A tribute to the Shark

by Jake Runyon (@jakerunyon)

Jerry Tarkanian passed away this morning at the age of 84.

UNLV and Las Vegas has lost one its most influential and beloved figures over the past 40 years. The legacy of Tark “the Shark” cannot be measured. There are too many stories, and too many lives touched. What can be said though is that Jerry Tarkanian embodied the rebellious soul of Las Vegas.

I don’t think that it is stretch to say that most of us wouldn’t be UNLV fans if it wasn’t for Jerry Tarkanian. There was no pride, prestige or history in the UNLV program before his arrival, and only fleeting moments of glory since his departure.

I can remember when I became a UNLV fan. Don’t get me wrong. I was born a rebel. My own mother was born and raised in Las Vegas, scarlet and grey pride coursed through my veins. I’ve attended games most my life, but it wasn’t until learned a little about the man who built UNLV that I became locked in.

I was sitting on a school bus on my way to Disneyland for a broadcasting field trip in 2006. I wasn’t much of a reader in high school, but my dad suggested I read the book on 4 hour trip. I tossed it my bag with no intention of opening it. While on the bus, I pulled out my discman, probably tossed in a Blink 182 album and leaned against the window to take a nap. Sleep eluded me so I reached into my bag, and dove into page 1.

Just as we pulled up to our hotel parking lot, I had finished it.

I wanted to make my way to the nearest LIDS and put on a UNLV hat. The book gave me the insight on Tark that  I had never known before. The renegade who loved his family, and his players and nobody else. He wanted to win, and he wanted to do it his way. A true rebel in every sense of the word.

I read about about the “Hardway 8” team that averaged 110 points a game with players like Gondo, Eddie Owens, Robert Smith and Reggie Theus. I learned about his battle with NCAA, and what he would refer to as his “greatest victory” when the NCAA settled in a civil court case for 2.5 million dollars. I learned about the guy who would drive a Bentley to recruits house, and while Tark visited with the family, he would ask one of his assistant coaches to go in the other room and take the phone of the hook. John Wooden, Dean Smith, and Lute Olsen knew Tark the Shark was in the living room of one their recruits.

After the trip, I went home, and I made my first and last purchase on E-bay, a VHS tape recording of the UNLV’s 1990 championship game against Duke. I was kid who had always loved sports, and I had always liked UNLV, but it wasn’t until I became familiar with the legend of Jerry Tarkanian that I became the UNLV fan I am today. I began to appreciate the Thomas and Mack as the historic venue it now is. Before then, Larry Johnson was the guy who came from UNLV, played in the NBA for a little, and appeared in a movie called “Spacejam. After that, LJ became LJ.

Jerry Tarkanian took a program that played their games in a convention center, and turned it into a community. Las Vegas is now widely considered the basketball capital of the world. The Thomas and Mack center hosts USA basketball’s training camp, and the NBA summer league. 4 different conferences host their conference tournaments in Vegas, and countless AAU teams visit the desert each summer to play in competitions.

None of these things would have happened if Tarkanian didn’t turn Vegas in a basketball town and it all started with UNLV.

Before Tarkanian rolled into town, Vegas was a city devoid of an identity. As a city founded by Mormons and raised by the mob, it needed something to latch onto, and it needed to be something homegrown. Tarkanian’s UNLV basketball squad became the pillar that our community could gather around.

Who knows where the UNLV athletic program would be without Tarkanian? I can only speak for myself. I can tell you I wouldn’t have ever become a manager for the program for  a year. Would the Thomas and Mack Center even exist? Even if it did, I probably wouldn’t be there if it weren’t Jerry Tarkanian.

RIP Coach.