The past being prologue and life being just a bowl of cherries, would anybody care to guess what might happen as the Runnin' Rebel(lion)s of UNLV go forth under the banner of NCAA champions? Will they sit out games because of academic probation? Be delinquent on student loans? Not pay their hotel room minibar bills? Punch out a coach? Wage unholy un-war under their unrepentant coach, Jerry Tarkanian, as well as under the assumption that a snooping horde of investigators from some place called Mission, Kans., is ferreting through their automobiles right this very minute?
All that happened last season? Oh. Never mind.
Anyway, will Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon—thunder and lightning—form an incomparably versatile tandem? Will they be twins of terror, yet supreme individual specialists? Will Johnson be as fearsome an inside scorer and Augmon as impenetrable a defender as you'll find on any campus?
Oh, yeah. Forgot again. That was also last season.
Essentially, folks, that's the news in a nutty shell. No matter what kind of bizarre undercurrents shake the foundations this season of Nevada-Las Vegas in year 1 A.D. (After David, as in David Berst, the NCAA's assistant executive director of enforcement who once called Tarkanian a "rug merchant"), probably the most stunning development at the college of fluorescent knowledge has already occurred: Johnson and Augmon came back for their senior seasons. Or, at least, they refused to leave—not once but twice.
They stayed even though they would have undoubtedly been chosen in the upper echelon of last June's NBA draft. Indeed, Johnson likely would have been the first player picked—seriously now, Derrick Coleman?—while Augmon would have been on the cusp of the lottery. What's more, they stayed even after realizing that the NCAA's decision in July to ban the Rebels from postseason play this season rendered them ineligible to defend their crown. It's called loyalty.
When Tarkanian, Johnson and Augmon heard about the NCAA's decision, Tark was at his summer home in San Diego, the two players at home, in Dallas and Pasadena, respectively. Says Tarkanian, "On the phone all Larry wanted to know was how was I doing? Was I all right?"
When Tark later contrived his lark of a plea bargain to sit out the tournament if the NCAA would allow UNLV to play it without him—a proposition that looked to have as much chance of getting by the NCAA Infractions Committee as Siegfried's performing without Roy—Augmon was the first Rebel player to speak up. "Coach don't coach, I don't play," says Augmon. "I told everybody that. The NCAA tournament is just a token now. It's all for pride this season. We want to go undefeated to prove a point. If they don't let us play [for the title], whoever wins will know the victory is hollow."
"It's a kinda...sorta...thing," adds Johnson. "Motivation? We're all about looking good, playing our hearts out and winning games, not trophies."
Johnson often playfully uses the phrase "kinda...sorta," a kinda, sorta kiddie affectation that belies his boulder-shouldered physique (250 pounds among the ripples) but also defines the 'tweener category he fits into. Johnson is listed as 6'7", but he's just barely. He averaged 20.6 points and 11.4 rebounds a game last season as a power forward. He's kinda Charles Barkley, sorta Buck Williams.
Selfless, with a p.r. smile, Johnson has a lot of another Johnson in him, namely Magic. He took himself out of last season's UNLV-Louisville game in the early going because it was Senior Day for Vegas, and he wanted Moses Scurry, a senior, to get more playing time. "[Johnson's] ego is not involved in the game," says UC Santa Barbara coach Jerry Pimm. "He'll talk at you once in a while—he gets that little street thing going—but he is a good person."
"I just wished he'd stop smiling at us over there on the bench," said former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano last season. "It's bad enough he's tearing us up without him enjoying it so much."
In basketball's peculiar parlance, Augmon is a "small" forward at 6'8", 206 pounds—"a nail," says Johnson with a laugh—who likewise has a style and a language all his own. Formerly a horrendous outside shooter, Augmon has worked on his touch to the point where now, at least, his teammates don't snicker at his marksmanship. He averaged 14.2 points and 6.9 rebounds last season and had a 33-point, 11-rebound highlight film of a game in UNLV's 131-101 rout of Loyola-Marymount in the NCAAs. Yet defense is Augmon's meal ticket—oppressive, shockingly vicious (for someone so laid back), I-am-going-to-leave-you-here-to-slowly-rot-in-the-desert defense. Augmon is the ultimate all-court college stopper of his era, having won the Henry Iba Corinthian Award as the best defender in the land the season before last.
