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Mike Downey

Rebels With a Cause Have Another Side

March 30, 1991|Mike Downey

INDIANAPOLIS — Let us clear up the most distasteful, unfair misconception about this magnificent basketball team from Nevada Las Vegas, the one that depicts Coach Jerry Tarkanian's players as a bunch of dead-end kids who are more interested in their point-per-game averages than their grade-point averages and who wouldn't consult a book unless it was one run by a book maker.

Today's NCAA tournament semifinal game pits a team from Duke that doesn't seem to be in UNLV's class against a team from UNLV that wouldn't seem to be in Duke's classrooms. Yet seven Rebels had fall grade-point averages of 3.0 or higher. College player of the year Larry Johnson topped 3.5 and made the dean's list. All-American Stacey Augmon also bettered 3.0 and soon will get his degree. Senior political-science major David Rice was a Rhodes Scholar nominee.

These guys do more than play brilliant basketball.

They are more than Jerry's Jocks.

They deserve better than to hear and hear and hear about how Duke will play brainy basketball against UNLV's fabulous "athletes."

These guys are students.

Students of the game, students of a university.

Maybe Greg Anthony won't ever become a U.S. senator, as is his ambition now that he already is vice chairman of the Young Republicans of Nevada. Maybe Anderson Hunt's SAT score would have been higher had he not taken the test the morning after his senior prom. Maybe they do play for a coach who speaks in double negatives in a town where many unlucky kids' numbers turn up double-zero. Who knows what this UNLV team's future will be?

Greatest college basketball team of all time?

"No one's never heard me say that," Tarkanian said.

Greater even than John Wooden's greatest UCLA teams?

"Hey, I was in California then, and I was just in awe of those UCLA players," Tarkanian said.

A basketball team with nothing or no one to fear?

"I saw where Coach Wooden said he wouldn't have feared playing my team or any other team as long as he could have Lucius Allen and Mike Warren playing guard for him," Tarkanian said. "I wouldn't fear nothing neither if I had those two guys."

Tarkanian is deferential, respectful. Even if (when?) UNLV wins another national championship Monday, it is doubtful he would dare compare his squad to UCLA's. But others will. Others already do. And no matter how much Tarkanian tries to tune it out, no matter how much he tries to shield and shelter his players from celebrating prematurely, he can't.

"To be truthful, it's only been the last couple of weeks that I started feeling it," Tarkanian said here Friday. "I turn on the television, like everybody else. I hear the things they say about us."

Prisoners of their own fame. That is what the Rebels have become. Not since Howard Hughes has anyone from Las Vegas taken such pains to shut out the outside world. When UNLV practiced Thursday at the North Central High gym, Tarkanian had the windows covered with masking tape. He also has forbidden the players to sign autographs, at the risk of appearing snooty, and has them sneaking through a rear service entrance of the hotel.

Georgetown, starring Patrick Ewing, went to similar lengths in the mid-1980s when Coach John Thompson sealed off his players from the public, generating a reputation of a cold, uncommunicative, even unpleasant team.

UNLV's players are anything but. Many have sweet dispositions. Some of them hate having to say no to little kids and parents carrying ballpoint pens. They understand what the coach is doing, appreciate his mother-henning. It is the price of being one of the greatest--maybe the greatest--college teams ever assembled.

"We need a little break," Augmon said. "The hotel is so overflowing that if we signed for half the people, it would take us all day to get upstairs."

Tarkanian was more blunt.

"That might have been fine earlier in the year. Now we're tired of it," he said.

The last thing UNLV needs is a bad rap as a bunch of bad dudes, but Tarkanian cannot be bothered with such comparative trivialities as being sociable. He can't see beyond the present, can't worry about what certain people might think about his players, any more than he can alter any other misconceptions about them overnight, or over one long weekend in Indiana.

"All I know is, how'd you like to go downstairs for a cup of coffee and need 30 minutes to get from the restaurant to the elevator?" Tarkanian asked.

There isn't much you can do but to do whatever you can. Do UNLV's basketball players stack up academically to Duke's? Maybe not. But 49% have graduated since Tarkanian came to UNLV in 1973. Are UNLV's basketball players "good kids?" Some are, some aren't--same as Duke's.

And is this the greatest college basketball team of all time?

Put it this way:

Would it be so terrible if it is?

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