Original Old School: Rebels Without a Pause
The ’89-90 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels blinged their way to the title 20 years ago.
Time has the tendency to fly by. If your eyes stutter-step, you miss a day. Fall asleep, you miss a month. Get caught up in work, you miss a year. This point was hammered home today, when we—Ben really—came to the realization that it has been just about 20 years since the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels ruled the world, and were owners of an NCAA Championship. That means it’s been 20 years since Larry “Grandmama” Johnson, Greg “The Mouth” Anthony and Stacey “Plastic Man” Augmon held court on the Strip like it was never held before and hasn’t been since. It being March, and our memories needing some jogging, we decided to un-archive this classic from SLAM 50. Let your eyes do the walking. —Tzvi Twersky
by Michael McNulty
Because a passion for basketball flows through his veins, Anderson Hunt boards a plane destined for Saudi Arabia. Somewhere out in the vast desert a franchise posted a sign: Guard Needed. Hooping for a living beats punching a clock, so he deals with the long, grueling flight to a foreign land. And like many of us, he’ll use relaxation techniques to combat a nerve-racking take-off, turbulence and boredom.
No worries. Hunt has his routine down cold. As the immense bird lifts off Detroit soil, he shuts his eyes, leans back in his coach seat and thinks about his younger glory days playing in a desert closer to home—a place from which Hunt’s UNLV crew once ruled college basketball like the mob once ruled Las Vegas.
The Runnin’ Rebels didn’t just beat teams 11 seasons ago. They annihilated opponents with a flurry of athletic talent and sheer intensity. Forget the work-it-around-the-perimeter-and-wait-for-a-good-shot mentality. Booooring. It never would have played in a town that allows slot machines in the john. This team had things to do after the game. Parties to attend. People to see. They wanted to outshoot you, outhustle you, outbreak you and—most importantly—outscore you. The ’89-90 team averaged 93.5 points per game—including 16 games of 100 points or more—while holding opponents to 78.5.
Bordering the infamous Strip, which was less Disney-fied in those days, the University of Nevada-Las Vegas had the perfect attitude to represent its gun-slinging city: flashy, gaudy, high-rolling, glittering, over-the-top basketball. The season started with a win over Loyola Marymount and culminated in Denver with a 103-73 demolition of mighty Duke in the ’90 Championship—the biggest margin of victory in an NCAA title game and quite possibly the most embarrassing loss in Blue Devils history.
The architect behind the delicious madness was Jerry Tarkanian, who—regardless of what you think of him—deserves props for molding a band of recruits from across the country into one of sport’s greatest shows. Forget Wayne Newton or Ol’ Blue Eyes. When the Rebs dazzled the Thomas & Mack Center with their five-man medley, it was the toughest ticket around. This UNLV squad was the original bling-bling team. It showed us winning needn’t be conservative, that it can be fast and furious, sizzling and soulful. And it all began with the man they call Tark.
Depending on who you ask, Tark the Shark is either Tony Soprano, Father Flannigan, or a combination of the two. The king of second chances, he simply can’t turn away a hard-luck case—at least, not one with All-American talent. Still, he probably never received enough credit for winning a startling 83 percent of his games while at Vegas. While Bobby “Bail Bondsman” Bowden is a mythic figure and Bobby Knight’s supporters idolize the General like an actual war hero, the man with sleepy eyes never receives his full coaching due.
You might argue the backup waterboy could have coached three future NBA top-12 picks (Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony) to a ring in ’90. Two quick counterpoints. One, have you heard of Michigan’s Fab Five? No ring there. Two, such a comment underestimates Tark’s ability to trust his players and delegate power.
With his familiar moist towel clamped between his teeth, he engineered the Runnin’ Rebs’ 35-5 blitzkrieg through college hoops.
“It started with our general, who was Coach Tarkanian,” says Johnson, the Knick forward who was a junior during in ’89-90. “The way he coached, and his coaching staff, made us what we were. He brought out the best in everybody. He was an excellent player’s coach. Everybody loved him and we were all a team, we were all like brothers.”
Some teams are tight. Some are close. But UNLV enjoyed a bond that never frayed. Every guy interviewed for this story made a family reference when discussing the ’89-90 squad. One big fraternity. Brothers. The fellas. Even the coach couldn’t resist drawing the same analogy.
“That was a great group of guys, a close-knit family,” Tarkanian says from his office at Fresno State. “Greg Anthony was our spokesperson, Larry Johnson outworked everybody in practice and Stacey Augmon was as tough as nails.”
Another key to success: Know your roles. Four guys can’t drop a triple-double every night. Despite its surplus of talented individuals, UNLV perfected the art of suppressing ego and avoiding jealousy.