Georgetown's twin blockade of Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo may be a shooter's worst nightmare, but for face-up, man-to-man pressure, no one checks better than the spidery Augmon, who has silenced every species from point guard to center, from Arizona's Sean Elliott to Temple's Mark Macon to his own buddy Johnson. "Stacey knows that if I'm guarding him in one-on-one, he's going to get fouled," Johnson says, again laughing. "But him on me, it's no joke. I can't get around him. If I do it once, I'm happy. My advice to guys playing him: Don't think. Just do. Or he'll eat you alive."
"Aw, Larry's too tough," says Augmon in mutual admiration. "He sticks [gets his shot off against] me. He's the only guy strong enough to stick me."
That Johnson and Augmon didn't leave UNLV is more a tribute to Tarkanian's Father Flanagan-type bonding than to any hold college life might have on the pair. Following the NCAA's decision, pro teams in Italy and Spain dangled millions of dollars in front of each of them. Furthermore, the six Rebel seniors—four of whom are starters—could have transferred to another school and played their final season together, vying for a second championship somewhere else. (Now we're talking real history.)
Some combination of UNLV, Tarkanian and Good Old Basketball Jones rescued Johnson and Augmon from a probable life of street crime, to which both admit they were headed. Johnson grew up in South Dallas, where amid broken windows and broken dreams many of his friends became crack dealers. "If ever there was a ghetto scene, Larry is from [one]," says Alex (Mud) Gillum, who coaches at Roosevelt High in Dallas. "It's as if they picked this place up from New York and set it down here."
When Johnson returns to play summer pickup games, the drug trade slows while the dealers, bearing noisy beepers, pack the gym to watch. "It's like they're paying tribute [to him]," says Rod Hampton, an area resident who plays at SMU. "If South Dallas had a mayor, it would be Larry. A million guys have tried to come out of there; he made it."
"Those guys are bad, I know," says Johnson of the local illegal drug entrepreneurs. "But they always helped me and always wanted me to do good. They told me when there was something going down. They got me out of there."
Not that Johnson always listened. He stole bicycles and groceries until the day the police bus drove down his street and took him to the station. No charges were filed against Johnson, who was 12 at the time. He did, however, remain at the station until late that night because his mother, Dortha, thought he needed to learn the consequences of his actions.
At Skyline High, Johnson became the most dominating basketball player in Dallas schoolboy history. Once he helped beat Dallas Jesuit without taking a shot. "He wanted to prove we weren't a one-man team," says Skyline coach J.D. Mayo.
Johnson struggled academically, reading at only a fifth-grade level as a senior. He wanted to attend SMU. The first time he took the SAT he scored below 700, the minimum needed to be eligible as a freshman. When he retook the test, he scored above 700, but SMU doubted the score, judging that he had improved too much, and ruled that he wouldn't be allowed to play as a freshman. So Johnson enrolled at Odessa (Texas) Junior College, where he increased his reading capability to a 12th-grade level and scored 25.2 points a game during his two years at the school.
"I loved junior college," says Johnson. "I look at my classes here, and I know I couldn't have kept up my grades coming right out of high school. I tell possible Prop. 48 guys, 'Don't go to a [four-year] school and sit out. It sets you back.' "
Augmon was a Prop. 48 guy when he arrived at Vegas in 1986, after being overshadowed by an array of California schoolboy blue-chippers—Trevor Wilson (later of UCLA), Chris Munk (USC), Scott Williams (North Carolina) and Stevie Thompson (Syracuse)—during his senior year at Muir High in Pasadena. "But Stacey was the only guy who would stick his nose in there to guard [6'9" playground legend] Clifford Allen," says UNLV assistant coach Tim Grgurich.
