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Remembering the big kid who was Glen Gondrezick

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Glen Gondrezick, days after receiving a transplanted heart.
Photo: Steve Marcus

I’ll always remember Gondo as a big kid. He was one of the most childlike grown-ups I’ve ever known.

He had this routine he’d pull on airplanes during Rebel road trips, and few understood the inner workings of commercial jet aircraft like Glen Gondrezick. If there were an optional use for a tray table, Styrofoam pillow or oxygen mask, Gondo would know it. At some point in his career -- whether it was as a Runnin’ Rebel or New York Knick or Denver Nugget is anyone’s guess -- he’d learned how to jimmy open a locked airplane lavatory door from the outside. He did this on the first trip we took after I started covering the team for the R-J, my job for two seasons from 1996-1998. Looking back, I think Gondo used a credit card and a quick yank to turn the open-the-bathroom-door trick. He’d pull this stunt on players new to the UNLV program. God help the freshman point guard -- and Mark Dickel is the luckless example who springs to mind -- who ambled to the loo once the "fasten seatbelts” sign clicked off.

Once we were flying back from a trip to Syracuse, and Gondo -- shaking up a dour scene after the Rebels were thumped by 20 points on national TV -- surprised a lavatory-inhabiting Tyrone Nesby. When the door slid open, Nesby, a lively star forward who had not yet experienced this shtick, shouted, “HEEEEY!” His yelp was so loud that passengers near the front of the plane craned urgently to see what was going on in the back.

Gondo

“Don’t worry,” I said. “It’s just Gondo.”

Sadly, almost unbelievably, the great Gondo died Monday night, reportedly of complications related to a heart transplant he underwent in September. The big man who lived and played with such zeal was only 53.

I never knew anyone quite like Gondo, certainly few who could command attention the way he did with his 6-foot 6-inch frame and towering personality. I won’t profess to have known Gondo for very long, mind you, or claim that we were life-long friends. But I did know him well for two years, two very intense years on the Rebel Tilt-A-Whirl. When I envision Gondo in my memories, he’s flashing that big, crooked smile that had mischief written all over it. Those days play out like snapshots now, but I have to laugh again at the night in Lawrence, Kansas, where UNLV would be devoured by the Kansas Jayhawks of then-coach Roy Williams. As was customary in those days, a bunch of us -- a veritable ship of fools during these road trips -- hit the nearest club/bar/tavern. I can’t recall the name of this haunt. It was a vast sports bar, a Jayhawk haven, but on this night, it was GondoLand.

We walked into this place, with Gondo striding ahead of the pack in his red-and-black UNLV jacket. He just took over the scene, talking to all these Jayhawk fans and telling them how the Hardway Eight would have blown that year’s KU team off the court. “We’d be favored by 19 ½, and we’d cover,” he said with his familiar crooked grin.

Someone asked him about Jayhawk star Raef LaFrentz, one of the nation’s top players of the day. “I could run circles around Raef LaFrentz,” Gondo said, probably accurately. “I’d run circles around Raef LaFrentz tonight.” I was put in charge of hustling drinks, and on one trip to the bar -- probably the fifth or sixth -- the bartender asked, “Who is that guy?”

“They call him, ‘Gondo,’ ” I said. “He’s a cross between Gonzo and Hondo Havlicek.”

I also remember Gondo saying that night if he were starting a team, he’d pick KU’s Paul Pierce first, saying, “He could have played for us.” From Gondo, it was the highest praise.

Audio Clip

Glen Gondrezick talks about how much prayers meant to him. (Oct. 2008)

Audio Clip

Gondrezick talks about what he's looking forward to. (Oct. 2008)

Audio Clip

Gondrezick talks about reaching out his donor's family. (Oct. 2008)

Sun Blog

We had a few nights like that in those days, with Gondo providing a heavy dose of brevity. He always liked that I remembered his playing career, particularly the 1976-77 season, when UNLV beat my hometown team, Idaho State, in the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional finals. That was the game that vaulted the celebrated Hardway Eight to the Final Four, where they lost 84-83 to North Carolina. Once in a while, I’d make a left-field reference (as if there were any other reference) to that Idaho State team. We’d be watching a UNLV opponent warming up prior to a game at the Thomas & Mack, and I’d say, “Hey, that guy reminds me of a young Scotty Gould,” bringing up the shooting guard on the ISU that team UNLV whipped in March 1977. “Yeah, but he’s no Ed Thompson,” was Gondo’s typical reply. He’d needle me by talking of the lopsided outcome of a recent game and adding, “It was a rout -- like the night we beat Idaho.”

