Sam Morris / Las Vegas Sun
Thursday, Nov. 21, 2013 | 2 a.m.
As today marks the 30th anniversary of the Thomas & Mack Center at UNLV, we honor the Las Vegas landmark with a Top 10 list of memorable Mack moments:
10. NBA All-Stars wear out the court
A lot of crazy episodes, anecdotes and straight-out urban myths spread across Las Vegas after the West routed the East 153-132 on Feb. 18, 2007. Reports, many of them unverified, of visiting fans wearing NBA All-Star jerseys urinating on MGM Grand and raising a ruckus at IHOP on Las Vegas Boulevard and Sahara Avenue marred what was a great moment for the T&M. The night marked the first, and so far only, and maybe last, NBA All-Star Game in the city. League officials said afterward that they wanted a more contemporary arena if it ever returned the game to Las Vegas, but for one night the Runnin’ Rebels’ home court was the center of the basketball universe.
9. A grand slam: Garth Brooks’ four sellouts
At the height of his touring heyday, Garth Brooks was booked at the T&M for four shows in August 1998. Brooks sold every available seat, or 72,076, in less than an hour. Those taking ticket orders were stunned and said Brooks could have filled Sam Boyd Stadium twice over. The arena was never louder, even for UNLV basketball games, making acoustic numbers somewhat pointless. The ticket price was an easy-to-digest $20, helping Brooks establish an identity to Las Vegas that he’d later tap for his run at Steve Wynn’s Encore Theater.
8. Lennox the Undisputed
It was not a great fight by the measures typically applied to great fights, as Lennox Lewis outpointed Evander Holyfield to win their heavyweight title fight on Nov. 15, 1999. With the victory, Lewis atoned for a controversial draw with Holyfield in New York earlier that year and became the first undisputed heavyweight champion since Riddick Bowe in 1992 — and the first British undisputed heavyweight champ since Bob Fitzsimmons in 1897. The fight was remarkable financially, as more than 17,000 fans filled the Thomas & Mack for a live gate of $16.8 million, a record at the time.
7. Tark’s final run
One of college sports’ most colorful and successful eras ended March 3, 1992, when Jerry Tarkanian coached the Runnin’ Rebels for the last time at the Thomas & Mack. A full house bid Tarkanian goodbye as the Rebels finished off Utah State with a workmanlike 65-53 victory for their 23rd consecutive triumph. The 1991-92 Rebels went 26-2 but were ineligible to compete in the NCAA Tournament after being issued a probationary penalty after a photograph of three UNLV players sitting in a hot tub with convicted game-fixer Richard Perry was published in Las Vegas. Tarkanian was forced to resign after losing a power struggle with UNLV President Dr. Robert Maxson, but Tark went out a winner.
6. Top-Ranked Rebels sink Navy
UNLV was the top-ranked team in the country and Navy was No. 12 when the Runnin’ Rebels hosted the famed “fire-hazard” game. The crowd was a record 20,321, a fire-hazard crowd, as the Sun termed it at the time. The place was indeed en fuego, as UNLV forced Midshipmen star center David Robinson into early foul trouble and rolled to a 104-79 victory. In the cascade of impressive numbers, Robinson’s substandard performance stood out: 2-for-8, 4 points, eight-plus minutes played.
5. U2 stirs emotion post-9/11
Just three months after the attacks of 9/11, U2 swept into the Thomas & Mack Center for a show that was equal measures rock concert and spiritual revival. The opening act that night was a then-emerging ska band from Orange County, No Doubt, and after that band’s 25-minute set, U2 stalked onstage under full lighting (they would not be dimmed this evening) as “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” soared on the T&M sound system. No Doubt singer Gwen Stefani later joined Bono to duet on “What’s Goin’ On,” but the real magic was late in the three-hour show, when Bono kicked in with “One,” and the giant LED screen at the back of the stage scrolled each name of those killed in New York and at the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001. U2 can always be counted on to rise to the moment, and they were up to the task in November 2001 at the Thomas & Mack.
