By TIM DAHLBERG
LAS VEGAS — Lois Tarkanian answered the phone at the family home, offering a word of caution before handing it to her husband.
“His voice is weak and he may not remember everything,” she said.
Jerry Tarkanian’s voice was weak, and at age 82 he didn’t remember everything. Though he made it to most UNLV home games this season, a heart attack last year and other health problems have taken their toll.
For those who don’t remember Tark, let me fill in some of the blanks. I was privileged enough to cover his Runnin’ Rebels in their glory years, and was courtside at both the national championship win in 1990 in Denver and the shocking loss to Duke in the Final Four a year later in Indianapolis.
I’m a firm believer that, for all his faults, he was wronged by the NCAA, which hounded him his entire career. The NCAA finally agreed, paying Tarkanian $2.5 million in 1998 to settle a lawsuit claiming it singled out the UNLV program for investigation and penalized it unfairly three times.
I’m also a firm believer he should be in the Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s a sentiment shared by most in this gambling town, and a lot of people in the game of basketball.
“You can only hope justice prevails and Jerry Tarkanian is elected to the Hall of Fame,” Bill Walton said while in town broadcasting the Pac-12 tournament.
Whether he will get in is up to Hall of Fame voters, whoever they are. Unlike other sport shrines, the basketball Hall of Fame does not publicly identify its voters, a lack of transparency that is troubling.
But he’s finally a finalist, along with 11 others in a class that will be announced at the Final Four. Justice has been a long time coming to Tarkanian, but maybe this time it will prevail.
“It would be real nice,” Tarkanian said, struggling to get the words out.
His legacy will be his bitter battles with the NCAA, a grudge Tarkanian will carry with him to his dying day. At a screening party two years ago for an HBO special on his glory days, Tarkanian got up at the end of the documentary and lit into the NCAA for old time sake before an approving audience at a Vegas casino.
“If I had my way I think they (the NCAA) all deserve to go to Devil’s Island,” Tarkanian said.
But there was much more to a coach who helped redefine the way the college game is played. His teams in his final years at UNLV were so dominant there may never be any like them again, and if the NCAA hadn’t interfered he might have won a handful of national championships instead of just one.
Yes, he recruited some kids other coaches wouldn’t touch — anyone remember Lloyd Daniels? — and there were times he didn’t follow all the rules. Neither did a lot of other coaches, though NCAA investigators were so busy chasing Tarkanian that they paid them little attention.
Tarkanian’s problem was he was unrepentant. He truly believed he had done nothing other coaches weren’t doing, and he refused to back down.
Tarkanian liked to tell the story about the time one of his assistants saw an NCAA investigator renting a car at the airport and followed him to a local strip club. Tarkanian got some brochures for the club and mailed them to the investigator, telling him there was a special going on.
On the court, there was no controversy. Tarkanian won 784 games in his career, with 509 of them coming at UNLV. His best team was probably the 1991 squad that was unbeaten in 34 games before being upset by Duke, but he won at least 20 games every year but one in his 19 years at UNLV.
His teams were renowned for running and running up big scores. But it was UNLV’s amoeba defense and the stifling full court press Tarkanian liked to employ that sparked most of the offense.
There’s really no dispute about his Hall of Fame credentials. He’s 10th in all time wins, seventh in winning percentage, and second behind the legendary Adolph Rupp in quickest to 700 wins. He took 18 teams to the NCAA tournament, made the Final Four four times, and won a national championship.
Take away the lingering debate over his relationship with the NCAA and he would have been inducted a long time ago.
My guess is that some Hall of Fame voters — whoever they are — believe they are holding some sort of moral high ground by not voting for Tarkanian. But college basketball is a messy business, indeed, and any shrine that elects a shoe salesman (Phil Knight) while keeping out a coach of Tarkanian’s pedigree has some serious credibility issues.
Tarkanian is an old man now, something I was reminded of when I saw him sitting courtside by himself last week at the UNLV campus arena he helped build. He looked worn and weary, though with his sad eyes and scratchy voice he looked much the same way while chewing on a towel in his prime.
He’s looking now for one last win, one final statement about his life and career. The Hall of Fame would be the ultimate stamp of legitimacy for a man who spent most of his life searching for just that.
“It would mean a lot,” he said, his voice fading away.
With that, our conversation was over. It was time to rest, then watch some NCAA tournament games on TV.
Any more talk of the Hall of Fame would have to wait for another day.
Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg