THE NEWS came on Feb. 11 that Tark was gone, a basketball Rebel dead at 84. An image rose to mind: a parking lot outside a practice gymnasium, faintly lit by tall streetlights rising from asphalt laid where once there had surely been sand and snakes and cactus. A 61-year-old man with a bald head, reaching the end of something. Or the beginning. With Jerry Tarkanian it was always difficult to know for sure.
This is an article from the Feb. 23, 2015 issue
The first time I met Tarkanian was two years earlier, in 1990. As a reporter for Newsday, I had been assigned to cover the West Regional of the NCAA tournament, in Oakland. Tarkanian already seemed larger than life. He had built a competitive program from nothing at Long Beach State, battled the NCAA and twice gone to the Final Four. But this time he brought a machine to the regional. The sentimental favorite in Oakland was Loyola Marymount, playing in memory of the deceased Hank Gathers. UNLV ran the Lions out of the building on a Sunday afternoon. My editor told me to go straight to Las Vegas and then to Denver for the Final Four.
Like any reporter, I fretted about access to the mighty Runnin' Rebels. Silly me. In Vegas, I spent three days watching Tarkanian's team practice as if meals would be withheld for any lack of effort, and then watching the entire team stay for individual drills that lasted into the evening. I interviewed Tarkanian until the batteries on my tape recorder went dead, because he just loved it when people showed up to watch his team practice and loved to tell stories about basketball and life in that raspy voice of his. Tarkanian was a full-service subject; he even recommended a suite hotel near the campus, where, I'm convinced, he got a cut of the action. I left the desert on a Thursday morning, and four days later UNLV ran Duke out of McNichols Arena 103--73, giving Tarkanian his only national championship.
Variations on this scenario were repeated over the next two years. Tarkanian and UNLV went unbeaten in the 1990--91 regular season before losing to Duke in the Final Four in Indianapolis. And as Tarkanian engaged in public spitting matches with the NCAA (he called it the "two-A"), he also clashed with UNLV president Robert Maxson, who spoke of elevating the educational profile of the university (and its president) while distancing it from the high rollers who had turned Tarkanian into a wealthy Strip celebrity, and the Thomas & Mack Center into the hottest venue in the city. Once in '91, I came to town and interviewed Maxson for hours and Tarkanian for hours more (as he drove around the city, talking on any one of his half-dozen "car phones"), wrote a long story and, on the day it was published, got a call from Tarkanian. "You son of a bitch," he said, "you come out here and act like you're our friend, and then you go write this bulls--- from Maxson." I tried teaching him a brief journalism lesson about fairness and two sides to any story, but you were either with Tark or against him. Yet, as with so many of his players, there would be second chances to talk, and third and fourth. The man could not stay angry.
Tarkanian's UNLV career ended on the third night of March 1992. By then the world—and the NCAA—had seen a photograph of his players lounging in a hot tub with a man who had been convicted of point-shaving. There would be no postseason for Tarkanian's last Rebels team. For that final game we all came back to Vegas with our notebooks and old-school laptops to see Tark cry on the floor of the Thomas & Mack while the crowd roared.
But that is not what I remember most. On the day before his final game as coach of the Rebels, Tarkanian finished practice and then talked with writers. At some point there were just Malcolm Moran of The New York Times and me. The questioning fizzled out, the three of us walked toward the parking lot, and Tarkanian said, "You guys have any plans for dinner?"
Here was the king of the Strip, looking to maybe grab a bowl of pasta with a couple of writers from out of town who were preparing to write a large portion of his professional epitaph the next night. But looking back, it made sense. Tarkanian was a basketball junkie with a disdain for rules that impeded him. He was about the scoreboard, the money, the wins. He wasn't larger than life at all. He was just life, lived exactly his own way.