I’d correct him, “It’s Idaho State, Gondo.”

“Whatever.”

I’d heard that if you thought Gondo was a holy terror on the basketball court, you should see him play volleyball. Once he invited me out to play on the sand court at Boomerangs Sports Bar, the sports club on Vegas Drive near U.S. 95. I went out there once, to watch, and sat on the patio next to the court. I was warned not to place any beverage on the high wooden plank off to the side, as Gondo’s kills and blocks could wipe out an entire round of drinks. I watched for about an hour, half-expecting someone to stagger away with a broken nose or concussion. During a break, Gondo walked off the court, his body covered in sand and sweat, his knees skinned and scabbed over. The guy was a world-class competitor.

The longest talk we ever had was about that 1976-77 team, for a story I was working on about the Hardway Eight’s 20th anniversary. We hung around after then-Rebel head coach Bill Bayno’s radio show at Barley’s Brew Pub and would have closed the place if it weren’t a 24-hour establishment. We talked for a long time about one of the great Rebel teams, certainly good enough to win the national championship. It was a different game, a different era, and Gondo was proud of his role in the evolution of UNLV basketball from a relatively nondescript program to an NCAA force. "In my freshman year, when I first got here (in 1973), you could sit anywhere in the Convention Center," he recalled. "But by the end of my senior year, you couldn't get a seat. ... We had overflow crowds, and they had to turn on big screens in the rotunda so people could watch the games.” He also talked of how the ultimate honor would be to have his No. 25 retired, along with his longtime friend and teammate Reggie Theus (which rightfully did happen in December 1997).

That night I brought with me a copy of the official box score and play-by-play sheet from the Rebels’ 1977 Final Four game, when North Carolina beat UNLV by a point. Twenty years later, Gondo was still seething about that game and told the story as we looked over the raw numbers. It was a somewhat masochistic exercise, this trip down memory lane. As longtime Rebel fans recall, UNLV entered the game on an 11-game winning streak and were celebrated as if they were the NCAA’s Harlem Globetrotters. They drew 10,000 fans to the Omni -- for practice. Against the Tar Heels, UNLV was up by 10 in early the second half and were leading 55-50 when Gondo accidentally smashed Rebel center Larry Moffett in the face with an elbow while Gondo was snaring a rebound. Moffett left the game with a broken nose, and the Rebels went for a long stretch without a center as North Carolina reeled off nine straight points to go up 59-55.

UNLV never led again as the Tar Heels spread the court in the loathed (unless you were a pre-shot-clock North Carolina fan) four-corners offense. “The four-corners, to me, is not basketball,” Gondo said. “But (Tar Heels coach) Dean Smith won a lot of games with it.” We counted the number of perimeter shots UNLV hit that would have been three-pointers in today’s game: 13. For North Carolina? None. The foul disparity, too, was forever a source of angst for Gondo -- UNC was 18-for-28 from the foul line; UNLV went 1-for-5. The Rebels didn’t shoot a free throw in the second half, and Gondo was called for a series of blocking fouls that he insisted were charges, as sacrificing his body to draw offensive fouls was a hallmark of his career.

After we’d exhausted that game, I said to Gondo that it was a shame his college career had to end that way. But he corrected me: In those days, the NCAA required the losing teams in the Final Four to play a consolation game for third place. The Rebels won that game, 106-94 over the University of North Carolina-Charlotte. It was Gondo’s last as a Rebel.

“We shouldn’t have had to play that game, but we did,” he said. “So I went out a winner.”

Yes, he did. Too young to leave us, certainly, but I’m not sure I can imagine an elderly Gondo. There might have been greater players to wear the Rebel uniform, but there were no greater Rebels. I’ll remember Gondo as that, and as a big kid who once brought a lot of life to mine.

•••

A memorial service for Glen Gondrezick will be held at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV.

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