Posts Tagged ‘Thomas and Mack Center’

wade and tarkanianBy W.G. Ramirez

This April will mark the 28th anniversary of my first published article after high school.

Less than a year after graduating from Clark High School, my exclusive interview with then-UNLV point guard Mark Wade was splashed across the front page of the Las Vegas Sentinel-Voice, the state’s only African-American newspaper.

That was 1987. Little did I know the next time we’d do another exclusive 1-on-1 interview, it would be under somber circumstances.

But sure enough, less than 30 seconds after texting my ol’ buddy Mark, he replied with one simple word: “Yes.”

The question: “Mark, you available for an interview about Tark?”

Mark Wade 2Just as he was UNLV’s loyal floor general who helped lead the Runnin’ Rebels into the 1987 Final Four, and was an extension of the coaching staff on the court, he was loyal to his former coach on Wednesday, roughly three hours after we were all saddened by the news that Jerry Tarkanian had joined his friend and former North Carolina coach Dean Smith in the afterlife.

Mark, understandably shaken, spoke about a number of things with me, talking about how much Tarkanian meant to not only him, but the program, university and city of Las Vegas. Much of what he said, I knew. The broad strokes, of course I knew. I’ve been here since 1972, and used to watch the Runnin’ Rebels play inside the Las Vegas Convention Center’s famed Rotunda, which resembled a spaceship.

From Sweet Lew Brown, Eddie Owens, Sudden Sam Smith, Robert Smith, Reggie Theus and that high-flying bunch from the 70s, to Wade’s crew that included Armen Gilliam, Freddie Banks, Eldridge Hudson and Gary Graham, I had seen them all. Yep, long before the 1990 National Championship – with Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony, Anderson Hunt and George Ackles – we were all bleeding Rebel Red.

Including Mark.

Which is why his phone began blowing up shortly after the 84-year-old legend died at Valley Hospital, just minutes from his home. So many people knew what Tarkanian meant to Mark, who might have been diminutive in size, but who had as big a heart as any other Runnin’ Rebel in the history of the program.

Which is why, to this day, he defends UNLV to the core.

“There was always this misperception that we were this undisciplined, crazy, helter-skelter uncontrollable basketball program,” Wade said. “But as chaotic as it looked, it was unbelievably disciplined basketball. To us, we had a plan and it was directed toward what we were supposed to do. Even on the championship team, they all had roles on the floor en route to winning the championship. Us, that 1987 Final Four team, we had a plan and we knew what we were doing and what we had to do to get as far as we did. We had a plan that was set forth in practice.”

And boy did the Runnin’ Rebels execute it.

They finished 37-2, averaged 92.5 points per game, allowed 75.5 points per contest and lost in the National Semifinal, 97-93, to eventual champion Indiana.

But it was the game before that, against Iowa in the West Regional Final that Mark wanted to talk about. It’s the one game he remembers absolutely everything about, and the one game he believes epitomized the life and soul of Tark the Shark.

“The eternal fight of telling one another we weren’t going to lose that game, that’s what I remember,” Wade said. “We were getting out butt whipped out there, I got my fourth foul and Gary (Graham) came in the game. And no matter how far down we got, we just always had the mentality it was us against the world and we were going to fight ’til the clock said zero.”

Just like Tarkanian. In real life.

“The Iowa game epitomized what Coach Tark was all about; it epitomized what college basketball was all about,” he said.

Wade_MarkWade remembers one intangible being the culprit allowing Iowa to open a 16-point halftime lead on the Runnin’ Rebels. That culprit, in a sense, was Tarkanian, who had Gilliam throwing the ball in each time Iowa scored.

“Our best finisher was taking the ball out of bounds, and that wasn’t working,” Wade said. “So at halftime, rather than him telling us what we were doing wrong, a couple players went to coach and we told him to switch Jarvis Basnight with Gilliam, putting the team’s best scorer into frontcourt, rather than the backcourt.

“And that is what essentially changed the flow of the game.”

UNLV outscored the Hawkeyes 42-23 in the second half and advanced to its second-ever Final Four.

“Coach and I never had any serious battles, what we had was a meeting of the minds on the basketball court,” Wade said. “We found a happy medium and that’s what made me enjoy being a point guard for that team.”

It was that kind of relationship that taught Wade to trust a coach, taught Tarkanian a lot more about the point guard on his team and displayed the type of coach who wasn’t afraid to learn from his players while teaching them how to win.

“He taught his players to fight through practice ’til they had nothing left, and in games, the model was to play ’til the game was over,” Wade said. “In life, his journey was the same as what we stood for on the basketball court. You fight until you have nothing left, to the very end.”

