Selection Sunday for the new 68-team version of the NCAA Men’s Division 1 Basketball Championship is upon us.
CBS and Turner Sports, as part of their 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with the NCAA, will for the first time in the tourney’s 73-year history give each games its own national window, whether on the broadcast network, TBS, TNT or TruTV. The latter tips off March Madness with the new-fangled First Four on March 15 (with National Bracket Day serving as a reminder, make sure you fill out your office pool form by Tuesday).
With the Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV and The Fab Five, which debuts on March 13 at 9 p.m., respectively, HBO Sports and ESPN are piggybacking on the tournament’s glare, recalling two teams from 20 years ago, whose legacies linger for their activities on and off the court.
Per usual with an HBO doc, there are some wonderful reminisces, from Las Vegas resident Jimmy Kimmel, who said Sin City’s college team, the greatest show on the strip, was “Showtime before the Lakers were Showtime,” and information about a program that benefited to a limited extent from having Frank Sinatra as a recruiter.
But this is not just a look at the 1990-91 teams that Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said for that period was one of the “elite programs of all-time” in college basketball.
Much of the attention centers on the charming, controversial, Armenian coach Jerry Tarkanian, whose Father Flanagan approach to recruiting the socially and academically wayward, yet hoops-talented was marred by some questionable picks (think Lloyd Daniels, he of the third-grade reading level, who was busted for cocaine in New York and never played a minute for UNLV). Despite continual NCAA scrutiny, the man famous for munching on a towel on the sidelines and battling the collegiate governing body over various violations real or imagined, illegal or unethical, delivered 509 wins during his desert days that yielded Four Finals, two title game appearances and one championship.
Spanning the distance of 20-30 years and the erosion of memory banks, HBO’s story also brings the viewer back to Tark the Shark’s time at Long Beach State, where his teams were also an NCAA target even though it didn’t have the resources of a more famous school down the road. “We led the nation in Kentucky Fried Chicken,” said Tarkanian of the 49ers’ pregame meal of choice, while also wagging his finger at UCLA booster Sam Gilbert.
Other key observations about Vegas, the team and university — whose president Robert Maxson engaged in some secret activities and may have leaked info that helped drive out the coach after the 1992 season — come from Las Vegas journalists and Tark’s wife Lois. She provides perspective about the Rebels place in the community, its portrayal in the press and her husband’s battles with the NCAA.
Greg Anthony, about to begin analyzing the tournament for the combined CBS/Turner Sports team, also receives a lot of camera time. At the media day for the tourney in Manhattan on March 8, Anthony, the point guard for the Rebels’ great teams, told this reviewer that he had not yet seen the documentary. He expressed concern not about how it would turn out, but how his college coach would respond to it.
As he said during the doc, Tarkanian was a “father figure” to many players, including Anthony, who personified toughness, as he played through a broken jaw and chin suffered in a frightful, face-first fall against Fresno State at the Thomas & Mack Center. Anthony helped take the “evil thug” team to the 1990 title via its 103-73 thrashing of the “good” and wholesome projection of the NCAA, Duke.
For his part, tears of regret spill from Tark during the film over the 1991 Final Four loss to Duke — which he admonished his 34-0 team for overlooking following their 30-point destruction in the title game the year before. Unfortunately for Rebel rooters, his shoot-around warning that they were going to lose for lack of focus came to pass. There are also tears of lifetime from the coach saying he wouldn’t have traded the experience for anything.
Notable by its absence is any fresh commentary from that great team’s star player Larry Johnson, whose NBA career was compromised by a bad back. Lois Tarkanian does provide a key insight with a story about LJ’s answering machine message.
A bigger hole is the lack of anything more than a passing reference to the amoeba defense, the pressurized zone concept, with man principles, that triggered turnovers and UNLV’s high-scoring outbursts. Like the Chicago Bears 46 defense during their 1985-86 championship season, few ever figured out the amoeba during the Rebels’ storied 1990-91 run.
Like the Alex MacDougal and the Brad Hartley Big Band rendition of “Then There’s Vegas” (hey, a doc can’t go far wrong with Elvis’ “Viva Las Vegas” as the musical opener) that closes the film sounds: “There’s no other place that shines so bright, So make it Las Vegas, tonight.”
It would be time well spent on March 12 at 9:30 p.m. (ET). Check HBO.com for other airdates.
(Full disclosure: 1990 was one of the two times I’ve won an NCAA brackets pool (so far) — Mario Chalmers’ three for Kansas against Memphis in 2008 was the other. My key pick was Kenny Anderson’s Georgia Tech making the Final Four, but losing to the favored Rebels. For that, UNLV will always hold a place in my heart.)