this season's Rebel team is a selfless confidence. The summer before his senior year in high school, he and his Gorman buddies would hang around the Tarkanian home working out for football. "They were like Peanuts characters," says Lois. "They said they were going to win the state. Jerry and I felt so sorry for them." Sure enough, Danny's passing brought Gorman from a 19-0 deficit early in the state championship game to a 30-28 victory over Reno High.
It's ironic that Danny—high school hero, college honor student in finance, Rhodes scholarship candidate, bare-chested Mr. January in a UNLV student calendar and weekly churchgoer who helps the hearing-impaired—is the son of the man the NCAA, self-styled keeper of the student-athlete ideal, has spent countless hours trying to nail. When the NCAA came down on UNLV in '77 and took the extra step of ordering the university to suspend Tarkanian for two years, Tark sued and won a stay of the suspension. After nearly seven years of legal volleying, a district court is scheduled to hear Tarkanian v. UNLV and NCAA in June. Danny, who plans to attend law school someday, can tick off the exact chronology of his dad's suit, from docket to docket. "Danny is what the NCAA is supposed to be," says Lois, with only faint bitterness.
Of course, just because Danny has the image of an altar boy hardly makes his father a saint. Nonetheless, Jerry is known as college basketball's Father Flanagan, if somewhat sarcastically, for taking in so many basketball refugees. He even took a stray cat, Wilma, into his home. But he's more generous than many people know. When Ester Robinson, mother of Sam and Jackie Robinson, two of Tark's former players, died of cancer in 1974, the Tarkanians were all set to adopt her youngest son, Angelo, until an aunt stepped in to care for him. "There were four months in 1977 when I knew we were going on probation and no one else did." says Tark, "and that tore me up. Right then I decided I'd always try to hire assistants who were out of jobs but had done a lot for basketball."
The Rebels now harbor five transfers from four-year schools—Collins (Arizona), guard Eric Booker (San Francisco) centers Paul Brozovich (Pitt) and John Flowers (Indiana) and forward Anthony Jones (a redshirt from Georgetown). "I like transfers because all the con job is over," Tark says. "They're just glad to be here. Besides, their cars and clothes are already paid for."
UNLV's other great mother lode is the junior colleges. The Rebels start three juco transfers—Richie Adams, Frank (Spoon) James and Ed Catchings—along the front line. "By the time he's in a juco, a kid will usually be able to make his own decision," says Tarkanian. "We have trouble with high schools. The principals are against us, and the mothers think the hookers are going to get their sons. I went to junior college for athletics and the parties, and I can relate to these guys. It's not that they're bad students, it's that their priorities are different."
In 10 years UNLV has sent 12 Rebels to the pros, but has graduated only 15 players, something the entire Tarkanian family is defensive about. "Before the NCAA ruled that a school could pay for a fifth year of study, my mom and dad paid for an extra year for some players," says Danny. Adds Lois, who has a Ph.D. from U.S. International in human behavior. "Can the program take credit for Danny being an honor student? Of course not. It's the value system in his home. Jerry gets kids whose value system is survival." Three of this team's five seniors—Collins, Brozovich and Danny—will be graduated in May, an improvement in part attributable to UNLV's hiring a full-time academic adviser at the behest of Lois and Jerry.
Most Rebels stay in Las Vegas when their playing days are over, and the city's tourist and gaming industries are happy to take care of them, degree or no degree. But that's not enough, according to Wright, who founded the UNLV Basketball Alumni Association to raise funds to help former players who want to finish the requirements for their degrees. "You have mobility with a degree." Wright says. "I tell guys, go ahead and work, but keep going to school." An example: '77 Final Four star Eddie Owens is a dealer at Caesars Palace with a $30,000 salary, and he's about to be graduated with a degree in social studies.
Tark only has to pick up the phone to get an ex-player a job. "I love how this town works," he says. Why wouldn't he? The UNLV booster club, which last year was disavowed by the university for exerting too much influence over the athletic department, paid Tarkanian some $240,000 over and above his $125,000-a-year salary during the past three years. "Everybody comps everybody else. I can't pay for anything," says Tark. When the NBA Lakers wanted to make him their coach in 1979, Tark's instinct was to take the job. But he says after thinking about it, he couldn't leave the people who had stood by him during the NCAA ordeal. To Tarkanian, good people count for something, and Las Vegas, you see, is full of good people.
Danny had to remind his dad of that last summer, when Tark was trying to decide whether to take back Adams, a flaky forward who had bolted the campus last season for his home in the South Bronx. "I said Richie's a great guy, and if he's around good people, it'll bring out the best in him," Danny says. Jerry agreed.
You want a little dirt? When Danny was small, Tark would pay him escalating sums for the number of baskets he made at the backyard hoop, CHARGE TARK PAID SON BUCKET MONEY! But this is Vegas, remember, where everybody's a good person. Richie's a good person. Danny's a good person. Hell, Wilma's a good cat. And, at midlife, even compared with his too-good-to-be-true son, Tark's O.K., too.