4. Sinatra’s Christmas gift
Shortly after the arena opened, Frank Sinatra played one of those “only in Vegas” shows. On Dec. 16, 1983, Sinatra appeared in “Christmas With Class,” billed as the gala opening of the new arena (and how about that for a title?). Dean Martin opened the show, Sinatra appeared next, the two told jokes and sang together, and Diana Ross closed. The room was curtained to 9,000 capacity, and the performance was a benefit for Nathan Adelson Hospice and UNLV, as Sinatra was a member of the UNLV Foundation Board of Directors throughout the 1980s. Steve Wynn, then chairman of the Golden Nugget, attended with his wife, Elaine. Also on hand was Gov. Richard Bryan, who heaped praise upon builders E. Parry Thomas and Jerome Mack, who made it all possible. But the star on this night was the Chairman of the Board, who rightfully christened the city’s new, great arena.
3. NFR turns Las Vegas into the Ponderosa
Not a single event but rather an unbroken series of sellouts that has annually hearkened to Las Vegas’ wild-west image, National Finals Rodeo has been a Thomas & Mack favorite since its debut in 1985. Tourism officials and resort executives long bemoaned the days in early November when the city fell latent. The NFR — today known as the WNFR for its sponsorship partner Wrangler — draws 170,000 fans to its 10-day run, where the action inside the Thomas & Mack Center blossoms to a civic celebration of all things cowboy. There has been talk of Oklahoma City luring what is commonly accepted as the Super Bowl of Rodeo back to its original home, as the contract between the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and Las Vegas Events expires after the 2014 event, but as venerable announcer Boyd Polhamus once said, “May it stay here forever!”
2. Rebels cut Cards to go 17-0
UNLV hit two high points when it beat back Louisville 91-81 on Feb. 24, 1990. The Runnin’ Rebels finished the regular season 17-0 at the Thomas & Mack (adding to a 103-6 home record in the team’s first seven seasons at the T&M), the best home record in school history, and Tark’s team drew a record 300,000 fans to the T&M. That figure includes the packed house of 19,091 that saw UNLV bolt to a 14-0 lead in a game televised by CBS, typifying the tenacity of Tark’s teams in UNLV’s heyday — and at the first TV timeout. As the teams left the court, UNLV guards Anderson Hunt and Greg Anthony chased Louisville’s guards all the way to their bench as the crowd went wild. This was Tark’s UNLV program in all of its glory.
1. T&M hooks a record
The most unlikely set of circumstances aligned to make the Thomas & Mack Center, just six months old at the time, the stage for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s famous sky hook for the record books. As Abdul-Jabbar pursued Wilt Chamberlin’s career NBA scoring mark of 31,419 points, the Utah Jazz moved a set of “home” games to Las Vegas to offset lackluster home attendance at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City.
One of those dates was April 5, 1984, against the L.A. Lakers. Throughout the 1983-’84 season, Abdul-Jabbar whittled at Chamberlain’s all-time points total, and as the Lakers hit town, it was conceivable that Abdul-Jabbar could put up enough points to break the record in Vegas. He needed 23 points, right about his season average. A crowd of 18,389, heavily favoring the Lakers, turned out to give the 37-year-old Abdul-Jabbar a 45-second standing ovation when he was introduced.
By the start of the fourth quarter, Abdul-Jabbar had 19 points and the record was easily within reach. L.A. coach Pat Riley considered holding his center out during the final period of a game well in hand (the Lakers would win, 129-115), allowing him to break the record at the L.A. Forum, but Abdul-Jabbar wanted to break the record organically.
With 8:53 to play, Abdul-Jabbar took a pass on the right baseline from Magic Johnson. The center faked a pass, then spun to his left and ascended above the outstretched arm of Jazz center Mark Eaton. As always, everyone knew what was coming, but no one could stop it: A sky hook, this one from 12 feet, made Abdul-Jabbar the all-time scoring champ. It was indeed a jackpot in Vegas.