The best show in Las Vegas these days isn't playing at Caesars Palace or the MGM Grand but at the Las Vegas Convention Center. It's called the University of Nevada, Las Vegas basketball team, and it stars high-steppin' talent under the direction of a balding, sad-eyed Armenian guy who looks and sometimes talks like an old burlesque comic. Call him Slapsie Maxie Tarkanian.
Yes, Coach Jerry Tarkanian has his Runnin' Rebels out of the gate faster than any other NCAA Division I team. After last week's two Pacific Coast Athletic Association victories—over Cal State-Long Beach by 95-83 and over Cal State-Fullerton by 76-71 in the Convention Center, a.k.a. Tark's Shark Tank—UNLV was the only unbeaten major-college team in the nation, with 16 straight wins. Unranked in the preseason, the Rebels are now No. 3 in SI's poll. That's Vegas' highest ranking since 1977, when it made the Final Four, losing in the national semis to North Carolina.
Of course, Tarkanian's high-gloss productions are nothing new. The problem has been that, like a tourist's stake at a slot machine, they haven't gone very far. Despite an abundance of talent, the Rebels haven't returned to the NCAA tournament since '77, falling in the second round of the NIT last year to Tulane and in the semifinals to Illinois in 1979-80.
But the NIT is a lounge act in college hoops; the NCAA tournament is the big room.
No wonder Tarkanian, who considers himself a headliner all the way, has enough derogatory one-liners about last season's team to impress Henny Young-man. Take my team...please.
"I didn't like my team last year," says Tark. "I didn't have a banquet for them and we went 20-10. That's not bad, but I never have a banquet when I don't like a team, because you have to say nice things and what's the sense of lying."
The Rebels spent much of last season in disarray, with the regulars in uneasy competition with the reserves. "There were days when I didn't even feel like coming to practice," says Vegas Center Sidney Green, who through last weekend led this year's Rebels in scoring (21.0 points per game) and rebounding (12.0). "People were looking to hurt each other out there because they wanted to be playing." Michael Burns and Greg Goorjian left the team during the season, Burns being dropped for academic deficiencies and Goorjian transferring to Loyola Marymount, where he now plays for his father. Fab freshman Dwayne Polee and juco transfer Richie Adams were unhappy, too. Polee was homesick for Los Angeles and transferred to Pepperdine after the season, while Adams went AWOL once last season and didn't return until late October. He left again and went back to his native New York City. It's anybody's guess whether he'll come back next season.
"The last couple years, last year especially but even the year he went to the Final Four, it didn't seem that Tark had the players as together as they should've been," says Long Beach Assistant Coach Ed Ratleff, an All-America under Tarkanian at Long Beach in the early '70s. "It just seemed like he lost control of the team. When I played for him he always had things together. And it looks to me like his guys are playing more together now, more like they used to."
Green's inconsistency had been a Rebel shortcoming since 1979-80, when he became an instant starter as a freshman after a storied New York schoolboy career. There has been nothing erratic about his play this year, though. "The word was out that the pro scouts didn't think I was tough enough," Green says. "I guess I always thought my talent would get me by. I was wrong. Coach Tark told me at the beginning of this year, 'Sid, it's the NBA or Europe.' And I know which one has always been my dream. I dedicated myself to it."
Green began a serious weight-training program last summer and is still lifting twice a week. His best bench press when he began was a paltry 135 pounds; he's now up to 250. That extra strength convinced Tarkanian to move Green back to the post; he played mostly on the wing last year, with Adams and Michael Johnson splitting the time at center. That doesn't fit Green's pro plans. He's an un-intimidating 6'9" who will probably play forward—in the NBA. But that doesn't bother Green. Inconsistency, not a bad attitude, has always been his burden.