Like Johnson, Augmon was raised in a one-parent household, and he, too, could have easily made a wrong turn, were it not for Laurant Brown, a landscape architect who befriended him. "[Brown] emphasized academics and served as a role model," says Glenn Marx, Augmon's summer-league coach. "He made him study, got him to eat vegetables. That sounds like a father to me."
In his initial season of eligibility, Augmon started at point guard in his first few games and ended up playing all five positions during the season. He held the explosive Macon to 9-of-22 shooting in UNLV's upset of No. 1 Temple. Last season he limited Macon to 4 of 22 from the floor in another Rebel victory. "It's not just his quickness and jumping ability," says Tarkanian. "We depend on our guys to play the ball individually. Stacey's technique is just the best. When his mind's in the game, he can guard anybody."
Augmon's virtual shutdown of Arizona's Elliott in the 1989 NCAA tournament might be the best defensive performance of the '80s. A photo of Augmon chesting up against Elliott graces the cover of a book on defense put together by Tarkanian for his coaching clinics. Still, Augmon isn't all that impressed with himself. "People hype individual defense too much," he says. "I get a lot of help."
Augmon had gotten valuable practice as an Olympian in 1988, checking everyone from 6'10" Danny Manning to 6'3" Hersey Hawkins, but his Olympic experience was not entirely positive. He returned from Seoul with a different persona. No longer the fresh-faced college kid, he was suddenly withdrawn, surly, uncommunicative toward the press.
Coach John Thompson had chosen him for the team as a defensive specialist but had played him only sparingly. Feeling disgraced, Augmon either lost his bronze medal in Seoul or left it there on purpose. "I take losses hard," he says. "But it's not right to say I was a fluke pick for the team. I don't fault Coach Thompson's not playing me much. I'd come out of the games and he'd pat me on the head and make me feel good. The medal? I just misplaced it, that's all."
Some Rebelologists say Thompson's distrust of the human race filtered through to the impressionable young player. In any case, midway through last season, after the Las Vegas Review-Journal ran a detailed survey of the expensive cars belonging to UNLV players—Augmon drove a 1988 Ford Mustang GT, Johnson a 1989 Nissan 300ZX—Augmon's surliness spread throughout the team, even to the cheery Johnson, who briefly stopped talking to the local media. "In a contest of personalities, I think Stacey's would be stronger than Larry's," says a man close to both. "He'd lead, Larry would follow."
Augmon continued to take heat even as Vegas was rolling to the national title. He was among the Rebels involved in dustups with Loyola-Marymount and Ball State, and he was one of eight team members who served a one-game suspension for leaving unpaid mini-bar and movie bills at several hotels. He pinned the headline from a Las Vegas Sun article to his dorm-room wall: STACEY AUGMON ISN'T LIVING UP TO EXPECTATIONS.
So, though Tarkanian compares Johnson and Augmon with everybody from Will Rogers to Martin Luther King, Jr., they possess a dark side. Last spring in Washington, D.C., the UNLV bus was set to take the team to a Rose Garden ceremony when Johnson stubbornly refused to leave his hotel room. He said something about President Bush not doing enough for the poor people of Dallas. Ultimately, it took several people to persuade him to join the group. Later, Johnson and Augmon refused to join their teammates on a visit to Capitol Hill.
Last month a more serious problem emerged for Augmon. UNLV student Angela Dortch filed a battery complaint against him, alleging that he had slapped and choked her. "He said, 'You know who I am? I own this town,' " said Dortch in court. "He said, 'I can kill you and get away with it.' " A judge gave Augmon a 90-day cooling-off period, which will end in January. If Dortch makes no further complaints against Augmon during the 90 days, the charges against him will be dropped. "It was nothing," says Augmon. "It was blown all out of proportion. I still talk to the girl."
What's that about all that glitters...?
Last season, in the wake of another glittering performance by this majestically talented UNLV team—the best national championship outfit since the Bill Walton-led UCLA team of 1972-73—Johnson was asked whether he would jump to the NBA. "I'll be back next season—if there are any games next season," he said.
We should have believed him.