It’s Friday night at the Thomas & Mack Center, and UNLV’s Runnin’ Rebels are warming up for the Portland State Vikings. A symphony of sneaker screeches and swooshes from the court surrounds me as I shuffle down the sideline, the stands above filling with a slow trickle of UNLV fans.
I’ve never been courtside at a UNLV basketball game before, but tonight’s game is no ordinary game for me. Tonight, I’m with the band—the UNLV Runnin’ Rebel Pep Band.
Saxophone in hand, I make my way past the band and student section and disappear underneath the arena to a storage space near the locker rooms. I nervously assemble my instrument and decide to play my first few notes with the band, saving the nearby audio/visual techies from the warm-up routine I haven’t done in almost a decade. The last time I seriously played the sax was at my 2005 high school graduation (oddly enough, it was also at the T&M).
“‘Locked Out of Heaven!’” scream the trombonists and saxophonists as I ascend the risers to take my place among the band’s 40 or so members. After apologies from the trumpeters for future attacks on my right ear, we’re deep into the Bruno Mars favorite. It’s around this time when I realize: 1. I’m wearing jeans. 2. The band is wearing black slacks. 3. My high school band teacher is going to cringe when she reads this detail.
Before I could don the requisite red-and-black polo for game day, I had to pay my dues. The Rebel Pep Band rehearses Monday evenings, and for two humbling rehearsals I joined them, literally dusting off my sax before arriving on campus.
I once considered myself a decent sight-reader, but even after running down songs multiple times, I was still skipping sixteenth-note passages and confusing treble clef notes for their bass clef equivalents. The band might not play Beethoven’s Fifth, but its selections are definitely no walk in the park.
UNLV’s pep band performs at each Runnin’ Rebels home game, playing current radio hits and time-honored jock jams before tip-off, during time-outs and at half time. The group also plays for the Lady Rebels (unless there’s a schedule conflict) and for special UNLV events, such as the unveiling of the Tarkanian statue last month.
After two rehearsals, I was deemed ready to represent the scarlet and gray with axe in hand. And so, wearing my band polo shirt, I find myself in the thick of it, ready to play a game with the pep band for the first time.
With less than five minutes before tip-off, fans are on their feet, clutching beers and dancing as we run through “Locked Out of Heaven,” Weezer’s “Beverly Hills” and jock jam “The Hey Song.” I didn’t rehearse the Weezer track with the band, so I can’t stop laughing when the entire Rebellion student section chimes in on the chorus: “U-N-L-V. That’s where I want to be! We are much better than you.”
Between the band’s jams, radio hits play through the Thomas & Mack speakers. A trio of saxophonists starts an impromptu play-along to Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines.” Oh, band nerds.
The clock nears double-zero: pre-show time. The national anthem is sung a capella, the players are announced and we run down UNLV fight song “Win With the Rebels” and Elvis classic “Viva Las Vegas.” All that’s left is the Jaws theme song, always played right before tip-off. While the crowd struggles to stay on beat with its shark-mouth claps, I struggle with getting my 15-year-old instrument to play the bellowing C-sharp. And then, game time!
UNLV’s pep band is made up of both UNLV students (music and non-music majors) and individuals not seeking degrees, as the music course can be taken for credit or not. Many alumni stay in the band long after they graduate, like saxophonist “Doc” Bill Carpi, who has been playing with the band for years and sometimes takes a turn as conductor.
And it’s obvious these musicians play for the fun of it. As the Rebels get going we’re all on out feet, ready to cheer for a swoosh or curse the referee’s whistle.
“Hey, Knee Pads! What happened to your ball?” yells the trumpeter behind me at a Vikings player.
Soon we’re deep into the game, the Rebs neck and neck with Portland State. Clearly the moment calls for a battle song. “Mortal Kombat at the time-out!” shout the musicians below me. Perfect.
Before I know it we’re playing the thing, and then, just as suddenly, we’re done. Whenever pep band director and professor Anthony LaBounty finds the time, we’re performing, rushing through hits like Ozzy Osbourne’s “I Don’t Wanna Stop,” “Outkast’s “So Fresh, So Clean” and “Move, Dude” in lieu of Ludacris’ “Move, B*tch.” The band is a well-oiled machine, and I am its temporary squeaky wheel. Sometimes I simply can’t keep up. The last time I played in a pep band, George W. Bush was president and I was playing piccolo.
With minutes left in the game UNLV is nearing 70 points with a comfortable lead over the Vikings. That’s when I hear it: “WE WANT TACOS! WE WANT TACOS!”
The crowd is cheering for free Jack in the Box—a win with 70 or more points means taco coupons at the exit—but the band is still alert, waiting to play the fight song at the sound of the buzzer. “He always calls it at the double-zero,” says fellow saxophonist Nate Harris.
Even though I’ve sung “Win With the Rebels” countless times during my days at UNLV and in the years since, playing it with the band just feet from the court makes the song feel even sweeter.
I might have been a temporary pep band member, but like the rest of the musicians, I’m a Rebel for life.
UNLV vs. Illinois November 26, 7:45 p.m., $25-$135.