The vision endures: a tight game. A close call. Feelings on edge. The home team cheerleaders gather along the baseline at Oklahoma's Lloyd Noble Arena, screaming for support from the crowd. Susan Molasky, the wife of the co-founder of Lorimar Studios and a founding partner of the Lacosta (Calif.) Hotel and Spa, races down the aisle in furs, leather, jewelry and assorted other regalia. She came from Las Vegas and supports the Runnin' Rebels of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She's not here looking to cast the next Charlene Tilton. Or to get a massage. She's not even happy. Uh-oh. Molasky stops a few feet away and faces the cheerleaders. She thrusts out her arm. She jabs her middle finger high. Molasky shouts, "F——you!"
Hard by the glaze of the Vegas strip; amid the NCAA charges, investigations, and lawsuits; right there with all the slings and arrows of outrageous reputation—if a Rebel player can't turn pro, he can always turn cards—at the heart of the UNLV basketball program, the outside world would probably be astonished to find an actual heart, impassioned fans and even a real university.
The outsiders' mindset is characterized by the question Vegas residents have been plagued with for years by many of the 17.2 million tourists who annually visit their fair city: What hotel do you live in?
There are houses and schools and churches (plus the 483,692 wedding chapels lining Las Vegas Boulevard) and lawn mowers and car pools in Sodom-on-the-sand. And there are live students who actually attend classes at UNLV, no kidding, barely five blocks from the Strip. They go to lectures and labs right around the corner from Jerry Tarkanian Way, in fact, even though they go for somewhat different reasons than the slump-shouldered, perpetually worried Tark, the UNLV basketball coach, sometimes seems to imagine.
"I've been hearing about some of you guys missing class," he said to his basketball team a few weeks into preseason practice. "Anybody misses class, we're going to run you at six a.m., run you till you vomit. There's no excuse for this. We can't have you missing class. You miss class, you lose your scholarship. You miss class, you can't play. You can't play, and there goes our depth."
Depth of pockets, on the other hand, Las Vegas has. The weird thing is that until Tarkanian arrived and the basketball team started winning, nobody at UNLV really tapped into the most obvious pockets, the ones belonging to the members of the UNLV Foundation, now chaired by Elaine Wynn, a board member of Golden Nugget, Inc., the parent company of her husband Steve's new Mirage Hotel and Casino.
For all of Tarkanian's negatives—his cavalier attitude toward education being foremost—say this for him: While building a basketball program this close to the NCAA edge, Tarkanian somehow coincidentally gave life to a stagnant university. And his team has become a rallying point for a community in dire need of one.
The multimillion-dollar fights come and go in the Vegas parking lots. Jerry's Kids show up only on Labor Day. Frank, Sammy and Don Rickles, fixtures on the marquees lining the Strip, live in L.A. Even local boy Wayne Newton plays gigs in Atlantyuk! City. But UNLV basketball stays right there, homeboys through and through, the one national entity Vegas can call its own.
"There was a time when I was a Rebel fanatic, but I wasn't really involved with the university," Elaine Wynn said the other day while planning the rather subdued opening of the Mirage so that the pools containing the live dolphins would not be set aboiling by the flames from the exploding volcano. "When the team got a place to play on the campus [the 18,500-seat Thomas & Mack Center], we all discovered that there actually was a campus. Students went there. It was wholesome and beautiful. Steve and I have 8,000 employees at the Mirage and the Golden Nugget. We have to be concerned about the welfare and educational opportunities for these people's families in Las Vegas. Naturally, I got pulled to the academic side of UNLV."
Some pull. In the past three years the 50-member foundation has raised more than $50 million for capital improvements—not basketball improvements—at UNLV. "Las Vegas is a community that wants desperately to be respected," says Wynn. "We bend over backward to lead normal lives. It fills this town with great pride to present anything of such high quality as the Rebels. But if you were to take a poll in the community, I bet eight of every 10 people would say their prime concern is that UNLV make it big as an academic institution."