Twenty years later, UNLV still indignant
Rebels remain one of most dominant and controversial NCAA champions in history
LAS VEGAS -- Larry Johnson is still pissed.
Twenty years after one of the most compelling and chaotic runs to the NCAA basketball title, the fierce engine of the UNLV Runnin' Rebels harbors a startling swath of anger. You can see it in those smoldering, dark eyes, hear it in the harsh tone of his voice.
"No," he says when approached to sit down for a television interview that will help document that championship team. "Not talking about all that stuff again."
Johnson was signing green St. Patrick's-themed basketballs at the Tropicana Hotel, on the south end of the Las Vegas strip, the day before this year's NCAA tournament began. The power forward was once the NBA's highest-paid player ($84 million went a lot further in 1994), but today he's retired and splits time between homes in Dallas and Las Vegas. He was on hand to honor Jerry Tarkanian, "Tark the Shark," his controversial former coach. A few minutes later, Johnson relented and, sitting in the Wayne Newton Theatre, framed by dramatic lighting and the ubiquitous red curtain, vented with the camera rolling.
"We had the mentality of us against the world," Johnson said. "Make no mistake, we love UNLV, we love the program. We did not like the way we were treated at the end, and the way they treated Coach Tarkanian."
Johnson's point of view is seconded by most of his former teammates. The Runnin' Rebs are acknowledged as one of the best college basketball teams ever assembled. Johnson, Greg Anthony and Stacey Augmon, among others, beat Duke by the staggering score of 103-73 in the 1990 title game. It was the biggest blowout in the championship game in the 71-year history of the tournament and stands as the only time a team has hit the century mark. The following season, UNLV started 34-0 before losing to Duke in the Final Four.
And yet, two decades after the fact, there is a bitter residue.
The players are angry at the NCAA for dogging their embattled coach, the national media for portraying them as hoodlums and the UNLV administration for eventually running Tarkanian out of town. As a result, most involved with the team were initially reluctant to sit down and relive the memories.
How did such a magnificent achievement create this sustained feeling of dread?
"It was just assumed that we were all thugs and incompetent and ignorant and uneducated," said Anthony, an analyst for CBS. "That was really difficult to deal with because what people forget is that we were all kids. You're just being riddled with negative innuendo and lies we're just here to go to school and play ball, man.
"We just wanted to enjoy the ride and, unfortunately, it was a bumpy one. That part, really, has left a sour taste in a lot of the guys' mouths."
Anthony grew up in Las Vegas, but the toughness of the Runnin' Rebs came from inner cities to the east. Anderson Hunt, the lean, 6-foot shooting guard, was from Detroit. Center David Butler came from Washington, D.C., and Moses Scurry was from Brooklyn.
"Tark was one of those special coaches that would take a player that was having trouble passing in high school, or if he had a little baggage with him," Hunt said. "No other coach would touch him, Tark would give him a chance.
"We stuck together. Like being at a party at the rival's basketball team gym and everybody put their backs together just in case a fight broke out. We were going out there together."
When Tarkanian somehow outmaneuvered Kansas, Georgetown and Oklahoma, Johnson transferred from Odessa (Texas) Junior College and the nucleus, which also featured the 6-foot-8 Augmon, was set.
"It takes a different type of coach to coach the team we had," Johnson said. "Coach K at Duke can't coach the team we had. The type of young black males we had on our team were real boastful, they were real bold and they needed someone who was going to show them some love."
"I wouldn't trade the character of our kids with anybody in the country, including the Ivy League," Tarkanian said. "I'm good friends with Mike Krzyzewski. Mike always talks about how great our kids were, and I say, 'Mike, you won't believe this, but we had better kids than you had at Duke.'
"Mike just laughs, but I think I was right."
According to Brad Rothermel, the UNLV athletic director from 1981 to 1990 and a special consultant to the current athletic director, 10 of the 14 players on the 1990 team possess UNLV diplomas. To this day, Rothermel marvels at Tarkanian's ability to turn the tide of negativity into something positive.
Rothermel remembered a typical Tarkanian speech this way: "Now this is more evidence that the NCAA is against us. They don't want us to win it. We're the only ones that want to do it."
Scurry, a 6-7 power forward, smiled when the subject came up.
"All it did was help us," he said. "They helped us win a championship. That's how I see it."
