At the final curtain the former champions strode into history the same way they had tromped over the basketball planet for the better part of two seasons: proud, unlamenting, the hint of a sneer on their collective face. Were they one of the best teams of all time? Or simply a sham bully whose reputation and 45-game winning streak fed off the slim pickings of some conference called the Big West?
How much of UNLV was glitz? How much heart? To the very end—which turned out to be Anderson Hunt's panicky 23-foot rainbow prayer shot that plunked harmlessly off its target, giving Duke a 79-77 victory over Nevada-Las Vegas in their semifinal game—never has a team mirrored the soul of its bizarre city more than these Rebels.
"Clear the aisle! Clear the aisle!" a security guy shouted as the UNLV players approached the floor at the Hoosier Dome to face the Blue Devils. "Comin' through!" It turned out to be a peculiar choice of words given that the one thing these masters of intimidation would ultimately not do was come through.
"Everyone says how powerful [Duke's] league [the ACC] is. We take that as an insult," wrote UNLV guard Greg Anthony on March 26 in the diary he kept for The New York Times.
"First two minutes, dunk by Augmon...dunk by Johnson...Ackles over-the-back dunk...Anthony for three...Anderson Hunt for three. That's it.... Duke no score," forward Stacey Augmon said on television on Saturday.
And so the defending champions sashayed down the aisle to another execution. Single file, staring straight ahead, with zombielike focus, not speaking.
Damn! What happened? And what happens now to coach Jerry Tarkanian and his Runnin' (on Empty) Rebels? In the face of an ongoing NCAA investigation into the recruitment of non-high school graduate Lloyd Daniels and the plea-bargained sanctions preventing UNLV from playing both on live television and in the tournament next season, Tarkanian swears he will not bolt to the NBA or to II Messaggero in Rome for a reported million dollars. Then again, he may not have a choice. If the NCAA finds that Tark cheated again, UNLV president Robert Maxson will undoubtedly fire him. At the same time, if Hunt returns—a hot rumor in Indy had the Rebel guard, the only one of this year's stars who will still be eligible in 1991-92, transferring to Michigan—the UNLV cupboard will not be entirely bare, and Tarkanian has vowed to file a personal harassment suit against the NCAA.
It's not as if the Shark lacks for support, either. His cheering section for his encounter with Ted Koppel on Nightline last Thursday night was bolstered by celebs ranging from Georgetown coach John Thompson to ESPN pitchman Dick Vitale. If Koppel didn't lay a glove on Tarkanian—which was the verdict of Thompson, Vitale and a host of other sycophants who greeted the UNLV coach as if he had just dunked on Saddam Hussein—it was Tarkanian's one shining moment of the week.
Shuffling down the hall after his team's loss to the Blue Devils, those bags under his eyes nearly touching his knees, Tarkanian spread the blame. "We let the——er slip away from us," he mumbled. "——in' Augmon, nothin'! I don't know if that——in' Ackles knew where he was!"
But did Tark know? He never adjusted to Duke's fronting defense of Larry Johnson. He never switched the best defensive player in the land, Augmon, onto Duke's dominating Christian Laettner. He never ordered a press. At the end, Tarkanian never set up a play for the tying/winning basket, so that Johnson, the player of the year, took a powder on the shot of the year, passing instead to Hunt for the final failed shot.
It was Tark pal Mike Toney, a casino host at the Sands Hotel, who gave this Vegas team its motto, a mob phrase from numbers running that neatly described UNLV's attitude. "The thrill ain't in the winnin'," the players liked to say. "It's in the collectin' [of debts]."
Alas, the Rebels turned into nothing more than the neighborhood tough who whimpers when finally challenged.
With the final 12 seconds still to go last Saturday night, right after Duke had taken its winning lead, a wise old man rose from his seat and hobbled out of the Hoosier Dome. "Let's wait and see about UNLV," former UCLA coach John Wooden had said more than once during the season. "A lot of teams have won one [NCAA title] in a row."
The Wizard must have known. Somebody else was about to do the winnin' and collectin'.