For some reason, in 1996 the Kansas City Star sent me to Fresno to write a piece about then Fresno State coach Jerry Tarkanian. I honestly forget why. What I do remember was riding around town with Tark, going to watch him getting fitted for a suit, going with him to a Rotary Club meeting, just going with him. It was unlike any assignment I’ve ever had.
Tark died Wednesday, and the journalist who knew him best, Dan Wetzel, wrote a wonderful tribute to an American original. Here I’ll post the story I wrote about him in 1996:
* * *
FRESNO, Calif. – The bell rings, and Jerry Tarkanian knows what that means. There are no surprises left for a 66-year-old basketball coach. The bell means another donation on another weekday at another Rotary Club luncheon, which means another round of applause, another series of backslaps, another tilting of glasses, all of which means that soon enough another Rotary Club president will make another corny joke.
“As an old Armenian saying goes,” the Rotary Club president says, “a louse in the lettuce is better than no meat at all.”‘
Yeah. Whatever. That resolved, the meeting crawls. Donations. Announcements. Jokes.Tarkanian, Fresno State’s basketball coach, looks at his watch and seems disappointed. Time ain’t moving. By the time the president of the Fresno Rotary Club introduces a few of the brightest young students at Scandinavian Middle School, complete with their ambitions and hobbies, Jerry Tarkanian’s mind floats somewhere over the Pacific.
“Julie wants to become a great writer.”
Tark gazes into the haze as Julie giggles and wanders before the Rotarians. Tarkanian is elsewhere now leaving behind only those sad eyes. They are the eyes of a scorned lover. A child abandoned. These eyes have always given Tark a melancholy look. Even in his best moment, the moment after he coached Nevada-Las Vegas to the most lopsided national championship victory ever, these eyes clashed with the smiles.
“Amy’s hobbies include speaking her mind.”
Tark leans forward, as if he wants a better look at his thoughts. He often tells people that he does not look back, but there’s so much back there. Vegas neon. Victories. Towels. Desperation. Poverty. Scandal. Celebration. These eyes have seen pretty much everything, and now they focus on nothing, as if Tark ponders life’s great mysteries, such as why children must suffer or, more likely, how he ended up coaching in Fresno, a city of strip malls and Rotary Club meetings.
“Stacy likes basketball.”
Suddenly, instantly, Tark snaps from the spell. Life bursts into his eyes. His neck jerks. He looks at the girl, Stacy, and Tark smiles a little. Then, he turns back and loses himself again.
“Too small,” Jerry Tarkanian mutters.
* * *
Fresno is a lot like Las Vegas in that they are both cities on Planet Earth. In other ways, they are different. Vegas, for instance, has good restaurants. Fresno, for instance, has farmers.
Tark coached Runnin’ Rebels basketball in Las Vegas, where he became friends with Jimmy Caan and became a symbol of college basketball, all of it, good and bad, victories and controversy, second chances and rules violations, the maddening defense and the madding crowd. He dueled with the NCAA, he won more often than any other coach, he chomped on his towel, and he was king.
“Yeah, it was good,” Tarkanian says and no more. He does not like the subject much. Tark doesn’t speak about things that bore him. He does what he does, and right now he would rather talk about Avondre Jones, who transferred to Fresno State and probably will start at center next season. Avondre was one of the best high school players in America three years ago, but he never liked basketball that much. He preferred rapping. That pretty much ruined his hoops career at Southern Cal. Avondre’s parents called Tark.
“They figured I was pretty much Avondre’s last chance,” Tarkanian says, and he nods to confirm that they were pretty much right. He has done it all in college basketball, but this is Tark’s latest role. Life saver. Captain Rehabilitator. Chancellor of Second Chance U.
Tark likes it.
“No, I don’t think everybody would give these kids another chance,” he says. “But these are good kids. They’ve had trouble, but they’re basically good kids. They’re darned good kids. A lot of people say you can’t change kids. I don’t believe that. You can change them.”
The kids believe that. They believe in Tark. For all the years, hard-luck kids, troubled kids, poor kids, they have rushed to Tarkanian with hopes of being saved. Heck, Tark was a troubled kid himself. His family was poor. He was nearly tossed out of Fresno State as a student. His whole career, he took chances on the kids who frightened everybody else. He recruited playground legends Clifford Allen and Lloyd Daniels. Neither played for him in college. Both eventually spent time in jail.
“He believes in people,” his son and assistant coach Danny says.
The cynics say everything he does is simply to feed Tark’s insatiable hunger for winning. The kids, however, say those people just don’t get it.
“He cares about us,” says Fresno State guard Chris Herren, a brilliant guard who was dismissed from Boston College after testing positive for drugs. “We’re all here to play for the guy, and it’s our last chance. We all know that.
“He talks to us. He teaches us. He trusts us. Show me another college basketball coach in the country who does all that.”
In return, of course, Tark needs them to win. This has always been the deal in college basketball. I’ll save your life. You save my job. Tark is just one of the few coaches who does not deny it.
Tarkanian will tell you losing has stolen plenty of life from him, which is strange considering he almost never loses. In 32 years, Tark has lost 160 games – barely five a year – and you know why? Because those rare losses so ripped him apart, he would stay in his room for days, not eating, not talking, not sleeping. He curled up, closed those sad eyes, and he thought of new ways to punish those kids in practice, something that would make them feel as bad as he felt.