Jerry Tarkanian, riding a motorized scooter -- trimmed appropriately in the UNLV colors of scarlet and gray -- rolls into the Celebration Lounge at the Tropicana Hotel. He is met there with adulation; one fan is wearing a vintage red 1990 UNLV championship T-shirt. There is a child-like smile smeared across Tarkanian's broad face. It's almost as if he knows something the rest of us don't.
Last year was a physical struggle for the former coach who will turn 80 later this summer; Tarkanian suffered a fractured shoulder, two broken ribs, endured spinal surgery and, most recently, knee surgery. Still, he is lucid and engaging as the master of ceremonies takes him through the triumphs of that 1990 team.
The next day, the guy who used to break bread with Frank Sinatra gingerly makes his way on foot to a suite on the 39th floor of the Palazzo Hotel. In 19 seasons at UNLV, Tarkanian's record was 509-105. His signature superstition, going back to his days as a high school coach in Fresno, Calif., was sucking a wet towel in tense moments. He happily discusses the history of the terrycloth, but his favorite subject is clearly the persecution of his program.
Tarkanian goes on at some length, disparaging then-UNLV President Robert Maxson and, with particular gusto, one of his lawyers.
"He lied about everything," Tarkanian said. "If he ever took a polygraph test, he would have been electrocuted right on the spot."
The interviewer, stifling a laugh, tried to change the subject.
"Let's talk about the Duke game," he said.
"Well -- no," Tarkanian said. "No. Let me go further on this."
And then he was off on another soliloquy, claiming school officials installed surveillance cameras at the Thomas & Mack Center in an attempt to capture evidence of illegal workouts for the NCAA. Later, there was a rant about how many times the Runnin' Rebs got "screwed" by the officials.
"I could never go public with that," Tarkanian said. "I mean, we lost to Carolina in '77 in the Final Four. We lose by one point. They shoot 28 free throws. We shoot five."
Joe Hawk, who covered the 1990 team for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, said in his stories it seemed he wrote the letters NCAA as often as UNLV.
"I don't think they'll always be appreciated for how good they were," said Hawk, now the newspaper's sports editor. "Because there's always going to be the mindset that there was some untoward things being done within the program -- that the Rebels won this, not on the cheap, but they won it on the cheat."
The NCAA and Tarkanian had a long, ugly history. His 1968 to 1973 tenure at Long Beach State produced 23 rules violations, and six days after he was hired at UNLV the NCAA opened an investigation of the school and its previous coach John Bayer. In 1977, five months after the school's first Final Four appearance, the NCAA ordered a two-year probation for UNLV and recommended Tarkanian be suspended for the duration of the probation. UNLV complied and suspended Tarkanian, after which he sued UNLV and received an injunction prohibiting his suspension. Tarkanian later added the NCAA to his original lawsuit and 11 years later the case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The recruitment of New Yorker Lloyd Daniels in 1986 triggered another NCAA investigation. In the nine months before the 1990 NCAA tournament, investigators visited UNLV 11 times. Ten different players from that team were suspended at one time or another, for a variety of academic and rules infractions, most often for unbilled telephone calls and hotel incidentals on road trips.
"Every guy got suspended, literally, on our team," Anthony said. "That's really disruptive from a chemistry standpoint."
When Johnson joined the team that had beaten Sean Elliott's Arizona team in the 1989 Sweet 16, UNLV immediately became a favorite to reach the Final Four in Denver. It is worth noting that three of the Runnin' Rebs' five regular-season losses came with notable players sitting out against Kansas, Oklahoma and LSU.
Asked for a defining moment from the 1990 season, most of those interviewed cited a violent collision at Fresno State on Jan. 15.
"I'm going down the lane for a layup and I get my legs taken out," Anthony explained. "I broke my jaw in two places and my chin and cracked up all my teeth, and it knocked me out."
Doctors wired his jaw shut and told Tarkanian he'd probably be out for a few weeks. Anthony arrived at practice the next day wearing a hockey helmet and didn't miss a game.
"That was incredible," Scurry said. "It showed everybody, 'This is what we've got to do.'"
The Rebels were the No. 1 seed in the West and, after skating past Ball State 69-67 in the Sweet 16, obliterated sentimental favorite Loyola Marymount 131-101 in the regional final. Kenny Anderson's Georgia Tech team was dispatched 90-81 in the national semifinal, setting up a Duke-UNLV title game. It was seen by the national media as an allegory, a morality play.
