COMING UP DRY IN THE DESERT

Princeton's trek to UNLV proved a rebel rout as well as a study in contrasts on and off the court
December 31, 1990

The Vegas Guy wore a runnin' Rebels sweatshirt, aviator glasses and the requisite silver and gold adornments. With a brassiness only slightly more subtle than his attire, he marched up to Georgetown center Alonzo Mourning, who was sitting courtside on Gucci Row at the Thomas & Mack Center to watch the Dec. 19 game between UNLV and Princeton. He planted his hands on Mourning's shoulders, gave him a shake and flashed a cheese-ball grin. "The most exciting game I've ever seen!" the Vegas guy said. "Fifty to 49! Princeton-Georgetown!"

Mourning nodded gravely.

"When was that?" the Vegas guy wanted to know, his brow furrowing.

"Two years ago," Mourning said. From the tone of his voice he seemed to be trying to distance the recollection. Or the Vegas guy. Or both.

"Two years ago! Princeton-Georgetown! Fifty to 49! The most exciting game I've ever seen!"

That is high praise indeed from a Vegas guy, inasmuch as he had presumably also seen UNLV's 103-73, record-setting fly-by of Duke in the national championship game last spring. Yet, ever since the top-seeded Hoyas dodged the Tigers in the opening round of the 1989 NCAA tournament, Princeton of the lowly Ivy League has taken a place among the nation's most watchable and endearing teams. The attraction is the Tiger offense, which typically lulls defenses into near somnambulism with 30 to 40 seconds of intricate pass-and-move choreography before someone cuts backdoor for a layup or pops open for a three-point shot. Princeton nearly beat Final Four-bound Arkansas in the first round of the 1990 NCAA tournament with an effort that the Tigers' coach, Pete Carril, judged even better than that put forth against the Hoyas.

Those two near misses—providing excitement born of a sort of mesmerizing antiexcitement—drew the two best NCAA first-round television ratings ever. And so it was last week that the Tigers went to the desert with a 7-0 record, a place in everybody's top 25 and a confession extracted from Las Vegas coach Jerry Tarkanian that he was "scared to death about this game." It didn't seem entirely impossible that Princeton might make another nationally televised run at a powerful rival—provided the Rebels weren't exiled to hell before tipoff by the latest whim of the NCAA. Indeed, on Monday, Dec. 17, as the Tigers bused up the New Jersey Turnpike to Newark Airport for the flight to Las Vegas, nothing seemed impossible....

MONDAY, 7:15 P.M.

Somewhere over Iowa, Carril begins patrolling the aisle of the airliner, sharing his anxieties as if they were peanuts from one of those foil-wrapped airline packets. His players are no more intimidating than they sound. The Tigers start two Christophers and a Matthew, and the first two substitutes are another Matthew and Christopher. Then again, Matthew, the patron saint of moneymen, isn't a bad name to invoke when you're heading to a city whose economy depends on relieving visitors of their assets. And Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, fits a team that hasn't played a home game all season and won't until mid-January.

Fewer and fewer top teams are willing to play Princeton, much less play the Tigers in their lair. Both St. Joseph's and La Salle reneged last summer on agreements to visit Princeton in December, while Big East opponents Seton Hall, St. John's and Villanova have all bailed out of longstanding home-and-home arrangements. "They're perfectly willing to play Ivy League teams," says Sam Howell, the Tigers' associate athletic director in charge of scheduling. "They just don't want to play us."

Thus it took an almost cosmic alignment of forces to bring about the UNLV game. ESPN, mindful of the game's ratings potential, stepped forward last summer and initiated the matchup. Princeton president Harold Shapiro gave his blessing to the trip, which would pay the Tigers $20,000. And Tarkanian, caught by Carril in what Tark would later call "a weak moment," gave his consent—even if the deal seemed a little like a casino sending a Lear jet to pick up a notorious card counter.

MONDAY, 9:30 P.M.

The plane is on its approach to Las Vegas's McCarran Airport; the lights of the Strip form a shimmering filament beneath the night sky.

Christopher (Kit) Mueller, the Tigers' captain and center, visited Vegas over spring break. "Wait till you see the casinos," he tells his teammates. "No clocks, no windows. You have no idea what time it is."

Teenagers make mistakes. Four years ago Mueller was a high school senior in suburban Chicago and running late for a school dance when he stepped hastily out of the shower. He forgot that he had left an empty aquarium, in which he had kept his pet piranhas, on the bathroom floor. The misstep shattered the aquarium, and the broken glass tore three tendons and a nerve in Mueller's left ankle. The injuries scared off such previously interested schools as Northwestern and UC-Santa Barbara. Five months later, in September, Mueller, who had been assiduously pursued by Carril, showed up at Old Nassau—using a cane.

At about the same time that Mueller suffered his pratfall, guard and prospective electrical engineer Sean Jackson made a mistake of his own. Coming out of high school in Huntington, W.Va., Jackson enrolled at Ohio University, but he soon became disenchanted, feeling isolated from the rest of the student body and unchallenged academically. He applied to Princeton as a transfer, not knowing that Carril had never acquired a basketball player that way. He got in.

For years Carril has called the Princeton admissions office Heartbreak Hotel. Yet earlier this day Howell fielded a call from associate dean of admissions Spencer Reynolds, who bore good news about two so-called "early-action" admittees who are good basketball players. Now all Carril has to do is persuade each player's family that it's worth anteing up $80,000 for a Princeton education—the Ivy League doesn't offer athletic scholarships—instead of accepting a free ride from a real basketball school.

TUESDAY, 9:15 A.M.

As has been his habit since doctors found a partial blockage in an artery 1¬Ω years ago, Carril takes a brisk, one-hour constitutional, this morning around the track on the UNLV campus. He usually slips a cassette with flamenco music into a Walkman. But if he can find a walking partner, he prefers to talk.

