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July 31, 2014

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A Runnin’ Rebel helps lead the Sahara to the final horn

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John Katsilometes

Tony Smith, shown next to a bank of safety deposit boxes no longer in commission at the Sahara front desk.

Ever run into someone who at first blush looks terrifically familiar, yet you can’t readily figure out why?

The man who checked me into my room for a final weekend stay at the Sahara was such a person.

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The pool at Sahara, a day before the hotel closes.

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A Sahara housekeeping supply cart, on the hotel's 24th floor.

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Betty the Yetti, the queen of casino-floor slots at the Sahara.

There was a familiarity to the tall, slender man who introduced himself as Tony Smith.

“Tony Smith,” I said, seeking a namesake to drop into the conversation. “There was a Tony Smith who played for the Lakers for a while, among others.”

This Tony Smith works the front desk at Sahara. I asked about his life up to this point. He’s been working at the hotel for 20 years, coming over from the New Frontier, another Strip hotel no longer in operation. He backed up his life story until the bell rang.

“I also played basketball here, at UNLV, for Jerry Tarkanian …”

Wait. This is the same Tony Smith who was a member of Jerry Tarkanian’s first Final Four team, the 1976-’77 team that was nipped 84-83 by North Carolina in the national semifinals, one of the Runnin’ Rebel programs toughest losses. His physical resemblance hit me then. Smith’s son Damian was a member of the UNLV basketball team in 1996-’97, when I covered the team briefly for the R-J.

I remembered the younger Smith being hurt that season, a knee injury that kept him sidelined for much of the year. Great shooter, though, like his father.

“Small world,” we both said, almost simultaneously. He’s 54 now, and lived in Las Vegas for 37 years, since his days with the Runnin’ Rebels.

I asked Smith for any memory of working at the hotel that touched him personally. Unexpectedly, he conjured the name of stand-up comic Sinbad, who was startled to read a story about Smith’s playing career when Sinbad entered his dressing room at the hotel.

“We played high school basketball against each other in Saginaw, Mich., in the good-old days,” Smith said, smiling at the memory. “I was at Saginaw High School, and he was at Benton-Harbor, I think. He couldn’t believe I was working at the hotel.”

So Sinbad met Smith and offered him and his family tickets to the show.

“Totally unexpected,” Smith said, and added once more, “Small world.”

Like so many longtime employees, Smith will be seeking further employ after the Sahara’s final send-off Monday afternoon.

“I’m looking for work, like anyone else,” Smith said. “But I’m committed to closing down the hotel before any of that happens.”

In hoops, they call that playing it to the final horn.

Follow John Katsilometes on Twitter at twitter.com/JohnnyKats. Also, follow "Kats With the Dish" at twitter.com/KatsWithTheDish.

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