Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013 | 5:15 p.m.
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — Jerry Tarkanian arrived today at the steps leading into Symphony Hall with the help of a rolling walker for his long-overdue induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
The steep stairs were dressed with a red carpet to lead the 12-person induction class and other attendees into the ceremony.
Tarkanian, the UNLV coaching legend who built a powerhouse program in the Las Vegas desert and overcame more than his share of adversity in guiding the Rebels to four Final Four appearances, wouldn’t be denied in the last steps to take his place alongside the sport’s other greats.
He ditched the walker, and with the help of two grandsons, gingerly made his way up those stairs. Dressed sharply in a black suit with a white shirt and black tie, the 83-year-old coach in declining health showed he still has some fight.
After all, he’s always been accomplished in overcoming long odds.
He stood up for his players in good times and bad, never backed down in battling the NCAA and delivered a winning basketball team to UNLV, which before his arrival in the early 1970s was not relevant. Florida Gulf Coast, the darling of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, has nothing on the Rebels’ 1977 Final Four team.
“Coach is a gamer. Just like his coaching career when he rose to every occasion, that was true today,” said UNLV coach Dave Rice, who joined Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Reggie Theus as former Rebels in attendance.
“This whole process has energized him. It’s the strength he feels from his family, former players and Runnin’ Rebels all over. You could tell how excited he was for everyone.”
Tarkanian likely would have been inducted years ago, but battles with the NCAA are credited for the delay. Some, especially UNLV supporters, say waiting this long was unjust, which it was. Others claim because he’s in a wheelchair and struggles to speak, the result of multiple hospital stays in past months for various aliments, that he’s not fully enjoying his moment.
He proved that theory wrong this weekend.
The class included NBA great Gary Payton, Louisville coach Rick Pitino and New York Knicks legend Bernard King. But, make no doubt about it, Tarkanian was the main attraction. After all these years, Tarkanian’s legacy is still strong and widely respected.
When Brazilian star Oscar Schmidt was delivering his induction speech, NBA TV cameras panned over to a smiling Tarkanian. The crowd immediately started clapping — not for one of Schmidt’s many jokes but for Tarkanian.
Everywhere he went in three days of induction events, Tarkanian was revered and praised for his contributions. Sure, the honor should have came earlier, and it would have been great to hear Tarkanian deliver a speech in his trademark raspy voice, but the alternative turned out to be just as special.
Tarkanian’s speech was taped and about four minutes. The video started with Lois, his wife of nearly 60 years, reading a statement her husband prepared. He was the son of poor Armenian immigrants and urged by his stepfather to become a barber, she read.
But basketball was his true calling, and he used that passion to transform Las Vegas into a college basketball town. Tark’s Rebels played suffocating defense and used a fast-break offense, and tickets to a UNLV home game were impossible to come by.
“Tark would yell at us to go, go, go. That is what he wanted us to do, run,” Theus said.
UNLV’s 30-point margin of victory against Duke in the 1990 national championship game is still the most lopsided margin of victory in title-game history. The following year, the Rebels were the last undefeated team in the regular season. Tarkanian won 80 percent of his games, which ranks in the top five all-time.
“I loved the game of basketball since my early memories,” Tarkanian said in his recording. “Basketball has been good to me. I have been able to be comrades with some fine individuals in the coaching profession.”
Seconds later, Tarkanian was again on his feet, walking unassisted across the stage with the help of the walker. Everyone rose to their feet and started to clap. The applause lasted nearly two minutes.
Jerry Tarkanian, the fighter and godfather of UNLV basketball, finally received his due. He was finally a Hall of Famer.