Big-time college basketball was ready to return to Long Beach. The green marquee of the Convention Center on Monday night read: TONIGHT IN THE ARENA, CSULB VS. UNLV.
And it was true. The California State University, Long Beach, basketball team, off to its best start in five years, was moving out of its campus gym for the only time this season for a game with undefeated and 13th-ranked Nevada Las Vegas.
From the time new 49er Coach Joe Harrington arrived last April, his intent has been to "bring back the glory days" of Long Beach basketball. Those days were in the early and mid-1970s when the 49ers were nationally ranked and played all their home games at the 12,000-seat arena.
But until this season, the decade had been dreary, containing few victories and attracting meager fan interest. Now, though, the 49ers would take a 7-3 record into the Las Vegas game. But would the fans come back?
At 6:30 p.m. at the 555 East Restaurant and Bar near the arena, longtime Long Beach fans Keith Cordes and Larry Shaw were having a pregame drink.
"I'll be disappointed if (the crowd) is under 5,000," Cordes said. "People are beginning to talk positively about State; that's been missing for a long time. The last three years there's been nothing but negatives. It's exciting to feel that electricity again."
'Couldn't Get In'
Cordes said this would be his first game this season. "I tried to go last Saturday night but couldn't get in," he said of the game with Cal State Fullerton that attracted an overflow crowd of 2,279 to the 49er gym.
Shaw, who like Cordes is a member of the Long Beach Century Club, a group that supports athletics, was also excited.
"Joe Harrington . . . he's been to our club," Shaw said. "He's a tall, thin guy . . . he's positive."
Shaw recalled the glory days and "the excitement of Ed Ratleff and George Trapp and those guys, and Marquette coming in." A 49er-Marquette game in 1973 drew 12,987 to the arena, the 49ers' home attendance record.
Jerry Tarkanian, now the coach of Nevada Las Vegas, was the 49ers coach then. From 1968 to 1973, his 49er teams won 121 games and lost only 20.
"This town would be on fire if we could beat Jerry," Shaw said. "He's still a legend here."
But when all the fans had finally arrived, there were only 4,286 of them, a very small crowd by big-time college basketball standards.
Las Vegas took the court, looking in their red uniforms as sleek and intimidating as ever, anticipating their 14th straight victory over the 49ers since the 1980-81 season.
The game was hard fought. The 49ers constantly hassled Las Vegas with their pressure defense, but the Runnin' Rebels led, 41-37, at half time.
In the second half, with the crowd roaring and stomping, the game became a tense struggle as the 49ers kept coming tantalizingly close to getting the lead. When they finally did get it, they appeared to be on the brink of their greatest victory in years.
Like Cordes and Shaw, who were up in the stands, the glory days seemed to have returned. But could the 49ers push through and win?
Long Beach guard Morlon Wiley, who scored 30 points, was brilliant. He intercepted passes. He made great fakes that led to perfect jump shots. And he had lots of help from Andre Purry.
When Purry made a three-point shot with 8:15 to play, the 49ers went ahead, 55-51. Cordes was about to lose his voice.
In the final minutes, the 49ers twice had chances to increase three-point leads but both times committed turnovers.
Tarkanian sat with his head in his hands. Occasionally, he paced forlornly.
Harrington screamed at the officials, encouraged his players and jumped with emotion. But while instructing during timeouts, he was composed.
Shaw watched him and thought, "I'm impressed, he's very cool."
Las Vegas caught up and then went ahead before Wiley's basket tied the score at 68 with 1:10 to play.
Shaw was saying to the other fans around him: "I can't believe it; it's so close."
The Rebels' top scorer, Gerald Paddio, then missed a three-pointer, but Jarvis Basnight grabbed the rebound and was fouled by Wiley with 31 seconds left.
UNLV called a timeout. Then the 49ers called two straight timeouts. During this long wait, the fans chanted "air ball" at Basnight. But he made both foul shots for a 70-68 lead.
Wiley was then fouled and had the opportunity to tie the game again. He had made seven straight free throws. He stepped to the line and shockingly missed both shots. The final score was 71-68.
As they left the arena, Cordes said to Shaw, "It takes one step at a time, and we took a step tonight."
Even Tarkanian was reminded of the glory days: "I'm really pleased to see the return in basketball interest here. Joe Harrington's done a great job rebuilding the basketball program."