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The Runnin’ Rebs of UNLV

I’ll admit it. For a supposed sports junkie, I haven’t followed the college hoops game much in recent years. With players at big-time programs rarely staying on for four years, the turnover makes it difficult to really get attached to a team. But recently I came upon the new HBO Sports documentary Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV, and I couldn’t stop watching. All of a sudden, college hoops became not only significant, but essential, again.

At the close of the Eighties, UNLV (University of Nevada at Las Vegas) was one of the country’s premier basketball programs, and I was entering high school. I liked UNLV because they played an up tempo style that emphasized running and defense. They were exciting to watch, and more exciting to try to emulate, even from the isolation of a solitary basketball hoop in a suburban driveway, thousands of miles from the raucous lights of Las Vegas. Barely into my teens, I couldn’t then understand the significance that UNLV’s success had on the college sports landscape, but now watching the documentary years later, it’s nearly impossible not to appreciate their impact.

“Las Vegas was and still is a frontier city, where the rules are still being written or haven’t been written,” the Vegas historian Dr. Mike Green explains in the documentary. “So when you looked at the basketball program, this is part of our image.”

The two images most representative of UNLV basketball at the height of its success was its bald, towel-chewing head coach, Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian, and his use of a run-and-gun, “street-ball” style of basketball.

When he arrived in Las Vegas in the Seventies, UNLV was “a relatively unknown program, but they had the resources and they had the potential,” Tarkanian remembers. “In fact, I told my wife, ‘Lois, this is gonna be like a college town.’ She said, ‘Are you kidding? You’re crazy. How could Vegas be a college town?'”

The nearly 20,000 fans who packed the Thomas & Mack Center for each UNLV home game might have agreed with their team’s coach, but the NCAA, who was constantly investigating UNLV and threatening to suspend Tarkanian for various violations, seemed to agree more with his wife.

While it is hard to imagine UNLV, or any other big-time college sports program, not committing any violations, Tarkanian did seem to draw more than his share of attention. “They clearly did not want UNLV and Tarkanian and these guys representing NCAA Basketball,” observes University of Southern California professor, Dr. Todd Boyd.

Tarkanian, who believed that it was “more important to educate than to graduate,” received both praise and criticism for his habit of recruiting African-American prospects from troubled inner-city neighborhoods, many of whom had repeated run-ins with the law, both before and after their arrival at UNLV. And many of whom, because of their past, were never recruited by anyone else. “There’s no question that Jerry took chances on kids that most coaches wouldn’t touch with a 100-foot pole,” admits Vegas hoops scribe Steve Carp.

Despite, or because of, this rebellious recruiting notoriety, Tarkanian and UNLV developed an almost devout following. “You saw a team of urban African-American males playing with a particular swagger, in your face,” continues Dr. Todd Boyd.

“There was a lot of people watching UNLV who were proud of the fact that this swagger was being seen on national television and this team was so victorious playing this particular style. The impact was profound in the inner cities, in the streets. … [And] there were a lot of other people watching UNLV who cringed and called them thugs.” – Dr. Todd Boyd

It is this labeling of the athletes at UNLV as thugs that so effectively foreshadowed the NBA’s attempts to revamp its own image as being un-thug-like, while still exploiting the urban culture of its (majority) African-American athletes, by doing things like instituting a corporate casual dress code, disallowing high school graduates to go straight to the NBA, and other thinly-veiled racist marketing strategies suggested by Matthew Dowd, the former image consultant of (former) President George Bush, who hoops commissioner David Stern hired to give his league more “red-state appeal.”

The captain of UNLV’s 1990 championship team was Greg Anthony, who, two years later, represented President Bush (I) as an official delegate at the Summer Olympics in Barcelona. The former Vice-Chairman of the Nevada Young Republicans, Anthony grew up in Nevada, where he dreamed of being his state’s first African-American Senator. He received his B.A. in Political Science.

So much for thuggery.

Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV is so invigorating entertaining because, in focusing on the rise and fall of a particular program at a particular moment in time, it documents so many of the issues that continue to plague and define big-time college sports: the dependence of unpaid, arguably exploited athletes to generate major sources of revenue for universities that are often facing significant financial shortages, and the NCAA’s own carefully-protected image of its amateur brand of athletic competition as more pure than the overly-monetized professional game. When in reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

The legacy of Tarkanian’s UNLV teams force us to take an honest look at the institution of college athletics, which includes all that is ugly and beautiful about sports in our society. And for that alone, Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV is worth a look. Especially during March Madness.

PETE REDINGTON has written about the politics of sports for In These Times and Z Magazine. Learn more about him at www.redingtonpete.com.