“We had the type of players who understood the value of being unselfish and the value of just winning,” Johnson says. “We were all pulling for each other. It was a unique opportunity where everyone is on the same page as far as trying to do the right thing, trying not to be selfish, trying to make the right play at all times.”
Where did the stress-free environment originate? Was it luck? Did the five starters—as well as sixth-man specialist Moses Scurry, who was imported from St. John’s—just happen to mesh?
“It was instilled by the coaches,” says Augmon, like Anthony a member of the Portland Trail Blazers. “The games were easier than the practices. For two hours, we drilled. We worked harder than anybody else.”
Augmon, who played high school ball in Pasadena, CA, jokes he may not have attended UNLV if he knew practices would be sweaty, disciplined workouts. But intense practices may have been UNLV’s brilliant secret. While its exterior sparkled with Vegas hype, the team’s interior was comprised of fierce loyalty, a Puritan work ethic and a coaching staff that knew how to extract the most production from each individual. That’s where assistant coach Tim Grgurich emerged as a vital figure in the team’s success. Without him, the Rebels lose their structure.
“Coach Grgurich held us all together,” says Hunt, who started in the backcourt with Anthony. “During timeouts, people would come, sit down, and look at Coach Grgurich. Coach Tarkanian was more of the media guy. As far as keeping us out of trouble, it was Coach Grgurich.”
You want trouble? Walk 100 yards from the Vegas campus and you’ve entered the mecca of mischief. Gambling. Liquor. Drugs. Prostitution. All on one five-mile stretch of pavement. Average college dudes have enough problems avoiding vice in sleepy university towns. Try and imagine how a 20-something male—particularly a star athlete—avoids the Strip’s allure.
Says Hunt: “I only have one regret. It wasn’t a Chapel Hill or a Bloomington or an Ann Arbor. There was a lot of temptation. Las Vegas is not a college town. That’s what I really missed.”
If Grgurich was the one steering the Rebs clear of trouble off the court, he was also the one providing much of the leadership on it. According to Hunt, Grgurich (now a Trail Blazers assistant who doesn’t speak to the media) was the hands-on micro-manager. Tarkanian was the macro-manager, concerning himself with the big picture.
“He was an X’s and O’s guy strictly on defense,” Johnson says of Tark. “On offense he let your natural talent take over.”
Tarkanian’s genius was in dealing with relationships. The guy is revered by his players, and it’s pretty much impossible to find an ex-player who badmouths Tark. The reason seems logical: He’s a father figure. He understands where these kids come from, what situations they faced before arriving in his locker room. From there, he gives them a lifetime supply of second chances. And love.
“He was more than just a coach on the floor. He was a guy you could talk to,” Johnson says. “Not only the number one [guy] but the two, three, four, five guys. Anybody on our team could go and talk to Coach Tarkanian. That was the unique thing about it.”
Tark also dispensed confidence. For instance, he took a timid Stacey Augmon and helped shape him into a force. Known as Plastic Man for his elastic abilities, Augmon arrived at UNLV apprehensive.
“He’s really a personal guy, he’s a motivational guy,” Augmon says. “He makes you believe in yourself. He would say, ‘Stacey, you’re a scorer, you can do it.’ I didn’t believe it at first. But he cares a lot about us.”
Tark also got his team to believe a championship was a realistic goal. “We thought we had as good a chance as anybody,” he says. Don’t let that ho-hum attitude fool you. Behind closed doors, he outlined a title route a year in advance.
Tark knew his team’s motivation to get to Denver started in Denver. In the spring of ’89, UNLV played P.J. Carlesimo’s Seton Hall Pirates at McNichols Arena in the Mile High City. The winner earned a trip to the Final Four in Seattle. Despite the presence of LJ, Augmon, Hunt and Anthony, the Rebs were beaten soundly. Tark told his players to use the loss for motivation. Hunt recalls leaving Denver with the attitude of: “We’ll be back in one year.”
Entering the fall of ’89, Tark looked for the right combinations. He let Anthony, who went around telling people he was a young Republican, handle the ball and run his mouth from tip-off until the final horn. And nobody talked more than Greg Anthony. “After he broke his jaw, he still led the team in technicals,” Hunt laughs. “That was after he got his jaw wired up.”
Meanwhile, LJ spoke more with his team-leading 20.6 points and 11.4 rebounds a game. Though still a starter for the Knicks, Johnson finds himself on the downslope of a long NBA career. Winning a pro ring may never happen. But one thing is certain. Larry Johnson has always kept himself in phenomenal shape—just like at UNLV.
“Before the season started, we were playing a pickup game,” Hunt recalls. “Me and Larry were on different teams. I went up for a rebound, and I thought I had it, but he came right over me and bumped me out of the way. My shoulder hurt for two weeks after that. He was one of those guys where his body is like four percent body fat. It’s cut up. It’s like a Greek god.”