* * *
Basketball has been his life to a degree that even other workaholic coaches cannot comprehend. He does not fish or golf or play tennis or do yard work. Once, after he retired, he was on a plane and he read his first romance novel. It was the first book anyone could remember him reading. “It’s so sad,” he told Danny.
Tarkanian’s mind drifts whenever he’s doing anything else. He would get lost in Las Vegas 15 years after becoming coach. He still gets lost driving around Fresno, which ain’t exactly Rome. He parks his car in handicapped spots, no-parking zones, wherever. He talks on his cellular phone every free moment. He gives his tailor exactly three minutes to get him sized up, because there’s practice to be run.
He rushes through every part of his life so he can get back to the game.
“Naw, I don’t do anything else,” Tarkanian says. “What else is there to do?”
* * *
Tarkanian reinvented modern college basketball. Even his critics concede this. At Long Beach State in the 1960s, he brought in full-court pressure. He told his kids to run. He created a defensive madness, the stuff that would make his UNLV teams invulnerable, the stuff Arkansas and Kentucky would later use on their own championship runs.
“He’s a great coach,” says Cincinnati’s Bob Huggins, a close friend of Tark’s who has built his preseason No. 1-ranked team in the Tarkanian image. “He changed the game.”
Tark’s teams almost never lost. His winning percentage is simply the best ever. Sure, he was playing Idaho quite often, but his teams won tournament games, went to four Final Fours, won a national championship. He once led a junior college all-star team to a victory over a Division I college all-star team. He once scared John Wooden’s UCLA team with a rag-tag bunch at Long Beach State.
His coaching has mirrored his life. He coaches furiously against the system. He promised it would be different at Fresno State – “I told myself that losing would not destroy me,” he says – but men don’t change their nature much. Time came last season when his team lost to Pacific, and on the bus ride back, players listened to music. They laughed. Tark could feel his heart pounding through his chest. The next day, those kids ran harder than anytime in their lives, and even now Tark wishes he could have run them more.
“That was absolutely disgusting to me,” he says.
By the end of last season, Fresno State was 22-11 and playing great basketball. This season, they are ranked among the top 25, and they might finish much better than that.
This is Tark’s team, the one he was born to coach. True, he coached UNLV to four Final Fours, and his 1990 team might be the best ever. True, Tarkanian has been coaching his full-court pressure and defensive madness since the early 1960s. True, he was Las Vegas, featured in the Vegas promo before Wayne Newton.
This is Tark’s team, though.
Jones raps. Terrance Roberson improved his ACT score so drastically that they made him retake it again (he failed to come close to his old score and was forced to sit out a year). Herren flunked out at a different school after testing positive for drugs. Dominick Young gave up his athletic scholarship so he could go into business without having the NCAA watch him all the time. Danyell Macklin has been enrolled at six different schools in four years. Tremaine Fowlkes was suspended at a differen t school for allegedly taking a car from an agent.
A guy named Jose, usually wearing shades, travels everywhere with Tarkanian.
A guy nicknamed Gumby hangs out at practices.
An old prison guard, Roscoe Pondexter, was hired to relate to the players.
“I liked Fresno, uh, no, let’s be honest here, I hated Fresno,” says Roberson, a forward so volatile and talented that his old high school coach, a 20-year legend in Michigan, threw him off the team and then, promptly, resigned. “I wanted to play for Tark.”
It’s the Tarkanian Show, some weird combination of Vegas and the streets and talent and hoops and Fresno. Gottschalk’s Department Store in town sells wide-screen televisions with this offer: If Fresno State wins all its games in December, you will get your money back.
“I can’t guarantee we will win all our games,” Tarkanian says on the commercial, and he smirks.
It is all so mesmerizing. Herren and Young form one of America’s best backcourts. There are so many talented forwards that Tarkanian, when asked who will start, shrugs and says, “I’ll let them worry about it.”
And it all happened so fast. A year ago, Fresno State was the very symbol of mediocrity, 134-160 in the previous 10 years, and now it is almost surely a tournament team, a legitimate contender.
“How good are we?” Herren asks. “As good as we want to be. I’m serious. We will be everybody’s favorite team within a year.”
Tark is back in business.
* * *
Tark is furious. For hours, he had spoken without passion, even about passionate topics. He mumbled lifelessly about the NCAA, which had been a mortal enemy for decades. He spoke distractedly about the game and the kids and his history and his great teams. He said players should not be paid – “That would ruin the spirit of college basketball,” he said – but he did not show any emotion as he spoke.
Once, he did perk up to say that the NBA is a joke. “I would rather watch Gilligan’s Island than a regular-season NBA game,” he said, and it seemed he would relive his own short, bad NBA experience as San Antonio coach. Then, he fell into his funk again. Little seems to rile up Tarkanian anymore.
Now, he’s coaching, though, and he is furious. His face tinges red. His soft voice now barks. He looks over his team, all those second-chance kids, and he sees Jose and Gumby and the prison guard and NBA scouts and the reporters.
“Let’s run,” Jerry Tarkanian screams, and the saddest eyes in college basketball watch the kids run.