Thursday, Dec. 23, 2010 | 2:01 a.m.
- The big wins, great moments in UNLV tournament history
- Read about the Rebels' nationally televised win over No. 11 Kansas State and watch game highlights from KSNV
- Relive the 1989-90 national championship season
- Download free computer wallpapers of your favorite Rebels players
- Read the latest thoughts from legendary UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian in the Shark Bytes blog
Las Vegas needs hope. We’re losing our jobs and our homes. We’re facing budget deficits 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.
That source of optimism is a group of two-year college transfers, local kids and prep-school products and their coach with a Midwestern twang — the 2010-11 UNLV Rebels.
They’ve started the season 11-2 — the only losses coming to Louisville and UC Santa Barbara — and garnered national attention with a Top 25 ranking for a few weeks. In their latest contest, the Rebels beat 11th-ranked Kansas State 63-59 on Tuesday night.
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 Saints. Detroit, a city with employment prospects not unlike ours, turned to its Red Wings for a sense of normalcy.
Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has preached about sports’ ability to unite a city in his efforts to bring a major league franchise to Southern Nevada. He sees it with the Rebels and the spirited crowds sharing a sense of belonging.
And, unlike so many people, the Rebels are here to stay. Even their veteran coach, Lon Kruger, seems entrenched, having rebuffed 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 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.”
And the Rebels are good, although maybe not Duke, Kansas or Kentucky caliber. 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 then won a Thanksgiving tournament in Anaheim, Calif., toppling Tulsa, Murray State and Virginia Tech in rapid succession.
The Wisconsin game drew a crowd of 14,782 to the Thomas & Mack. 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, ahead of every Pac-10 school.
UNLV’s 9-0 start was its best since the 1990-91 team went 34-0 before falling in the Final Four. Those Jerry 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 others — and in 1990, won UNLV’s only national title.
“Those guys were bigger than Madonna,” says Ron Kantowski, a former Sun sports columnist who now writes for the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “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. This summer, Sports Illustrated named the 1989-90 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 it keep winning? “It will be interesting to see,” says Diamond Leung, a college basketball blogger for ESPN. “The program is defined by the Tark era, (but) people are excited about this newfound glory.”
Championship caliber? Mountain West Conference, maybe, although league opponents San Diego State and BYU are both ranked 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 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 great basketball coach, he’s a decent guy, too. “He’s put UNLV in a different bracket,” says Eric Angevine of ESPN.com. “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. Want to jump on the bandwagon? UNLV puts the words to its fight song on the Jumbotron so newbies can sing along.
Goodman recalls 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.”
Dick Calvert, the Rebels’ home announcer for 40 years, sees the enthusiasm for the team from his courtside seat and as he travels across the valley.
“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.”
This story was originally published in Las Vegas Weekly.