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HBO’s ‘Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV’ effectively captures a moment in time

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UNLV coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian arrives to a Rebel red carpet at the world premiere of HBO’s “Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV” at Brenden Theaters at the Palms on Friday, Feb. 18, 2011.
Photo: Christopher DeVargas

Las Vegans frequently bemoan the city’s absence of “community” and the need for a shared bond to connect the town’s widespread citizenry.

It wasn’t always so. A college basketball team once stitched this patchy town into a single quilt.

They were the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV.

Runnin' Rebels of UNLV premiere

UNLV coaching legend Jerry Tarkanian speaks to reporters at the world premiere of HBO's "Runnin' Rebels of UNLV" at Brenden Theaters at the Palms on Friday, Feb. 18, 2011.

A smartly constructed and slickly edited HBO documentary by that very name, “Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV,” was screened Friday night at Brenden Theaters at the Palms. The film debuts March 12 and runs throughout the month.

The story tracks the UNLV basketball team’s impact on the city of Las Vegas and its mercurial rise to national prominence under Jerry Tarkanian. It does not disappoint.

In this documentary, there is no Rebel program before or after Tarkanian. The narrative begins with a description of Las Vegas in the early 1970s, a town whose appeal to tourists was waning and when the next big resort explosion was at least a decade away. Tarkanian arrived in 1973, having been lured to Las Vegas from Long Beach State by a rising political operative named Sig Rogich. The remote college outpost was referred to as “Tumbleweed Tech,” and when Jerry Tarkanian told his wife, Lois, that it could become a wonderful college town, she said, “I thought he was crazy.”

What plays out is the saga of a team and coach relentlessly dogged by the NCAA, famously creating as much buzz in court as on it. The Runnin’ Rebels were largely a traveling basketball circus, the college game’s dazzling version of the Harlem Globetrotters, and a program that was equal doses successful and tragic. Repeatedly, Tarkanian talks of how the team was unfairly pursued by the NCAA, which he says was interested in building a case against the program based on unrecorded interviews of student/athletes who might have done nothing more egregious than accept free meals.

“We had no money, and when I say we had no money, we had no money,” Tarkanian said in his post-screening comments to the packed Brenden Theaters audience. “Before games, we ate Kentucky Fried Chicken. I convinced my guys that if they ate steak, it would curl up in their stomach, and they wouldn’t be able to play.”

Funny. But somewhat sad, too. The movie effectively depicts the duality of Tarkanian’s UNLV tenure. Such triumphs as landing the nation’s best junior college player, Larry Johnson, are offset by grim footage of the infamous arrest of Lloyd Daniels, who was nabbed while trying to buy cocaine from an undercover agent in North Las Vegas. In one of the great PR nightmares in the city's history, the arrest video captured a handcuffed Daniels wearing a UNLV Rebels T-shirt; he never did don a UNLV uniform.

Dichotomies abound. The 1990 victory parade down the Strip, a priceless piece of footage showing fans flocking in front of Slots-A-Fun and the recently completed Mirage, is overtaken by an interview with an NCAA enforcement official claiming that there was so much “noise” coming from the UNLV program, there had to be serious violations to investigate. The photo of the 1990 Rebels accepting their NCAA championship trophy in Denver’s McNichols Arena is overshadowed by discussion of the damning 1989 photo of Richard “The Fixer” Perry hot-tubbing with Rebel players David Butler, Anderson Hunt and Moses Scurry in Las Vegas.

Greg Anthony speaks lovingly of Tarkanians’s willingness to take on risky college prospects and give impoverished players a chance to achieve a college education. “If it weren’t for (Tarkanian), I wouldn’t be where I am today.” But such testimonials are tempered by former Review-Journal reporter John Henderson’s account of his warts-and-all reporting of the program, including its poor graduation record, and the resulting trashing of his apartment.

“I’m not surprised,” Henderson recalls Tarkanian telling him in the aftermath of the incident. “There are people who want to kill you.”

Even as the team kept beating the crud out of opponents -- Tarkanian's record at UNLV was 509-145 -- the Rebels were undercut by their own school administration, a process the film chronicles in almost inexplicable fashion. UNLV President Robert Maxson’s ordered videotaping of an unauthorized practice at UNLV’s North Gym (concealing a camera in a vent behind one of the baskets) seems a better fit for a Coen Brothers comedy than a fact-driven documentary. And Tarkanian was driven from the school after amassing a record in his final two seasons -- 60-3 -- that would earn any other college coach a contract extension. Instead, the coach was forced to resign, and the team was banned from participating in the playoffs in Tarkanian’s final season, the penalty issued by the NCAA after its investigation of the Perry matter.

“Everybody loved our guys, all over the country, except the president here,” Tarkanian said during his appearance on the Brenden Theaters red carpet before the screening. “Everybody loved them except the president here, and Dennis Finfrock, the athletic director.”

The old coach is still fighting. It’s not clear which stings more, the loss to Duke in the 1991 national semifinals or his long, bruising battle with the NCAA. Near the end of the film, what might have been Tarkanian’s greatest triumph is revisited: His 1998 out-of-court settlement with the NCAA, in which the Blue Meanies turned over a check for $2.5 million to finally signal an end to the institution's warfare with the famous coach.

The crowd cheered when an image of that check played across the big screen. But even afterward, it was clear Tarkanian still bears scars from the fight. In his address to the audience, Tarkanian went on a lengthy soliloquy about the travails he suffered at the hands of the NCAA, repeating what he’d said in the film, that the institution would not back off because UNLV was an easy target, even dating to his days at Long Beach State.

“I could go on for hours about the NCAA,” he said as the crowd laughed. As Lois Tarkanian said afterward, at the party at the Palms' Hardwood Suite, revisiting that period “was a very bittersweet experience, and some of it was very hard on us.”

Clearly, "Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV" represents a finite period in this city’s history. They were of their time, starting with the mod styles of the mid-1970s and ending with such pop culture references as MC Hammer’s “2 Legit 2 Quit,” quoted by Larry Johnson.

It also is certain that, no matter what level of success is achieved by the current program under coach Lon Kruger, the impact on the city won’t be felt in the same way.

“We were a different city then,” Top Rank Boxing founder and longtime Las Vegas resident Bob Arum said before watching the film. “We were a smaller community. It was an amazing feeling that this university team captured everybody in the community, and made it live and die by the Rebels. .. It will never be the same.”

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats.

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