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September 1, 2014

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Rallying around the Rebels

Las Vegas needs hope. Life is tough right now. We’re losing our jobs and our homes. We’re facing budget shortfalls and failing schools. We’re staring into a future that can seem bleaker each day. But then our gaze drifts, we catch a glimpse of red and things start looking up.

So let’s pause there and linger for a moment on that source of optimism, a group of junior-college transfers, local kids and prep-school products and their coach with a Midwestern twang—the 2010-11 UNLV Runnin’ Rebels.

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Tre'von Willis

They’ve started the season 9-1—the only loss to an undefeated Louisville team on the road—and garnered national attention and a Top 25 ranking. In the process, they’ve captured the city’s attention, giving us all something to root for when things just ain’t goin’ that smoothly. When the suits on the Strip can’t lift us out of our communal funk, could these amateur athletes be the city’s saviors?

Sports can bind a community, give it a morale boost amid suffering. When New Orleans was left to die in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it found hope in the form of millionaires playing football, calling themselves “Saints.” Detroit, a city with employment prospects not unlike ours, turned to its Red Wings for a sense of normalcy; legend has it when the team won the Stanley Cup in 2008, violent crime rates went down.

Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has preached about sports’ ability to unite a city for years in his efforts to bring a major league franchise to Southern Nevada. He sees it with the Runnin’ Rebels. Full crowds. Shared spirits. A feeling of belonging. “I’m a great believer in the bond between a team like the Rebels and the community,” Goodman says. “It can have a positive impact.”

And, unlike so many people, places and things in our city, the Rebels are here to stay. Even their veteran coach, Lon Kruger, seems entrenched, having rebuffed several offers from big-name suitors. That alone puts the team a few steps ahead of so many misfit outfits that have sewed the city’s name on jerseys over the years. The Canadian Football League didn’t last a full season here. The XFL made it through only one. The UFL just finished its second season with a second title squad, not that many took notice. But we can count on the guys in red and gray to hit the Thomas & Mack court each and every year.

“We’re kind of the only team in town getting that national recognition,” says Mychal Martinez, a senior forward for the Rebels and a local high school product. “There’s some semipro teams in town, but when you think of Las Vegas, you think of the Rebels.”

With apologies to the city’s scrappy minor-league regulars, baseball’s 51s and hockey’s Wranglers, Martinez is right. The Rebels are our team.

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Jerry Tarkanian's '89-'90 squad was celebrated and hated.

And let’s be clear here, the Rebels are good. Maybe not Duke, Kansas or Kentucky caliber, but really good. They’ve made the NCAA tournament three of the past four years, reaching the Sweet 16 in 2007. This year, they knocked off perennial power Wisconsin on November 20, then won a Thanksgiving tournament in Anaheim, toppling Tulsa, Murray State and Virginia Tech in rapid succession. UNLV took a No. 22 AP ranking into Wednesday night’s game against UC Santa Barbara, along with an average victory margin of 18 points.

“The national polls have taken notice,” says Eric Angevine of ESPN.com, who recently ranked the Rebels atop his mid-major conference power rankings. “They’re in good shape. [Beating] Wisconsin was big … Murray State was in the tournament last year. UNLV is for real.”

And more and more, Las Vegas is picking up on that. The Wisconsin game drew a crowd of 14,782 to the T&M. The Boise State game saw the smaller Orleans Arena sell out. Last season, the Rebels ranked 18th nationally in attendance and first on the West Coast—yes, ahead of every Pac-10 school.

“I haven’t seen it since 1992,” says Dick Calvert, the Rebels’ home announcer for 40 years. “It was [coach] Jerry Tarkanian’s last year, and we finished with a great record. It picked up people’s spirits. It gave them somewhere to go.”

The Rebels are led by junior Chace Stanback, a quiet kid with a smooth jump shot who transferred from UCLA in 2008. He scored 16 against Boise State but looked almost sad after the game, whispering to the beat reporters crowded around him. Why? UNLV had won by just three after leading by 14 at halftime. “We have to work,” Stanback said that night. “If you have love for the game, you don’t want to finish a game that way.”

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5 key dates for this season’s Rebels
• December 21 (at Kansas State): A few days before Christmas, the Rebels face their toughest test of the nonconference season, against Kruger’s alma mater, a team Sports Illustrated picked to make the Final Four. A win cements UNLV as a national heavyweight. A loss means coal in the stocking.
• January 5 (vs. BYU): This one sold out last year. Expect the same when future pro Jimmer Fredette leads the Cougars in what’s always a rivalry game. The two teams meet again February 5 in Provo, Utah—and a potential third match-up looms come Mountain West Tournament time.
• February 12 (vs. San Diego State): The defending MWC Champions come to town. Most experts have picked the Aztecs to win it again this year, though the school has never won an NCAA Tournament game. That didn’t stop SI.com from recently tapping them as the “best team on the West Coast.”
• March 9-13 (Mountain West Tournament): The winner gets an automatic bid to the Big Dance. The rest of the teams have to wait for an at-large invite. UNLV won this thing in 2008, and should have a legit shot playing at the T&M again this year. A fun few days for hoops junkies.
• March 13 (Selection Sunday): The day when cameras follow a bunch of nervous tall guys watching television. The Rebels will find out when, where or, gulp, if they’ll play in the NCAA Tournament this year. High drama is expected. And, quite possibly, good news for the Rebels.

