Sports:

Rallying around the UNLV Rebels

The early success of Rebels basketball has caught Las Vegas’ attention. With key victories over Wisconsin and Kansas State, UNLV may be tonic for a recession-weary community.

UNLV vs. Kansas State

Kansas State guard Will Spradling, right, tries to steal the ball from UNLV guard Derrick Jasper during the first half of Tuesday's game in Kansas City, Mo. Launch slideshow »
Mychal Martinez

Mychal Martinez

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Can success on the basketball court for UNLV help boost the city's morale?

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UNLV men's basketball coach Lon Kruger

UNLV men's basketball coach Lon Kruger

Jerry Tarkanian

Jerry Tarkanian

Oscar Goodman

Oscar Goodman

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.”

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.

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.

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  1. I remember 1990... The whole city exploded in REBELS, REBELS, REBELS... The Rebels NCAA championship electrified the city. A repeat would be simply fabulous!

  2. I love this team.
    Coach Kruger brought our program back from the depths. Thanks Coach.

  3. Nothing better in sports than being a "most hated" team. Why? Because to be hated means that you're good and your opponents wish they could be like you. Yankees/Patriots/Cowboys/Red Sox/Steelers were/are all "most hated" because of their success. Runnin' Rebels of the 80s and 90s helped put Vegas and UNLV on the map. Thanks Tark, and thanks to all the great players that put on the scarlet and grey. Go Rebels

  4. Oh almost forgot the 70s, I was just a toddler back then so please forgive...

  5. Let's not get carried away here now... this is a "good" team and fun to watch, but it's not "top tier" by any stretch. The two losses demonstarted significant weaknesses, as did the win over a severely hobbled Kansas State team. 11-2 is 11-2 though... let's hope they keep up the good work and that the program grows from here. Good job Lon and team!!!!!!

  6. Taking this concept a step further, maybe Las Vegans can also lift their spirits by rooting for the University of Nevada football team (12-1) as they play Boston College on Jan. 9.

    After all, the university up North is filled with Las Vegas residents who often return to the city as college graduates.

    How about we come together as a state during these dismal times, looking to all our winning programs for inspiration?

  7. The Runnin' Rebels were the greatest show in Las Vegas for decades. Major celebrities attended every game, national envy was off the charts, and the buzz in Las Vegas over UNLV basketball was pure electricity.

    Then, our beloved Rebels fell hard. Bob Maxson and the NCAA, and a string of unenlightened administrators set us back about 20 years.

    But now it's a new chapter. Kruger is a big-time coach and is attracting better talent each season. UNLV President Smatresk and AD Jim Livengood are both terrific.

    The verbal commitment from Nigel Williams-Goss from Findlay prep is an indication of good things in the future. If we can keep a few more of these young men from Findlay Prep and Bishop Gorman HS to join UNLV, Las Vegas basketball will explode once again across the nation. Once again the electricity will permeate this community and catapult us back among the highest elite of college basketball--where we belong. Las Vegas owes Duke a little Final Four payback. We're not there yet, but we're moving in closer with Coach Kruger.

  8. brst: Because UNR is UNR (NOT University of Nevada or Nevada as they have been trying to get away calling themselves for a few years now) and we don't root for them, they don't root for us, at least publicly. Ask Chris Alt if he would pull for the University of Nevada (at Las Vegas)--don't think so...

    OK, so once in awhile I might privately pull for UNR (like their basketball team a few years ago in the NCAA's and maybe their football team in the bowl game this year) but the North is a different animal and there ain't never gonna be a North/South hand-holding feel-good celebration.

  9. Would love to have the photo for this article as a wallpaper. Could we get that done?

  10. Soooo true. The Rebels are THE only sports ticket in town for folks from elswhere looking to attend games and support a local team. And coach Kruger and the current administration make it easy to support. They represent the community with class and dignity AND manage to put a competitive team on the court.

    I'm a third-year season ticket holder, my family loves attending these games, and we will continue to support the program. Of course we'd like to reach a national championship, but that's a long process that could take years. We are enjoying the ride. Keep up the good work Rebs.

  11. "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."

    Yeah basketball is the solution. Putz.

  12. brst needs to get something straight here, and AMlowlife did a good job to make it right. Its UNR and thats all their worth. That so-called 'university' should be closed down by the state to save money, its the smallest one in the state anyways. If you go to any Rebel Game, you'll notice some added lyrics whenever the band or the PA plays "Viva Las Vegas" ... those lyrics are "Reno Sucks". Rebel Fans can NEVER cheer for the north.

  13. tvegas....

    I am going to feed you, you little troll...

    You are totally missing the point if you think he is saying basketball will save the town... What they are getting at is with all the negatives in Vegas right now it is good to finally have something positive to get behind... And UNLV basketball is historically logged in this community, anyone that has been here for more then a day knows that... It isn't like they are bringing jobs, or foreclosure relief... They are just bringing something positive for a brow beaten community to get behind...

    Based on your post history it looks like you could use a little optimism... Insult the local government, the casinos, and the police all you want... But the Rebels are something good happening in this town right now... So get your Reb on or just leave this one alone... There really is no reason to troll on this story... No one is forcing you to be a supporter... All this story is asking is that you take a little pride in something that puts a smile on peoples faces in this community...

    Lights Please!!!

  14. A run at the championship would be great and to win it, unbelievable. But to duplicate the Rebels of '90 is almost impossible. That team had the swagger to spit in the face of the NCAA, the media, the media darlings Duke, and every darling head coach and team the media and experts deemed legendary. And not only did they throw it in their face, they did it so convincingly as to leave all doubt what team was the greatest team ever assembled!

  15. I get chills just thinking about it.

  16. tvegas - if you don't understand the significance of having a winning team to latch onto during hard times, you shouldn't be using the word putz, unless referring to yourself. A large part of the economy hinges on consumer confidence, and a winning ball club makes the consumer spend money.

  17. Come on Jerry if you don't think having something positive in a community helps then you are a putz. And Smartone, I don't know what your definition of top tier program is but being in the top 25 out of over three hundred sounds pretty top teir in division 1 to me. What ever small percentage that would be. And if you still don't understand how top teir our program is look up unlv basketball through wikipedia.

  18. Or just ask knowledgeable college basketball fans in places like Louisville, Indiana, the Carolinas, New York, Kansas, anyone that has followed this wonderful game for more than 5 years about UNLV basketball. Top tier, blue blood, legendary--all that was UNLV Runnin' Rebel basketball, and it can be again.

  19. my favorite line in the wiki piece is this one:

    "As of 2009, UNLV is the fourth-winningest program by percentage (.712) in Division I history -- ranking behind Kentucky, North Carolina and Kansas, but ahead of UCLA, Indiana and Duke

  20. If the local media outlets gave up their role as social-terrorism outfits and started to focus on predominately positive and inspiring stories it would do a lot more for the city's morale than the success of a largely unsupported college basketball program. But then, how would they make advertising revenue?

    I love the Rebels and I know many other people do too, but realistically we fans are a small minority of people in Las Vegas.

  21. Loved the slow-motion replays of the Kansas State player's tooth slide across the court after the face-plant. Good stuff.

  22. god bless our Sport Gods!