"They was the good," Hunt remembered, "we was the evil."
Asked about it at the time, Tarkanian deadpanned, "That really upsets me, because I've met some of the Duke kids. I don't think they're bad kids at all."
A tarnished legacy
In the championship game, Hunt scored 29 points -- 12 of them during an 18-0 second-half run for the Runnin' Rebs -- and was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.
"It happens so fast," Anthony said, "that you didn't realize what the score was in the game. And at that moment, I was like, 'Wow, we just won.'"
The shocked look in Anthony's eyes, two decades after the fact, is telling.
Las Vegas, which had embraced the Runnin' Rebs as they rose to the top of the basketball food chain, was ecstatic.
"The town went crazy," Tarkanian remembered. "People to this day talk about it. It was the greatest moment maybe ever in this town."
That was the highest of the highs. The hammer came down 14 months later when the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a photo on Page 1 featuring Richard Perry and three UNLV players sitting in a hot tub. David Butler, Anderson Hunt and Moses Scurry are drinking beer with Perry, who had been convicted seven years earlier in the Boston College point-shaving scandal.
The FBI and NCAA eventually investigated the connection between Perry and the players, but no evidence of point-shaving emerged.
"It hurt me, because they said we were throwing games," Hunt said a week ago, sitting amid the pickup games at the Joe Dumars' Fieldhouse in Detroit. "It hurt -- because [Perry] never asked. He never once mentioned that to us ever.
"That's the sad thing about it. How something can be out there and perceived as something different. My career at UNLV was tarnished a little bit by that."
The hot tub question was the only one Scurry declined to answer in a far-ranging interview in Las Vegas.
But earlier, in a conversation with ESPN producer Kory Kozak, he explained why.
"I'm tired of this," Scurry said. "It's been 20 years. I am tired of talking about this.
"If I needed the money, I would have gone to my brother. He played in the NBA. I didn't need the money."
Carey Scurry played three years in the NBA, with three different teams.
"For the anti-Tarkanian people," former athletic Brad Rothermel said of the hot tub photo, "it was 'You need to make a change. This is not the image you want.'"
UNLV President Robert Maxson, according to Rothermel, was one of those anti-Tarkanian people. Maxson, striving to turn UNLV into an elite research institution, reportedly applied the heat, along with casino operator Steve Wynn. After the photo ran, the NCAA infractions committee barred the Runnin' Rebels from postseason play and television appearances as a result of the prior investigation that led to Tarkanian's 1977 lawsuit. At the time, Tarkanian acknowledged that the 1991-92 season would be his last at the school.
"We went five years with that kind of intensive investigation and when they finished they didn't have a major violation against us," Tarkanian said. "Not one major violation."
Major, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.
In 1993, the program agreed to 28 violations cited by the NCAA that stemmed from a six-year case prompted by the recruitment of Lloyd Daniels. In announcing a three-year probation, an NCAA spokesman cited "inducements to prospective student-athletes and extra benefits to current student-athletes" during Tarkanian's tenure. UNLV's scheduling and television appearances were restricted, but the team was not banned from NCAA tournament play.
In 1998, the long-running feud between Tarkanian and the NCAA ended when the ruling body of college sports settled a court case by writing Tarkanian a check for $2.5 million.
"And the part that was great about it," Tarkanian said, "was it was tax-free."Today, Tarkanian still lives with his wife Lois in the 4,300-square-foot Las Vegas home they bought in 1973 -- on Justice Lane.
He's still huge in this town. People seem to have genuine affection for him when he's out on the town, whether it's the Tropicana Hotel lounge or the sports book at the Palazzo Hotel. For much of the past two decades, though, the players have stayed away.
Current coach Lon Kruger, who guided the Runnin' Rebs to this year's NCAA tournament, has reached out to the members of the 1990 team -- most notably, Larry Johnson -- and, gradually, they have returned. When the school threw a 20th anniversary celebration, Stacey Augmon was the only major no-show.
"Everybody was having a great time," Hunt said, "because it was the UNLV family. We were Rebels on the court, don't get me wrong. But off the court, we were just like any other student-athlete -- except we were in Vegas."
And then Hunt laughed.
"I still to this day don't think our team or coach got their just due," Anthony said. "In part because there was so much done to scar the image and really bring down what he had worked so hard to build. It's unfortunate."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Kory Kozak is a producer for ESPN.