Those Rebel years

  • Article by: JERRY ZGODA , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 13, 2011 - 1:29 AM

Wolves assistant coach Reggie Theus is among many interviewed in an HBO piece on the glory years of UNLV.

Wolves assistant coach Reggie Theus

Photo: Richard Tsong-Taatarii, Star Tribune file

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Timberwolves assistant coach Reggie Theus was there near the very beginning, way back when a little college in the desert known as Tumbleweed Tech was just becoming everything -- both electrifying and hypocritical -- that is NCAA basketball.

As NCAA officials gather Sunday to finalize yet another bracketed edition of March Madness, cable television network HBO has debuted "Runnin' Rebels of UNLV," a documentary that revisits two decades of a controversial program that came to mirror the flash and win-big mentality that is Las Vegas.

Theus was a sophomore guard in 1977 on the first of Jerry Tarkanian's four Final Four teams that gave a town that entertains the world something to call its own and also through the years provided a second home for NCAA investigators.

UCLA legendary coach John Wooden retired when Theus was a high school senior, so the highly recruited Los Angeles-area player left the big city for Vegas' neon lights, Tarkanian's persistent recruiting pitch and an attractive style of play that he now describes as "score, steal it and score again."

Frank Sinatra never called to woo him, as he did with some recruits not long after Tarkanian came to the desert in 1973 from Pasadena City College and Long Beach State. Theus played tennis with comedian Bill Cosby and remembers Wayne Newton hanging around a program that in time would become one of the greatest shows on the Strip.

"We became part of the city's entertainment," Theus said.

Theus is one of many interviewed, everyone from Tarkanian and his wife, Lois, to former players such as Greg Anthony, Stacey Augmon and Armon Gilliam, boosters, journalists, a Las Vegas historian and college professor, even TV talk-show host Jimmy Kimmel.

Kimmel was a teenager growing up in Las Vegas when Tarkanian's first UNLV teams burst into the national top-10 rankings and that 1977 Final Four with a frenetic style Kimmel calls "Showtime before the Lakers were Showtime."

Tarkanian was pushed out as coach in 1992 after repeated battles with NCAA investigators over allegations ranging from recruiting violations to grade fixing. He left mere months after the Rebels ruled college basketball for two seasons, with a 1990 national title and a 1991 Final Four upset loss to Duke with a team that featured Larry Johnson, Augmon and Anthony.

Theus was there 15 years earlier, when visiting teams first were dazzled by the Runnin' Rebels' novel pregame theatrics that featured a darkened arena and swiveling spotlights and then by an opponent that more than lived up to their nickname.

He was a member of a group known as "Hardway Eight" -- a variation of a gambling term given to a team whose towel-chewing, bug-eyed coach played just eight players -- that went 29-3 and lost by a point to Dean Smith and North Carolina in the Final Four semifinals just seven years after the program joined Division I play.

"We averaged 110 points a game with no three-point line," Theus said. "I know a lot of other things went on after we all left. I can only speak for my group. We had a very strong, very good group of guys. I don't know if I ever thought where we were headed or how high we could go, but I knew we were special. That was a special team, and that was a special time."

HBO Sports' documentary "Runnin' Rebels of UNLV" debuted Saturday night. It re-airs on HBO2 Sunday at 9:30 p.m. and on HBO Monday 6 p.m. and Wednesday at 9 a.m. and 11 p.m.

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