Perspective is a funny thing.
I remember growing up as a pre-teen in the early 1990′s when the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels were in their glory years and thinking they were the epitome of what was wrong about NCAA basketball. However, now that I’m in my early 30′s and looking back on that period of college basketball, I can openly root for the team and all they stood for.
I’ve come to realize what the Rebels meant to college basketball during that decade and I can warmly embrace all they brought to the game.
While watching HBO’s upcoming documentary “Runnin Rebels of UNLV,” there was some fantastic insight into how Jerry Tarkanian had to be convinced to leave Long Beach State through daily phone conversations that sometimes lasted for three hours.
Then, when he finally arrived at UNLV, Tarkanian and his wife needed to stay in a hotel during the start of the 1973 season until they could find proper accommodations.
Despite coaching some fantastic players like Reggie Theus, Robert Smith, Sydney Green and Armon Gilliam, the team had a tough time raising enough funds for basic things like a pre-game spread for the players and coaching staff.
“We didn’t have any money,” Tarkanian vented during the documentary. “Our pre-game meal was Kentucky Fried Chicken. We were right down the road from UCLA, and UCLA had Sam Gilbert at that time. Gilbert was a one-man boosters’ club and the NCAA did nothing to them. And we were being investigated. It was brutal.”
It was through all of this that the coaching staff and players started to form an “us against the world” mentality that many people involved with NCAA basketball came to loathe.
“You saw a team of urban African-American males playing with a particular swagger, in your face,” Todd Boyd explained during the documentary. “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. the caps, and the t-shirts, all the merchandising anything that had to do with UNLV, was very cool. Because to wear UNLV you were basically saying, ‘I too am a rebel and I identify with their rebellious spirit.’ There were a lot of other people watching UNLV who cringed and called them thugs.”
Adding to the fury of their critics was Tarkanian’s statement that it was “more important to educate than it is to graduate.”
Far from the ideal message for a high ranking member of an university to convey to the public – even if it may have been true.
The public’s perception of the team didn’t improve when Lloyd Daniels was arrested on drug charges just weeks before classes were supposed to start in the fall of 1987. This only helped to solidify the perception that the coaching staff and boosters associated with the team didn’t care about academics.
“There’s no question that Jerry (Tarkanian) took chances on kids that most coaches wouldn’t touch with a 100-foot pole,” Las Vegas college basketball writer Steve Carp admitted during the documentary.
The reality, however, is that players like Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson were loyal to the university and the basketball team. So much so that when Anthony smashed in a couple teeth and his jaw during the 24th game of the 1990 season he refused to tap out on the season.
Instead, Anthony showed up to practice the next day with his jaw wired shut while sporting a hockey helmet.
“As captain of the team it was important that I showed the guys I was committed,” Anthony explained in the HBO documentary.
Despite played with essentially a broken face that was taped up for the remainder of the season, Anthony helped orchestrate a 15-1 run to end UNLV’s season.
Once again this helped fuel their us against us mentality and their cocky swagger. While people not associated with the program looked down on them, this was nothing more than a band of teens and kids in their early 20′s rallying behind each other.
“They thought we were all thugs, and idiots, and dumb kids who were athletes,” Anthony vented during the documentary.
Instead of bowing to their scrutiny the team rallied around it.
“They tried to destroy that team every way they could,” Tarkanian reminisced. “I told the guys, ‘We can do one of two things. We can get pissed off and get tougher than hell mentally and kick the crap out of everybody, or else we could fold.’ Luckily we just kept getting tougher and tougher.”
Hopefully you’ll give this documentary a chance. Who knows, it may just change the way you view the coaching staff and players who were associated with this program in the early ’90′s.
Runnin Rebels of UNLV will air on HBO on March 12, 2011.