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Finding Their Slot

It's not Las Vegas, it's Reno, and this team from Nevada isn't such a longshot now

March 23, 2004|Diane Pucin | Times Staff Writer

RENO — A judge is the scorekeeper. A field house is named after the mayor.

The casinos here are small and cozy, filled with men and women wearing blue jeans and boots and big hair and bigger hats. But no pizza-sized pendants or boulder-sized diamond earrings.

When Nevada Las Vegas went to its first Final Four in 1977, its fans stunned the locals in Atlanta with their sparkling accouterments and nouveau riche confidence. But this isn't UNLV. It's the University of Nevada. Not Nevada-Reno, not UNR. It is most definitely not Las Vegas. It's Wolf Pack. Not Wolfpack.

It's not Steve Wynn chartering jets and introducing Donald Trump to Vegas basketball. It's Gary and Glenn Carano, brothers who own the El Dorado Hotel and Casino and manage the Silver Legacy and who support University of Nevada athletics with their hearts and their wallets.

They are not insulted to be compared to Wynn. They just wish they could be more like him. "I wish we had that kind of money to give Nevada," Gary Carano said. But not because they feel inferior. Just because they love their Wolf Pack.

This week, everybody here loves their Wolf Pack, which is among the 16 teams still alive in the NCAA men's basketball tournament -- at No. 10 the lowest surviving seed and the lone rooting interest for anyone west of Kansas. They face No. 3-seeded Georgia Tech on Friday in St. Louis. If Reno is suddenly on the basketball map, it wasn't when Kevinn Pinkney, a junior forward, arrived from Colton. "I didn't know it existed," he said. "I didn't know there was a city called Reno."

And what did senior point guard Todd Okeson of Weskan, Kan., know? "I wasn't even sure there was a Reno. Then I got here and thought, 'This is big.' " How about you, Kirk Snyder, junior guard from Upland. What had you heard about Nevada or Reno or the Wolf Pack? "Absolutely nothing," Snyder said. "It could have been Southern Egypt for all I knew."

The players aren't ashamed. For what was there to know?

It's easy to be all about Wolf Pack and wearing blue and yelling "Sweet 16, Sweet 16," at the airport Sunday night when the newest members of March Madness, Class of Cinderella, arrived home after upsetting Michigan State and Gonzaga.

But how about the guy who has seen more than 800 Wolf Pack games in his life, who is a 58-year-old bankruptcy judge and is still the official scorekeeper? Why is Judge Gregg Zive willing to interrupt his day to tell stories, tales of modest accomplishments and discouraging embarrassments about a college basketball team of little renown?

"Because this is a small community that has its heart invested in the Wolf Pack," Zive said.

Here is the worst moment of Zive's 40-year love affair with Wolf Pack basketball.

"It was a Monday night game, Big Monday, ESPN was here," Zive said, recalling a stumbling, bumbling, disastrous exhibition of basketball in February 1993. "We played Pacific. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the broadcasters. It was dreadful."

Mike Daniel, a State Farm insurance agent and a Wolf Pack fan since 1975, had the same memory. "We got killed," Daniel said, "and at the end Kareem had just terrible things to say about us. Which we deserved. There couldn't have been 2,000 in the 11,000-seat arena at the end."

"Two thousand," Zive said. "Try 200."

The Wolf Pack lost, 81-69. It was one of 17 losses during Len Stevens' last year as coach.

There haven't been many outstanding moments for Wolf Pack basketball. There has been a team since 1913, and it has played in the Pacific Athletic Assn., the Far Western Conference, the West Coast Conference, the Big Sky, the Big West and now the Western Athletic Conference. There have been 12 conference titles won or shared, two NCAA appearances until now and two NITs. Until Thursday, when the Wolf Pack upset Michigan State, there had never been an NCAA tournament win.

Coach Sonny Allen took the Wolf Pack to the NCAA tournament in 1984 and 1985. In 1979 Jim Carey's team won an NIT game at Oregon State and lost at home to Texas A&M. Zive remembers that one too. Texas A&M had a three-point lead, no timeouts left and a guard trapped in the backcourt near the end of the game.

"So the A&M guard called timeout," Zive said. "Except they'd already used their last one. I had confirmed it with the refs, and everybody else when they called it. Well, Shelby Metcalf was the coach, and he went nuts because it was going to be a technical foul, we would have gotten a free throw and the ball and a chance to win.

"There was a lot of talking, the refs asked me again if they had used their final timeout, I said yes. And they still gave Shelby the timeout, A&M kept the ball and we lost. That's our history."

From 1966 to 73, the Wolf Pack was 33-118. "Pretty grim," Zive said.

"But you know what," Daniel said. "The community was always there. The university and Reno are all tied together. We are in this together, win or lose."

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