So last night I finally watched the HBO Documentary, Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV. This sugar-coated, sepia-toned, heart string-tugging documentary was a one-sided affair – much like most of the UNLV games in the early 90’s.
For my family, this was a special time and a special city. Though we are L.A. natives, I’ve always considered Vegas a second home.
My father, The Count, and his brother, Art, were boxing managers (Mia St. John, Otis Pimpleton) in the 80’s, thus we were taking road trips multiple times per year – and that’s where the Rebs came in, at least for me. With 80’s Vegas NOT being the family-friendly town that it was now, it was either playing more rinkydink games at Circus Circus or hanging around Thomas & Mack. Luckily, that was the era of Showtime in L.A., so I was well-versed on this new-fangled college version featuring Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt & of course ‘Grandmama’ Larry Johnson.
Without Jerry Tarkanian, however the Runnin’ Rebs would have never existed, and that’s where the documentary really sharpens its focus. Tarkanian is painted in a favorable light despite numerous & consistent accusations of recruiting ‘questionable’ kids to play basketball and not necessarily to be student-athletes. That said, Tark the Shark created that program from literal desert dirt, and the documentary ties in the growth of Las Vegas from Tark’s first year, 1973, through the end of the Larry Johnson Era (bytheway, the first so-called ‘Thug’ in the NBA, quite a misnomer but he did ‘look’ the part, apparently)
In short, the piece is available from HBO OnDemand from now through April 10th, so you definitely need to reserve an hour to review just HOW dominating this program really was, and what it meant to the entire landscape of college baskeball. Never before had there been a ‘mid-major’ that dominated to this extent, and what the club did for Vegas is a very underappreciated aspect of the documentary. The Rebs were the first team to really define that city, and the city embraced the squad with typical Vegas enthusiasm (and money, gifts, etc). This, of course, led to the program’s downfall as the NCAA in that era really didn’t take to well for some reason to players cavorting with known fixers:
Another really interesting aspect of the documentary is the visual aspects of Las Vegas in the 1980’s, when Atlantic City was cutting into profit, tourism and cachet. It’s almost unbelievable in retrospect to think that there was not one new hotel built between the (original) MGM Grand in 1973 and the Mirage in 1989. The images of Vegas are so quaint, in retrospect.
The Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV were not just a program. They were THE program, so entertaining, so dominant – so American. And there will not be another team like them, not with a run like that.
Viva Tarkanian. Long live the Rebs.