A conversation with Carril will range through history, politics and public policy, with any of these topics likely to serve as a touchstone for some observation about basketball. In particular, the socioeconomic subject of class fascinates this son of a Spanish immigrant steelworker. Like the animals in Siegfried & Roy's show at the Mirage, most of Carril's Tigers are white. But he doesn't believe race is nearly the determinant in basketball that it's, made out to be. He cites the Warner studies, volumes of sociological research published throughout the 1940s and '50s that examine the values of Americans of various classes. "Basketball is not a black man's game," he says. "It's a poor man's game. The Warner studies found that what lower-class guys valued the most were things like cunning, virility and playing sports. You know what John McPhee said about Bill [Bradley] in A Sense of Where You Are? 'He was able to overcome the handicap of wealth.' The handicap of wealth!"

TUESDAY, 1:00 P.M.

As Carril and Tarkanian take scats next to each other for a luncheon at the Thomas & Mack Center, they look strikingly similar. Both are 60, gnomelike, and carry around the heaviest of world-weary expressions. Each has, over many seasons, demonstrated the knack basketball coaches most admire in one another: an ability to adjust to changing material. But perhaps the fundamental similarity between the two coaches is that each tries to help his players adapt to a foreign environment. Carril takes lawyers' and doctors' sons, stricken by their wealth, and prepares them for a game in which the smarts that matter are learned on the street. Tarkanian takes urban-bred young men and shoehorns them into an alien world of academia and glittery affluence.

For sometimes forcing that mismatch, Tarkanian gets pilloried. Carril thinks that's unfair. "[Former Philadelphia Flyers coach] Fred Shero said, 'If you don't think you can change a guy, get out of coaching,' " Carril says. "You read history, all you hear is how Robert E. Lee was this great strategist and Ulysses Grant was an alcoholic. The other guy takes a great picture on a white horse, and Grant's boots aren't shined. But then you look more closely. Jerry Tarkanian is Ulysses Grant. You won't hear me say a bad thing about that guy."

Their teams, alas, are very different, with one surprising exception: each has a Rhodes scholar candidate. Princeton's is Matt Henshon, the off-the-bench Matthew; UNLV's is David Rice, also a reserve. Both missed out on the prize.

TUESDAY, 9:30 P.M.

They're best known for going backdoor, but a few Princeton players have slipped stagedoor into an impersonators' show at the Imperial Palace on the Strip.

"What's your major?" coos Barbara Bogar, a Marilyn Monroe look-alike, to Henshon.

"Public affairs," he says.

"Oooh, so you'll be president someday," Marilyn says. "I have a thing for presidents."

WEDNESDAY, 8:00 A.M.

With the headline UNLV HANDED CHARGES the Las Vegas Review-Journal announces the news of the latest probe into the UNLV program. The letter of inquiry sent to UNLV, containing 29 allegations of violations of NCAA rules, reportedly includes a charge that a Las Vegas ad agency owned by Sig Rogich, George Bush's media adviser, improperly provided a leased 1983 Dodge Aires to Lloyd Daniels, the trouble-plagued playground star and former UNLV recruit. The Review-Journal will also report that Richie (the Fixer) Perry of New York, an alleged mobster in the Luchese crime family, gave cash to former Rebels Moses Scurry and David Butler. And the Las Vegas Sun will report that Perry leased the same car for Daniels at a later date.

Leave it to the wholesome world of college basketball to tie the Luchese crime family to the White House.

WEDNESDAY, 5:00 P.M.

Las Vegans hardly feel they need more evidence of a vendetta against the hometown team, but the timing of the NCAA letter seems gratuitously cruel. Tonight UNLV's 1990 championship banner is to be unveiled in a nine-minute pregame ceremony, replete with the usual light show, indoor fireworks display and Thus Spake Zarathustra theatrics. A couple of technicians at the Thomas & Mack Center are making the preparations.

"What are we going to do with this place after the sanctions come down?" says one to the other.

"Turn it into a flea market or something, I guess."

WEDNESDAY, 7:00 P.M.

The Rebels run out to leads of 13—0 and 17-6 before Princeton can collect itself. For the briefest of stretches the Tigers run their offense crisply, outscoring UNLV 11-2 to close to 19-17. Here is where the orange-and-black bogeyman usually worms its way into the heads of the highly ranked. But Princeton's Chris Marquardt misses two free throws, and UNLV converts a loose ball into a quick two. The Tigers' offense bogs down against the Rebels' withering man-to-man. "We wanted to pressure the passer, so if they did go backdoor, they couldn't get a good pass off," Tarkanian will say.

More often than not Mueller is that passer, the latchkey of the backdoor, but the spidery Stacey Augmon is all over him. By the end of the first half the Rebels are playing their adventurous "amoeba" zone. Princeton, the most accurate three-point-shooting Division I team in the nation last season, can't make a perimeter jumper or—for more than 10 minutes during the second half—a shot of any sort. In the end the Tigers are very nearly doubled up, 69-35.

UNLV has now won its last five games by margins of 30, 41, 50, 20 and 34 points. (On Saturday, the Rebels will make it six straight spankings, drubbing Florida State by 32.) If the Tigers want solace, they can remind themselves that they're in good company, with the likes of Duke and Michigan State.

WEDNESDAY, 8:35 P.M.

Carril sits for the postmortem. Did he consider abandoning that deliberate offense in the second half?

"If all you have is oatmeal, that's all you eat."

Did the pregame pyrotechnics throw his guys for a loop?

"The only thing that bothered my team was their players."

They like their shark imagery at UNLV, but on this night piranha may be more felicitous. "My piranhas killed each other off," Mueller says, "until only the biggest one was left."