Reality of Tarkanian's UNLV lost in misconceptions

Remember that Indiana team that won the 1987 NCAA championship game on a bucket by Keith Smart? Beat a Syracuse team that had Derrick Coleman and Sherman Douglas and Rony Seikaly?

Nudged UNLV in the semifinal game, a Runnin' Rebel team that featured Fred Banks and Jarvis Basnight and Armon "Hammer" Gilliam?


So, for $10 and an autographed photo of Jimmy the Greek, which team graduated more players? The Indiana crew-cuts coached by the snow-pure Bobby Knight . . . or the UNLV rabble coached by the notorious Jerry Tarkanian?

The New York Times researched the 1987 Final Four teams five years later and discovered that Vegas graduated seven of 12 while Indiana graduated seven of 14.


"We've done pretty well," Gilliam said proudly, scanning the whereabouts of his old teammates (Basnight and Mark Wade in the CBA; Banks, Lawrence West, David Willard playing abroad; Stacey Cvijanovich and Leon Symanski in solid casino jobs; Gary Graham pursuing his master's degree; Richard Robinson and Gerald Paddio back at UNLV on scholarships in a program established for former athletes.)

Come on, confess, you thought the only guy who graduated from UNLV in the last 10 years was Danny Tarkanian, the coach's son.

"I think perception became reality," said Gilliam, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in communications and is averaging 16.6 points a game with the Sixers. "Because the NCAA had a strong dislike for coach Tarkanian, year after year, negative stories were circulated that had no validity."

The stories painted a harsh picture of a renegade operation, the players sliding through Chip Stacking 101, driving occasionally to class in luxury cars, spending nights on The Strip scarfing free meals when they weren't ringside at Wayne Newton or Lola Falana.

"While I was there," Gilliam said bluntly, "I was on the honor roll. I made the dean's list. I didn't get any favors in the classroom and I didn't need any.

"If your average dropped under 2.5, you had to make use of a tutor. If you didn't maintain the C average, you weren't eligible and you didn't play.

"My first two years, we did have casino meal tickets. I think it was at the Dunes one year. But I didn't gamble and I didn't spend much time on The Strip.

"I didn't live in a dorm, so I got a scholarship check. In my era, the players didn't drive fancy cars. With some help from your parents, you could afford a used car.


"Sure, because they attended our games, we got to meet entertainers, and that was a special thing.

"Las Vegas is not a big sports town. There's basketball and boxing and that's it."

People who like Tarkanian describe him as a modern-day Father Flanagan. People who dislike Tarkanian make him sound more like Jesse James. Which is perception? Which is reality?

"The myth that he recruited only inner-city kids is not reality," Gilliam said. "That [1987] team had kids from all socio-economic levels.

"We had big-city kids and country kids, too. What he looked for was talented kids that could pull their way through school.

"Sure, sometimes he'd give a guy a chance. And if the guy couldn't qualify himself, he was gone.


"Each year he devised a system that was conducive to that particular team, that enabled it to win.

"If we had a lot of jump shooters, he designed an offense to suit that. If we had a strong post-up game, he would cater toward that.

"He always had a good feel for his talent and how to use that talent effectively.

"Now, Dean Smith is a guy who is a great coach. And his system, whether he has Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, even if he has all those guys on the same team, he'll still use the passing game.

"I don't think that is properly utilizing your talent.

"Coach Tarkanian was very much in control of the situation. There was no horseplay in practice.


"And when he said it was time to play, everybody gave him their undivided attention.

"He was a down-to-earth man. Very personable. He didn't live high off the hog despite his wealth. That relates well with me.

"I could live that way if I wanted to, but I don't think that's what life is all about.

"He could talk to a stranger for hours. He was simply a people person.

"He was not always aware of what was going on in the classroom. He was not aware of what the boosters were doing.

"That picture of the players in the hot tub (with convicted fixer Richard Perry), that was a big surprise for him.


"He wasn't into the personal life of a player. He doesn't go home with you, he doesn't live with you.

"He believes, and I do, too, that by the time you get to college it's time to be a man and be responsible for your actions.

"Young men, being young men, are going to get into trouble. I know I got into some fights while I was there.

"But I also remember what he often said: 'Don't do anything to embarrass this university or embarrass your family or yourself.' "

Isn't that the promise Rollie Massimino made his first day on the job as Tarkanian's replacement, that no student-athlete would ever, ever embarrass the university?

"The university," Gilliam said glumly, "wanted to clear up its image, so they figured they had to remove coach Tarkanian.


"The fans, though, are used to a program that wins more than 20 games every year, that at least goes to the Sweet 16, and Sweet 16 is just a worst-case scenario.

"Now Rollie's coming in and he's not inheriting a great team. Because of the threats of probation, some of the talent opted to go to other schools.

"The fans are going to want to win because they've won year in and year out."

With Tarkanian [and the NCAA investigators] gone, the university president figures, the school can be recognized for its rare super-computer.

"He's trying to change the perception," Gilliam said. "But when you think of UNLV, you think of the Runnin' Rebels, because that's the way it's been for the last 19 years.

"I know that people approach me based on the perception of a UNLV athlete. They'll approach me like I'm an uneducated athlete.


"And then, it's almost a shock when I say something that makes sense . . . or something unexpected."