Nothing about after-school JV basketball practice on freezing cold lunchroom tile inspires a young man to greatness. Glancing toward the door in the middle of a mundane drill and laying eyes on the godfather of all things hoops in Las Vegas leaning silently against the wall, however, suddenly makes a teenager more willing to go all out.
That’s what happened when Jerry Tarkanian dropped in to watch his former player, Robert Smith, coaching our team that winter day in 1995. Everyone stopped, reverence for the architect of southern Nevada’s greatest sports achievement commandeering our focus on whatever play we were running.
The same thing happens now as news of Tark the Shark’s passing makes its way through town. Las Vegas pauses for a moment we knew might soon arrive but dreaded acknowledging, because of what Jerry Tarkanian meant to a community still bonded by his unprecedented record of success, a run cemented by the national championship he brought to UNLV.
Arriving here in 1989, the hysteria over UNLV basketball carried a palpable quality for me. Even the awkward sixth-grader coming from New York knew if he could talk about Larry Johnson and Stacey Augmon, he would have a shot with his new classmates. When UNLV rolled through Duke in the national finals, Las Vegas came together in a way it rarely does, the old guard and new waves of residents joined by the Rebels.
Tark gave us that. In return, we kept alive those feelings for him decades after his departure from the Runnin’ Rebels. If you were here in the ’70s, ’80s or early ’90s, you get it. Even if you weren’t here, you’ve likely heard enough Tark stories from those who were to understand why a man who hasn’t worked in Las Vegas for more than two decades still enjoys a king’s devotion. The court bears his name, and the statue outside the arena captures our lasting feelings for the man against whom we still measure anyone who sits in his chair on the UNLV bench.
My mother made me go to church for Easter vigil on the night of UNLV’s national semifinal against Duke in 1991, the penultimate step in our presumed coronation of an undefeated, back-to-back national champion. I fidgeted my way through Mass in the days before the real-time score updates of smartphones. When we came out, something felt wrong. No cars honking. No neighbors partying. A pall washed over our neighborhood, a cluster of homes three blocks from UNLV, which announced the sad final score long before we turned on the late news.
Here we are again, 24 years later, as another quiet casts over Las Vegas and we say goodbye to Tark, and thank him for bringing us together in a way no one else did.