Jerry Tarkanian arrived with the help of a rolling walker for his long-overdue induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Sunday. The steep stairs were dressed with a red carpet, but the UNLV coaching legend, who built a powerhouse program in the Las Vegas desert and overcame plenty of adversity in guiding the Rebels to four Final Four appearances, wouldn’t be denied in the last steps to take his place alongside the sport’s other greats. He ditched the walker and, with the help of two grandsons, gingerly made his way up those stairs. Dressed sharply in a black suit with a white shirt and black tie, the 83-year-old coach showed he still has some fight.
“Coach is a gamer. Just like his coaching career when he rose to every occasion, that was true today,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, who joined Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Reggie Theus as former Rebels in attendance.
While the Hall of Fame class included NBA great Gary Payton, Louisville coach Rick Pitino and New York Knicks legend Bernard King, Tarkanian was the main attraction. Everywhere he went in three days of induction events, he was revered and praised for his contributions. Sure, it would have been great to hear Tarkanian deliver a speech in his trademark rasp, but the weekend still proved special.
Tarkanian’s speech was taped, and the four-minute video started with Lois, his wife of nearly 60 years, reading a statement by her husband. He was the son of poor Armenian immigrants and urged by his stepfather to become a barber, she read. But basketball was his true calling, and he used that passion to transform Las Vegas into a college basketball town. Tark’s Rebels played suffocating defense and used a fast-break offense. Tickets to a UNLV home game were impossible to come by in those days.
UNLV’s 30-point margin of victory against Duke in the 1990 national championship game under Tark is still the most lopsided margin of victory in title-game history, and Tarkanian won 80 percent of his games, which ranks in the top five all-time.
“I loved the game of basketball since my early memories,” Tarkanian said in his recorded speech. “Basketball has been good to me. I have been able to be comrades with some fine individuals in the coaching profession.”
Seconds later, the godfather of UNLV basketball was up, walking across the stage with the help of a walker. The crowd rose to its feet and started to clap. The applause lasted nearly two minutes.