Topping the list is Tarkanian's involvement with Royal Reservations in the late 1970s. He was listed as a vice president in 1976 with a five-year contract. The company sold tickets to shows in Las Vegas hotels. "They wanted to get a ticket booth at the airport and thought they would have a better chance if I was part of their company," Tarkanian says. But airport officials decided against a ticket booth. Tarkanian stayed on, but says he "felt funny getting paid for not doing anything."
Tarkanian says his uneasiness grew when a friend on the Nevada Gaming Commission, among others, warned him to get out because of reports about the president of Royal Reservations, David Bliss. Tarkanian did in December, 1977. The following year, Bliss was accused of bribing a top county official but received immunity for his testimony. Five years later, he was fined $10,000 and placed on five years' probation for lying to a federal grand jury investigating skimming at mob-influenced casinos.
In a telephone interview, Bliss said: "I gave Tarkanian $100,000. I gave it to him to come (to Las Vegas). It was a gift for him to come here. I gave it to him over a year's time." Asked if the $100,000 was part of Tarkanian's salary, Bliss replied, "Whatever you want to call it. I gave him $100,000, that's all I know."
"He's full of it," counters Tarkanian. "He's a liar. I didn't even know him until I'd been here four years. I made $2,500 a month for about two years."
A former business associate of Bliss recalls: "Dave was griping all the time because Tark bugged him for his money every month and wasn't doing nothing, but Dave was stuck with him."
Danny and Lois understand Bliss' anger. "My father does stupid things for small amounts of money," says Danny. "I think it's because my father came from a Depression-era family."
Jerry Tarkanian was born Aug. 8, 1930, in Euclid, Ohio, the second of three children. He has an older sister and younger brother. His parents were Armenian refugees from the Turkish pogroms of the early 1900s. They ran a neighborhood grocery store, and lived above it with another family. At night, Tarkanian says, his father worked in a foundry. He died of pneumonia when Jerry was 11. His mother remarried when he was 13, and the family moved to Pasadena. Tarkanian discovered basketball. His friends were athletes. "We had a closeness in Pasadena that was unbelievable," Tarkanian says.
An older boy, Victor J. Weiss (pronounced Weese), would become "my dearest friend," he says. Both went to Pasadena City College and then separated. Tarkanian went on to play guard on the Fresno State basketball team, married Lois Huter in 1956, and began coaching. Weiss became an entrepreneur. He operated car dealerships, owned a stable of boxers, was seen with the late Rams owner Carroll Rosenbloom. Weiss drove a burgundy and white Rolls-Royce, wore a diamond pinky ring and was known as a big spender. Weiss said in 1979 that when he and Tarkanian "were at Pasadena City College we were considered two of the most unlikely to succeed. Now I'm a millionaire and he's the winningest."
At that time, Weiss was representing Tarkanian in secret negotiations to coach the Los Angeles Lakers for Jerry Buss, who was buying the team from Jack Kent Cooke. Weiss met with Buss and Cooke at the Beverly Comstock Hotel in June, 1979, to draft a contract. Weiss put the contract in his briefcase and left to call Tarkanian. The call was never made.
Weiss was found dead in the trunk of his Rolls-Royce two days later. He had been shot twice in the back of the head. He still wore his diamond ring and gold watch. Only the briefcase and perhaps some cash were missing. The media quickly learned of the Laker deal. Tarkanian says his friends and supporters in Las Vegas asked him to stay. "It was a matter of loyalty."
Though Weiss' murder is still unsolved, its motive soon became apparent. "He wasn't a millionaire and didn't own a car agency," says Detective Leroy Orozco of the Los Angeles Police Department. "Even the Rolls wasn't his. It was leased. Weiss was a gofer for the car agency. He owed a lot of money to the mob in Vegas--between $60,000 and $80,000. They used him to launder money--a bagman between here and Vegas. We have information he helped himself and they killed him."
Tarkanian recalls his shock: "We thought Vic was a highly successful businessman. That's why I wanted him to represent me. He was a close and loyal friend and nothing can change that."
THANKSGIVING AFTERnoon, Piero's is packed. The clientele are underprivileged children. Proprietor Glusman buys everybody's meal this day, as he did last Thanksgiving. Tarkanian arrives after morning practice to autograph pictures, shake hands. He hurries into the kitchen. Piero's is cooking a turkey for him to bring home. Tarkanian prowls the kitchen, sampling the food.