LAS VEGAS – His wife wasn't sure. His daughters were; they hated it. His coaching peers thought he'd lost his mind.
But here was Jerry Tarkanian, then 43 in the spring of 1973, staring at the city of Las Vegas and seeing not just slot machines and sketchy characters but a budding basketball oasis in the desert.
"I was probably the only one who saw Las Vegas, Nevada, as a college town," said Tark on his decision to leave Long Beach State for a school that had never been to even a NIT and a town that was still very much of the Bugsy Siegel era.
"Everybody laughed at me. Everybody laughed at Vegas."
The last laughs, of course, went to Tarkanian, who over the next 19 seasons went to four Final Fours, won the 1990 national championship and became an icon on the Strip and to Vegas itself, which did, indeed, become a hoops hotbed and this weekend will host the NBA All-Star game.
The NBA isn't in Las Vegas solely because of Tark, but his impact is everywhere, from the 18,500-seat arena UNLV built for him that will host the game to all the local fans that make this a place to stage everything from sprawling high school summer tournaments to USA Basketball camps.
It began with Tark and the start of a symbiotic run; the irascible coach representing the last true outlaw town in America. If Dean Smith was perfect for a place called Chapel Hill, N.C., and Bob Knight fit like a glove in a valued heartland of Indiana, then Tark in Vegas was equally a match.
Tarkanian had built his reputation in the 1960s as a progressive, color-blind junior college coach in and around Los Angeles. Just like the city of Las Vegas, he never cared who your daddy was. The son of Armenian immigrants and an indifferent junior college student himself, Tark didn't just play black players when it still wasn't universally fashionable, but he also played black players who other schools wouldn't touch – guys who might have a tattoo, a child or a rap sheet.
He gave everyone a second chance. He gave everyone an opportunity. Sort of like Vegas, especially back then.
"Las Vegas was a much better tourist destination when the mob ran it," said Tarkanian with a plate of pasta in front of him at his favorite restaurant, Piero's, near the convention center. "The mob's major concern was getting the first count in the casino cage. Once they got their money, they were happy as hell. They didn't care what it cost to get gamblers in, so food, room and booze were cheap."
It was a wild time and Tark reveled in it. He became fast friends with Frank Sinatra – the two would dine together at the Palace Court at Caesar's and Tark would attend Sinatra's parties that wouldn't begin until 2 a.m. "Which will tell you what kind of party that was," Tarkanian said.
In the spring of 1976, Tark hatched the idea that Sinatra could help him land a high school star named Mike O'Koren, who had an Italian-American mother and lived in Jersey City, N.J., right next to Sinatra's native Hoboken. So rather than going in for a home visit himself, Tark sent Sinatra, who sang some songs, posed for some pictures and told the star-struck family to send their boy to UNLV.
Then O'Koren signed with North Carolina. "Dean Smith might be the greatest recruiter ever; he beat Frank Sinatra on a kid from Jersey City," Tarkanian said.
And a year later, in the 1977 Final Four, O'Koren dropped 31 points on UNLV in an 84-83 Tar Heels victory.
"Every time he scored, I was ready to curse Sinatra for not closing out that recruiting deal," Tarkanian said. "That Frank Sinatra, he could really sing, but he sure couldn't recruit."
By the late 1970s Tarkanian was a huge celebrity in his own right in Las Vegas, beloved by locals not just for his team's high-action style of play but for also showing the rest of the country there was more to the city than just casinos and prostitutes. There was the time a friend of his with some "connections" in his past was fighting for a casino license. He sent in Tark as a character witness to the gambling board hearing. "It was me, Wayne Newton and a Catholic priest," Tarkanian said.
When the license came through, Tarkanian had the coveted power of the pen at the casino. "Anything you want, you just signed for it," laughed Tark. "Anything. And this is Vegas."
Not that it was any different at other casinos. As the wins piled up, everyone wanted Tark at their place ("I coached there 19 years and I bet I didn't pay for 19 meals"), and he preferred Piero's but soon found that to keep everyone happy he had to spread it around, nightly hauling his wife and four kids off for gourmet meals.
"The guy at Dunes would call and say, 'Tark, are you mad at us? You haven't been in lately.' So I'd get Lois and the kids and eat a big expensive meal," Tarkanian said. "It was unbelievable in Vegas then. I had to eat a prime rib dinner for free just to prove I wasn't mad at a guy."
Twice he was offered the head coaching job with the Los Angeles Lakers and considered leaving. The second time, in 1979, when new owner Jerry Buss offered him the job, Tark was all but gone, he and Lois even heading to L.A. to await the finalization of the contract.
His agent Vic Weis, a boyhood friend and businessman, was working out the details and was supposed to drive over to the hotel with the contract. But he never showed. The next morning Weis was found murdered, execution style, in the trunk of his Rolls Royce.
"The Long Beach paper ran an article that said the Vegas mob got him because he was trying to get me to leave UNLV," Tarkanian said. "It said the mob didn't want to lose me as coach of the Rebels. But that was crazy. I didn't believe that story."
Tarkanian, in the wake of the murder, decided to turn the Lakers down. Weis' murder is still unsolved.
Eventually, everything just got too big – the town and the program. Tarkanian waged a two-decade battle with the NCAA over recruiting investigations and the violation of his due process, eventually going all the way to the Supreme Court (Tark won and the NCAA, in 1998, paid him $2.5 million).
But in recruiting, he was constantly dealing with the perceptions of Vegas ("Other schools would tell the kid's mother the mob or the hookers were going to get her son") and as he brought in a string of high-maintenance players following wild recruitments, trouble eventually followed.
In most college towns, your local booster owns a restaurant or a car dealership. In Vegas, Lord knows what they own. So even after three more Final Fours and the legendary 1990 championship team that seemed to legitimize the program, Vegas bit back on its favored coach.
There was constant speculation that gamblers had gotten the players to shave points in the 1991 Final Four upset loss to Duke, something Tarkanian to this day vehemently denies.
"No one would have said that if we weren't from Las Vegas. Every March there are upsets – Bucknell over Kansas, George Mason over Connecticut – but when it occurs no one says Kansas or Connecticut was throwing the game. Like the mob couldn't get to a player at a school outside of Las Vegas.
"We lost to Duke, a team with three lottery picks and a great coach who goes on to win consecutive national championships, and people questioned whether we threw the game? It's unbelievable."
Just two months later, however, a photograph appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal of three UNLV players – Moses Scurry, Anderson Hunt and David Butler – drinking beer in a hot tub with a convicted game fixer, Richie Perry, an old friend of Scurry's from New York.
And that was that. Not even Vegas could allow Tarkanian to recover. "Recruiting became impossible," he said.
Tark resigned his coaching job and full professorship a year later, his team finishing on a 23-game win streak but barred from participating in the NCAA tournament. Since then, UNLV hasn't won a single NCAA tournament game.
The end of an era, indeed.
These days Tarkanian, 76, is still a huge star in a town he believed in first. His wife Lois is on the city council. His son Danny runs a basketball facility. He has 10 grandchildren. Whether he is at Piero's or shuffling to a casino coffee shop, he gets stopped, hugged and thanked.
Maybe especially so this weekend, the culmination of his bringing basketball to Las Vegas all those years ago.
- Jerry Tarkanian
- Las Vegas
- Frank Sinatra