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For Years, Tarkanian Has Been One Step Ahead of NCAA; His Team May Be a Step Better, Too

February 23, 1987|MARK HEISLER | Times Staff Writer

LAS VEGAS — Down the strip and through the electric galaxy rolls the solid beige his-for-as-long-as-he-needs-it or until-the-next-model-year Cadillac. Neon reflections splash over the hood and joy across his brainpan.

Imagine all your dreams trying to come true at once and you've got Jerry Tarkanian, long-suffering coach of the UNLV basketball team as he takes his fluorescent victory lap.

Imagine stopping the NCAA dead in its tracks in court (which he has), and then raising a group of waifs to No. 1 (which they are). Picture taking them to the Final Four (which is conceivable, even if he concedes it'll take some luck) and winning it (a man's reach should exceed his grasp or what's a heaven for?).

What could beat that? The only thing he'd rather do than win the NCAA is disband it, but for now he's OK.

Tark puffs on a foot-long cigar. Mrs. Tark, his trusty sidekick, rides shotgun. In the back are two reporters who have been graciously invited to join the Rebel boosters for tonight's post-game revelry.

Tarkanian offers the scribes cigars but since they're leery of cultivating any taste that would require more than 10% of their weekly income, they decline. The writers assume they're about to see more pinky rings in the next hour than they have in their lives.

Tarkanian entertains them with an assault on what's left of the NCAA's good name. On any given day, he may liken it to most of the nations that America has fought in wars and to the leading crime consortia. UNLV's president has recently asked him to knock it off but indignation is indignation and fun is fun.

This is an important clue to an understanding of the Tarkanians.

Lesson one: The agony is never far from the ecstasy.

Lesson two: The lash back is never far from the agony.

How can they ever forget the years of torture the NCAA put them through? How could the NCAA have suspected them?

Let's see if we can figure it out.

It's earlier in the same day, in Tarkanian's office in his desert fortress, the imposing Thomas and Mack Center. Thomas and Mack has more seats than the Forum and charges higher prices for them.

He's allocating his free tickets for the game against Cal State Fullerton while talking to the reporters. In walks a man.

Tarkanian: "This is Mike Toney, fellows. He's my main man from the Dunes. Mike, what you need?"

Toney: "I need six. I need four for Figaro's.

Tarkanian: "I'll give you six but they're not going to be all good ones. I'll give you some bad ones, too."

Toney: "I don't care where they are. I need two good ones. I got to have two good ones for Jackie."

Tarkanian: "Jackie who?"

Toney: "Jackie Salem, the guy who feeds us.'

Tarkanian: "Where?"

Toney: "At Figaro's . The guy who owns Figaro's. The boys are going there every day now for freebies."

Tarkanian: "They're not supposed to be going down there for freebies! What are you talking about? (Laughing) You s.o.b.!"

Oh, that's how.

Then there are his prize recruits: Lloyd Daniels, said to be the best player from New York since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who has attended five high schools and a junior college without completing eligibility requirements; and Clifford Allen, a 6-10 center who is completing high school at El Paso Robles detention home in Paso Robles.

Allen has been convicted of armed robbery and is being treated for alcoholism. He's doing so well, Tarkanian calls him "my valedictorian."

"He's gotting better than a B average," Tarkanian says. "But he's taking his courses in a detention home and the competition is. . . . "

Meanwhile, back in the Caddy. . . .

Tarkanian pulls up to a tavern in a mall. Inside is no bunch of fat cats, but a young crowd in red UNLV Rebel jackets drinking beer from long-neck bottles. Does he mind? Does he notice? The bar is one of his radio sponsors and besides, he's never met a Rebel fan he didn't like, however drunk the fan may be or full of coaching advice.

"Uh huh," says Tark, interrupting his dinner to sign an autograph for and listen to feedback from a heavyset man with "Larry" in an oval on his chest.

Larry tells him of his concerns.

"Didn't we play great the second half?" Tark asks him.

The TV set on the wall plays his video over and over, "Walk Like a Tarkanian," a takeoff on the Bangles' hit. It ends with a shot of people walking around the campus with towels stuffed in their mouths, the way he does during tense games.

The crowd sings along. Tark beams and beams and beams.

OH, THE SHARK HAS POINTY TEETH, DEAR

Does he mind being Tark the Shark?

Hardly.

"John Hall (then a Times columnist) gave me that nickname," he says.

Does it bother him?

"Nah," he says, grinning. "I like it. It rhymes."

So, why him?

Possible reasons include:

Success--When Tarkanian went from Pasadena City College to Cal State Long Beach in 1968 and won the California Collegiate Athletic Assn. title in his first season, his team didn't even get an NCAA bid. Three years later, it came within one point in the Western Regionals of upsetting UCLA, which was on its way to its seventh NCAA title.

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