Thursday, Jan. 19, 2012 | 9:37 p.m.
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Las Vegas Sun reporters Taylor Bern and Ray Brewer break down the UNLV basketball team's 101-78 victory against TCU and look ahead to the Rebels' big home game Saturday against New Mexico.
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Thursday afternoon on the bottom level of the brand-new Mendenhall Center, the UNLV basketball players shared their first look at the future of the program.
The dedication ceremony on the courts above was just about to begin, but the Rebels wanted to see all of the nooks and crannies. At one end of the hall is the players’ lounge, with four flat screens stacked two-by-two on the wall. At the other end is the tunnel that connects Mendenhall to the Cox Pavilion and the Thomas & Mack Center.
In between is everything any student-athlete could ever want.
“It’s going to be like a home away from home,” junior guard Anthony Marshall said. “You get a chance to work out, take a little nap and then go to class. And then come back in for practice and do the same thing again.”
The Rebels are still waiting for the final building and safety inspections before fully moving in, and UNLV coach Dave Rice said it may be a couple of weeks yet.
After getting a little chance to look around, the players will be busting down the doors to get in.
UNLV broke ground on Mendenhall in October 2010. On Thursday, a majority of the people who made its completion possible filled the practice gym for a ceremony that was built around honoring the “Donor All-Star Team.”
“Every team needs a starting five,” UNLV President Neal Smatresk said.
For this team, the starters were Robert L. and Paula Mendenhall, Maury and Marcia Gallagher, Bill and Bonnie Paulos, Bill and Bonnie Wortman and Hope Anstett. They were the major contributors to the project that ended up costing just less than $13 million. They got the traditional Rebel red-carpet treatment, and in lieu of a ribbon they cut down a net.
It’s a special feeling when you walk into a new building, especially one designed to impress. Everything shines, from the wood on the court and glass backboards to door handles and hand rails, and the aroma of uninhabited space washes over you from every corner.
“There’s nothing better than the smell of a new gymnasium,” Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said.
Just inside the main entrance is a reception area that offers three options. A right turn goes into the gym, which features 12 total baskets, one at each end of the full-size practice courts and two along each sideline. To the left are stairs that go up to the top level, a lounge area with a small kitchen that overlooks the courts.
And down the middle is a stairwell that leads to the bottom level, which houses separate locker rooms for the players, coaches and guests, a weight room, training room, players and coaches lounges, video control room and a film/academics theater.
“It gives us a better chance to compete at the level that we’re trying to get our program to,” Rice said. “It’s an elite practice facility and we’re trying to be an elite program.”
That new-building shine is a big deal to prospective players. Just ask sophomore forward Mike Moser.
“That was one of the things I always looked at coming out of high school, was who’s got the newest, coolest stuff that you can work out with to improve your game,” Moser said.
When Moser was looking to transfer from UCLA in 2010, Mendenhall wasn’t much more than a blueprint. But even the potential of it was appealing.
“They had the whole diorama set out and it looked like it was going to be large,” Moser said. “That’s something that intrigued me for sure.”
The building, which totals about 38,000 square feet, is UNLV’s biggest recruiting tool. And Rice said he knows how lucky he is to inherit it.
“There’s no doubt that it had an impact on the three guys signed early and it had an impact on Khem Birch and his interest in UNLV,” Rice said. “The first thing is what it does for us recruiting, but more importantly is how we use it day-to-day.”
The coaches’ offices will remain at the Mack, but with a locker room and a lounge in which they can easily gather to watch film, most of their time will likely be spent at Mendenhall. Same thing for the players.
With the swipe of a card, they all have 24/7 access.
“That gives you a chance to, you know those late nights you can’t sleep, probably after a bad game or you just want to get some extra work in, you can get into the gym and work out,” Marshall said.
When it’s available, UNLV will still hold its practices at the Mack. Because of various events, though, that’s only about half the time. Up to this point, the rest of the practices were held at the Cox Pavilion or the North Gym over by the student rec center.
Those days are over. Now, each winter when the National Finals Rodeo comes in and takes over the Mack for a week, the Rebels don’t have to shuffle around and try to figure out where to call home. Instead they’ll be parked in one of the nation’s top basketball facilities.
The building is still awaiting some final touches, most notably hanging banners in the gym. But for the most part the donors, and specifically the Mendenhall family, were able to see the realization of their dream.
With his final comments, Rice brought attention to the importance of a sign in the gym that honors Robert “Terry” Mendenhall, who died on Dec. 26.
Terry, a big UNLV fan, was one of Robert and Paula’s sons, and Rice tried not to get choked up talking about him. When he pulls in for work, the first thing Rice sees is the broad “Mendenhall Center” sign on the side of the building. It reminds him, especially lately, about the people who not only made the facility possible but also make life worth living.
“It’s not just about winning basketball games,” Rice said, “but it’s about how we live our lives and how we make a difference in others’ lives. … Nothing you do matters if you can’t share it with others.”
In the most basic terms, he and the players have a new toy, a place in which they can accomplish anything. But their shared experiences in close quarters are what will make the building special.