Rebels Without A Pause

With the regular season wrapped up and teams punching their tickets to the Big Dance, what better time to take a look back at some of the best and most entertaining college teams from the last 25 years? Earlier this week, we took a look at a Fab Five story from SLAM 52 (June ’01) and  a ’99 National Champion UConn Huskies story from SLAM 29. Yesterday, we had a story from our good friend Cub Buenning about the highly talented, yet controversial ’07-08 Memphis Tigers team led by John Calipari and Derrick Rose from SLAM 114 (February ’08) . Today, we have an awesome story about the high-powered, high-octane ’89-90 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels from SLAM 50 (April ’01). UNLV was led by Larry Johnson and coach Jerry Tarkanian and dominated on both ends of the floor. They left a path of destruction during the season, and absolutely destroyed Duke in the ’90 National Championship game. This year’s team is led by Mike Moser and they are arguably the best team from the West Coast playing in this year’s Big Dance. Enjoy this look back at a classic piece, and expect plenty more to come as the NCAA Tournament approaches.—Ed.

by Mike 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-wracking 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 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 Flanagan, or some combination of the two. The king of second chances, he simply can’t turnaway 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 a real-life 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 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,” Tarkanian says from his office at Fresno State. “Greg Anthony was our spokesperson, Larry Johnson outworked everybody in practice and Stacey Augmon was 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.”