The fever that does not pass
Or, how one basketball fan learned to stop worrying about the past and love the Rebels — again
Just after lunch on January 21, I took an envelope from my desk drawer, removed three tickets to the UNLV-Air Force men’s basketball game, which was to be played at 3 p.m., and hesitated: Do I really want to go? I was shocked at the question I was asking myself, but not shocked enough to refrain from repeating it to my wife and son. “I don’t know if I’ll keep going to these games,” I said. “I have other things to do.”
The surge of reflux that followed my statement needs some explaining: I am a Rebel fan. My parents took me to my first game during the 1976-77 season, when the Rebels were in the midst of a 12-game streak of scoring 100 or more points a game. I was 6 years old; I had never been to a concert or a play or a ballet; I hadn’t even been to many movies. This, now, was my art: defend, run, pass, shoot, score, defend. The Convention Center roared like a spacecraft at lift-off. That year, the Rebels would win 29 games and lose three; they would average 107 points per game; they would make it to their first Final Four. The squad was known as the Hardway Eight, and if you wake me at 3 a.m. with a bullhorn and an ice bucket, I can still name all eight. UNLV basketball lodged itself, splinter-like, in my heart. And through 40 years of tribulations — the Rebels’ and mine — it has never been excised.
So when I exhibited my disinterest in watching UNLV play Air Force on a perfectly suitable Saturday afternoon, I was rejecting not only my favorite team, but also a fully biologically integrated portion of myself. The problem was — and I even said this, sinful creature, to my family — the Rebels just weren’t very good anymore.
This was bound to start an argument. Not with my wife and son, who probably really did have better things to do, but with myself. At issue was not whether the Rebels were very good; myself and I could agree that they were not. The problematic term, the fighting one, was anymore, which implied that some sort of irrevocable tear in the Rebel-time continuum had just occurred. That notion set my mind reeling: At what point, exactly, did the Rebels become “not very good anymore”?
• Was it on the night of March 3, 1992, when Jerry Tarkanian bit into his towel for the final time as the Rebels’ coach, led his team to one last victory, and left our most beloved civic institution in the gesticulating hands of Rollie Massimino?
• Was it in the years 1993-96, when Las Vegas was transitioning into urban sprawl, and the Rebels were transitioning into sucking, compiling consecutive seasons of 15-13, 12-16 and 10-16 under five coaches and interim coaches?
• Was it in mid-December 2000, when the presumably rebuilt program, having gone 23-8 the previous campaign, imploded in true Vegas style — complete with a loss to Reno, fresh sanctions from the NCAA and the firing of coach Bill Bayno? The Rebels finished the season 16-13 under interim coach Max Good.
• Was it when the Rebels, having rebounded once again to post back-to-back 20-win seasons under Charlie Spoonhour, lost him to cardiologist-mandated midseason retirement in February 2004, finished 18-13 under the stewardship of Charlie’s son Jay, hired Lon Kruger in March, and went 17-14 in Kruger’s first season?
Perhaps you’ll understand the point I was making to myself that January afternoon before the Air Force game: Our Rebels had already been rumored dead several times, and each time the rumors were, as the bard of the Comstock would say, greatly exaggerated. Lon Kruger eventually took the Rebels to the Sweet 16 in 2007, winning 30 games along the way. Dave Rice began his tenure with seasons of 26 and 25 wins. At one point, the Kruger-Rice era brought the Rebels eight straight 20-win seasons.
Yet when we longtime fans think about making the Rebels great again, we’re thinking of the same thing: April 2, 1990. Denver, Colorado. UNLV 103. Duke 73. We are emotional hostages to that wondrous night, that national championship and its slow-motion nightmare aftermath — the semifinal loss to Duke the following year, the NCAA Sword of Damocles swaying over Tark’s bald head, the Tarkanian-Maxson wars, in which a coach, a university president and their overcaffeinated surrogates battled over the soul of a city.
It’s no easy thing to be a prisoner of the past. Glory days, as The Boss said, will pass you by. It hurts, doesn’t it? And the more we contort ourselves trying to look back while walking forward, the worse the pain gets. Worst of all, while you’re digging through the ashes for a lost diadem, you fail to glimpse the Next Good Thing, or even the Next Good Enough Thing.
“Good enough for now” is not a winning slogan for Rebel basketball. But it might have been a healthy mantra for UNLV administrators and boosters in early 2016, before they orchestrated the midseason defenestration of Dave Rice, whose team had just lost three straight Mountain West Conference games but was 9-7 overall with impressive wins over Indiana and Oregon. The firing initiated a slow-moving mudslide that included an 18-15 season completed under interim leadership and a cloud of toxic doubt; the failed pursuit of Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin; the hiring and sudden departure of former Arkansas-Little Rock and eventual Texas Tech coach Chris Beard; and the ultimate appointment, on April 16, of former New Mexico State coach Marvin Menzies, who had wanted the job all along. From firing to hiring took 97 days, giving all but three Rebels, not to mention the entire incoming recruiting class, ample time to leave. Menzies then proceeded to demonstrate what administrative efficiency looks like — a gift to Rebel fans who might have forgotten — by assembling a new team in about a month.
This was the roster that was to take the floor against Air Force at 3 p.m. that cold January day: six freshmen, two sophomores, three juniors and three seniors. Two of the seniors were newcomers, and the third, Tyrell Green, was injured all of last season. Of the three players who stayed — each of whom deserve the key to the city — only sophomore Jalen Poyser had played the entire 2015-16 campaign. And Dwayne Morgan, a returning junior who figured to be the team leader, had been sidelined with injuries since mid-December.
Nonetheless, a voice — it belonged to neither my son nor my wife — told me that I must go to this game. The voice must have been a vestigial remnant of my original 1977 Rebel-fan programming. In any case, I was not, under any circumstance, to miss the game between 9-10 UNLV and 9-10 Air Force.
I packed the family in the car. We arrived to the blast of fireworks and the two accelerating notes of Jaws, taking us in, making us stand, causing us to clap. We watched. I hollered myself hoarse. With 2.6 seconds left, the Rebels were down by three points, and it appeared that all was lost. That was before two Air Force players fought over a rebound, fumbled it out of bounds, and then watched in awe as UNLV junior transfer Jovan Mooring rose and leaned and twisted and hit a three-point bank shot to send the game to overtime. Five minutes later, Mooring would hit another three-pointer, this time a thirtysomething-footer, executed with astronaut calm as the Air Force defense sagged off him in the belief that nobody — nobody at all — would dare take that shot.
But they forgot something: Mooring is a Rebel. I could see it — no, I could feel it, in my heart, where the splinter lodged 40 years ago remained, bringing joy, bringing pain.