Assisting Johnson was the cagey Augmon, who averaged 14.2 points and 6.9 boards. In addition, an unheralded individual on the title team was David Butler, a 6-10 senior center who, last anyone heard, was playing ball in Cyprus. Butler’s 15.8 points and 7.4 boards were crucial. Meanwhile, Hunt became the Rebels’ second-leading scorer thanks to his speed on the break and silky three-point stroke.
That left Moses Scurry to come off the bench. Despite his omnipresent smile, Scurry was a bulky 6-7 Brooklyn senior who intimidated opponents with nasty shoulders and quick hands. He spelled Butler, Johnson or Augmon and became a solid college player. After going out on top, he never made it in the pros and now works at the Hard Rock Cafe in Vegas. Although he looks back on the season fondly, but says if he had to do it all over again, he never would have left St. John’s.
“I would have been better off as far as longevity and playing time—and self-confidence,” he says now. But that doesn’t mean Scurry doesn’t have warm memories of his time with Tark. “I think about it almost every day,” he admits.
Out of the 40 games they played that season, the ’89-90 Runnin’ Rebels suffered just five losses: to Kansas in the preseason NIT on a neutral court in New York; and to Oklahoma, New Mexico State, LSU, and UC Santa Barbara, all on the road. On the surface, that final defeat looks like bad. But the Gauchos qualified for the NCAA tournament and almost pulled off another regular-season upset of the Rebels when they lost by only two points in Vegas.
It wasn’t the only close call. Despite winning 21 of 22 to finish out the season, the Rebs nearly dribbled the title off their foot with an aorta-gouging 69-67 squeaker over Ball State in the NCAA regional semifinals. Call it an aberration, because UNLV then went on to beat Loyola—which had ridden the emotion of Hank Gathers’ memory all the way to the Elite Eight—131-101 only two days later to earn a Final Four spot.
Finally, it was back to Denver, where the championship seed had been planted a year earlier. The Final Four was played in the cozy confines of 17,000-seat McNichols Arena, a bi-level gym built in the ’70s. Despite excellent sight lines, the antiquated building has since been razed—which is exactly what UNLV did to Kenny Anderson and the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the semifinals. After a 90-81 run-you-off-the-floor win over Bobby Cremins’s Ramblin’ Wreck, the Blue Devils got next in the Championship Game.
Perhaps using the word “racist” is overly harsh, but there were obvious stereotypes heading into the finals. Duke, which played Bobby Hurley (a total non-factor against the Rebs because of a stomach virus) at point and Christian Laettner in the frontcourt, was a school known for its scholarly background, discipline and upper-crust breeding. UNLV was perceived as the exact opposite. The athletes didn’t care about attending class, right? The Strip and all its evil permeated the entire program. Coach K stood for truth, justice and the American way. Coach Tark was the Vegas rogue who overlooked NCAA rules.
“When they compared us to Duke, we were the bad boys,” Scurry says. “But at the same time, we were people too.”
The preppy academics from the white-collar, high-minded East Coast institution were royal flushed, 103-73, by their slick, high-flying Vegas opponents. Most games contain ebbs and flows, or at least a handful of key moments and squandered opportunities that define the contest, but not this one. UNLV treated Duke like an annoying fly buzzing around the kitchen table. It nonchalantly rolled up the nearest section of newspaper, took aim and swatted the pest with a quick, precise stroke. Splat! Up 57-47 early in the second half, the desert posse cashed in its chips for an 18-0 run over a 2:51 span. Hunt scored 12 during that streak and finished with 29 and the MVP trophy. Duke limped back to Tobacco Road to regroup.
“That’s the best any team has played against us—ever,” Coach K said to reporters following the game. But ask the Rebs about that magical night, and they have trouble explaining it.
Says Tark: “Everything went right.” Hunt says: “I thought we were going to win, but to be truthful I didn’t think we were going to beat them by 30.” And Augmon: “We really surprised ourselves. It was one of those days when everything fell.”
One year later, UNLV could have used another one of those magical days. Following the elation of the championship in Denver, the Rebels didn’t lose a game until the ’91 Final Four. Then, despite having the nucleus back and Tark saying it was “our best team,” the Rebels were ambushed by Duke, which avenged their 30-point Denver debacle. No repeat for a team certain to repeat.
But they’ll always have ’90. They always have the night when all was right. And you know what’s ironic? A guy like Anderson Hunt, who flies all over the globe looking for a game to play, doesn’t miss wearing a UNLV jersey as much as the camaraderie.
“Road trips, going to parties, having fun with all the fellas, going bowling,” Hunt says, listing the memories. “You can’t get your college years back, but you never forget.”