Runnin' Rebels stripped down


LAS VEGAS -- It's not the same.

The cabdriver says it. The senior point guard says it.

Thomas & Mack Center, the old Shark Tank, is half empty. The sound meter in the arena never reaches triple digits.

The opponents are worse, almost laughable by the old standards. Adelphi? Vermont? "Family games," they call them. The coach, Rollie Massimino, knows the other coach. They're good friends. Some of the games can't even be televised because of the NCAA probation terms.

It's not the same.

The minor-league hockey team the Thunder often outdraws the college basketball team. The cheerleaders are not as slick. The celebrities are missing from Gucci Row. The coach is pudgier. He is not as bald, and his eyes are never sleepy.

Something else, too: The Nevada-Las Vegas basketball team is not very good -- at least not yet.

"I always look at the old tapes; I pull them out," said Dedan Thomas, the senior playmaker. "Those guys are so good, they're like a pro team. You see those crowds. Those days are gone. We're not going to win games by 30 or 40 points. But you've still got to play the game."

UNLV, the school that blew away Duke by 30 points for the national championship in 1990, broke a four-game losing streak this week with a hard-fought victory over Loyola-Marymount -- another winless team that has seen far better days.

On a weekend when the MGM Grand Hotel opened and The Strip was preparing for the New Year's crowd, the 93-77 win by UNLV hardly created a stir. The Runnin' Rebels still are running, but they are too small and too young.

There is widespread apathy in the community. Season tickets are down from 12,000 to 6,700. Starting his second season, Rollie Massimino is surrounded. He has a lot of work in front of him, Jerry Tarkanian behind him.

"The expectations are so great, the university is such a focal point, it's not easy," Massimino said. "But we'll be back."

Like any coach, Massimino understands that only blue-chip recruits can deliver this promise. Preferably, tall blue-chip recruits. But it is not so easy anymore to convince the top high schoolers in the nation, and their parents, that Las Vegas is the place to play.

"It wasn't only the sanctions," Massimino said. "It was that they were hanging over our head. And we have to convince parents that UNLV is a tremendous institution. There's a lot here besides The Strip."

Some of the kids still are interested. They still remember the 45-game winning streak. They still remember Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony.

Eric Lee, a 6-foot-10 forward from Indianola, Miss., visited the campus this week. He is rated among the top 60 recruits in the country. Dennis Jordan, a 6-10 center from Lufkin, Texas, came, too.

"Teams are a lot bigger than us right now," Massimino said. "We're playing with real, real small people."

The recruiting class is supposed to be good, not great.

It has potential, like the young players who struggle now at the Thomas & Mack Center.

"Since eighth grade, I followed this team," said Jermaine [Sunshine] Smith, the UNLV freshman guard from Middle Village, Queens, and a transfer from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia.

"I was in love with the school, and in love with the city."

Lawrence Thomas, a sophomore from Elizabeth, N.J., was one of Massimino's first recruits. He still gets a kick out of the pre-game fireworks, but acknowledges the fans are not coming to the games.

"There's still a little bitterness against the university," Thomas said.

Tarkanian's departure, after 19 seasons and 509 victories, left many scars, and several feuds. Tarkanian has seen a couple of Runnin' Rebels games on the road, but he will not return to campus until Robert Maxson, the president of UNLV, leaves office.

In the glittery Vegas community, and among several former stars, Maxson is viewed as the villain who forced Tarkanian to leave under the guise of academic redemption.

There are influential people who might persuade recruits to come to UNLV. They have nothing against Massimino, but they don't like Maxson.

So, they no longer are trying to help. Rumors are that a few are even working to keep away recruits.

Massimino still is paying for Tarkanian's sloppiness in the Lloyd Daniels affair. Under the November agreement with the NCAA Infractions Committee, UNLV lost one scholarship this season and next season, cannot televise nonconference regular-season road games through next season and lost five recruiting visits for a one-year period.

It is not a death penalty. UNLV still can go to the NCAA tournament if it wins the Big West. But even if Massimino manages that, fans fear that the Runnin' Rebels will be just a good team in a bad conference.

In Las Vegas, where there is always a slot machine and a quarter to fill it, a good team is not the jackpot.

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