In the Louisville defeat, the Rebels squandered a nine-point second-half lead and lost by eight. Until then, UNLV’s 9-0 start was its best since the ’90-’91 team went 34-0 before falling in the Final Four. Those Tarkanian-era teams captured Las Vegas’ attention like no other sports squad before or since. They featured future NBA talent—Larry Johnson, Stacy Augmon, Greg Anthony and more—and in 1990, won UNLV’s only national title.

“Those guys were bigger than Madonna,” says Ron Kantowski, a longtime Las Vegas sportswriter and current Review-Journal columnist. “They were rock stars. Everywhere you went, people were talking about the Rebels. Everybody in Las Vegas comes from somewhere else, but those guys gave us an identity, for better or worse. But mostly for better. Brent Musburger was here, and Billy Packer was here. The Rebels were a national phenomenon. They were big and they were bad and they were on CBS—all the time.”

Last year, the city celebrated the 20th anniversary of UNLV’s championship season with a series of special ceremonies. Not so much elsewhere. This summer, Sports Illustrated named the ’89-’90 squad the ninth-most-hated team in sports history—ahead of the Soviet Union’s 1972 men’s basketball Olympic squad and the 1919 Chicago White Sox that threw the World Series.

This year’s team seems far more likable, but can they keep winning? “It will be interesting to see,” says Diamond Lueng, a college basketball blogger for ESPN. “The program is defined by the Tark era, [but] people are excited about this newfound glory.”

Stanback is the team’s leading scorer (a hair under 14 points-per-game), but hardly its only key player. Junior point guard Oscar Bellfield has grown into a capable floor leader and a consistent shooting threat. Sophomore guard Anthony Marshall, a graduate of Mojave High, has explosive athletic ability and all-around skills that suggest he’ll be the program’s star of the future. All-conference senior swingman Tre’Von Willis, a clutch scorer and tough defender, appears ready to reclaim his team MVP role after a tumultuous offseason in which he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor domestic battery charge. And UNLV is deep, with the versatile Derek Jasper and Justin Hawkins and big men Brice Massamba, Carlos Lopez and Quintrell Thomas all capable of contributing in multiple ways on any given night.

Championship caliber? Mountain West Conference, maybe, though league opponents San Diego State (No. 11) and BYU (16) are both ranked ahead of the Rebels in the latest AP poll. National title hopes? Let’s not get carried away … although it was just six months ago that Butler came within a bucket of beating Duke for the trophy.

Whatever happens, there’s something here, something to rally around. Much of that stems from the coach. Kruger came to Las Vegas seven years ago with experience at big-name colleges and in the NBA. Not only is he a helluva basketball coach, he’s a decent guy, too. “He’s put UNLV in a different bracket,” Angevine says. “He gives them that profile.”

Kruger is quick to credit the Rebels’ growing fan base for some of his team’s success. “The community feels ownership, and they should,” Kruger says. “They are having an impact.”

In a post-practice interview, Kruger reels off reasons why the seats are full: family-friendly, winning team, affordable tickets. Wanna jump on the bandwagon? UNLV puts the words to its fight song on the JumboTron so newbies can sing along.

When Stanback sinks a three-pointer, it makes us feel like we’re part of something unique. It’s that unspoken bond with the other 15,000 folks in red that draws us to sports. Goodman agrees, recalling his first Rebels experience, back in the ’60s at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

“Most of us had just come to Las Vegas. We didn’t know each other’s names. But you root for a team together,” he says. “You become friends through that. You become part of this community.”

The media room tells its own story. The only sign of the team there is a 20-year-old poster on the wall among others for the rodeo, boxing, U2, even the circus. It’s Las Vegas, and there’s always something bright and shiny around the next corner. But only the Rebels keep holding our attention.

“I’m super exited about this team,” says Tom Delagre, a fan who picked up a pair of tickets for the game against Boise State. “There does just seem to be something about this team. They are kind of the talk of the town.”

Calvert sees it building from his courtside seat and as he travels across the Valley. He’s watched the Rebels and Las Vegas through good times and bad. Life is bad these days for many in the city he loves. But the basketball team is good. And that can certainly give us all some hope.

“We’re a melting pot; there are very few natives,” Calvert says. “Everybody comes with their own identity with schools and their own favorite pro teams. This team galvanizes the community. It gives them something to be proud of besides slot machines and fancy hotels.”

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