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Indiana Pacers star and NBA All-Star Paul George and I chat after the U.S. men’s national team’s practice on Thursday. Photo courtesy of: Cassy Athena/cassyathena.com

W.G. Ramirez

I’ve heard, read and written the same adjectives you’ve all seen when it comes to describing Paul George’s gruesome injury Friday night at the Thomas and Mack Center.

See, I did it again.

Nearly 24 hours later, with about two hours of sleep in between reporting, texting, tweeting, sharing notes, communicating – you name it – about the incident, I can tell you it’s not one of my high points in 27 years of journalism.

Sure, I wrote a story that went global via The Associated Press, but these are not the stories you live for, especially when it’s about a young man with exquisite talent, and is as graceful on a basketball court as Baryshnikov was on stage and who is quite the diplomat in representing the NBA and men’s national team in a respectful manner.

George, considered a sure-bet to make the final 12-man roster for the World Cup of Basketball that starts later this month in Spain, emerged as the Indiana Pacers’ franchise player after averaging 21.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists last season. The team figured it would build around him now that Lance Stephenson has bolted to play for the Charlotte Hornets, while many believe he was penciled in as a starter alongside Kevin Durant for the men’s national team.

After undergoing successful surgery to fix a right leg, open tibia-fibula fracture overnight, George has a long road to recovery.

And Indianapolis hearts are breaking as we speak.

But it’s not just because the Pacers have seemingly dropped out of the Eastern Conference picture about three months before the season begins, it’s because it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. I mean, from what I can tell, most of the players in town last week are all nice. Some are just over-seasoned a bit, and perhaps weary of dealing with media sorts. They give their garden variety quotes, do their required media sessions and then move on.

But George was someone who seemed different. He came across the exact way Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski expected every member of the national team to come across, with a sense of brotherhood for his fellow teammates, and a great representative toward our country.

George stopped to speak to me in one of his last interviews of the week (he may have conducted a phone interview between our chat and Friday’s tip-off), just before the players boarded their charter bus after practice on Thursday. And the one thing I gathered was his true grasp for Krzyzewski’s goal of bringing together a fine-tuned group with the best chemistry, based on their personalities.

For George, he said he understood last Sunday, in the team’s first meeting at the Wynn.

“He put the video on and showing the guys celebrating, ya know pulling for one another – it’s a real brotherhood here,” said George, referring to previous national teams that won gold medals in the World Championships and Olympics. “You’re not only representing yourself, you’re not only representing the U.S. – you’re representing one another. And us being ambassadors of the NBA, of the US, we gotta carry that well.”

By the end of Thursday’s practice, George said everyone involved – from the invitees, to the select team, to the coaches and even the trainers – they were all on the same page and it had turned into a celebratory occasion, that being the first week together on a tour that next stops in Chicago on Aug. 14.

“We’re working hard, we’re getting a better understanding of one another, gaining that chemistry and I think really that’s what this is about,” George said. “We all can play ball, but it’s about learning how to play together and building chemistry, which is gonna win us that gold medal. A lot of us can do special things individually, but if we’re not on the same page, it’s gonna be tough.”

George said because players competing for other countries generally play together year round, they already have the camaraderie these group of NBA All-Stars are looking for, and began building in Las Vegas.

“For us to pick everything up in this short coming, it just speaks volumes of how much we’re willing to really sacrifice and make some changes to our games to win gold,” he said.

Durant_Reaction

Team USA’s Kevin Durant reacts after teammate Paul George collided with a backboard stanchion and broke his leg. Photo courtesy of:
Cassy Athena/cassyathena.com

And one of those sacrifices is putting your body at risk, over about six weeks, to attain global greatness. We saw how rough it can get last month in the FIFA World Cup, with several physical soccer matches. Here we are just one week into the U.S. team’s training camp, and the guy with one of the most infectious personalities and genuine attitudes Krzyzewski is looking for is not only lost from this team, he conceivably might not be ready to train with the Pacers until this time next year.

Durant, who USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo has said is the face of the team, told me he’d grown close with George this past week, especially after the two, along with James Harden, spent extra time after practice rotating in and out of 1-on-1 competitions inside the Mendenhall Center.

Scary thing is, it was exactly like the play in which George was injured, that we watched the trio perform over and over on Wednesday and Thursday.

“It’s been fun, just getting to know Paul,” said Durant, the 2014 NBA MVP. “Of course I know James, but it’s competing against ’em. We’ve been competitive the last two days of playing one-on-one, it’s just getting us all better. We respect each other a lot, there’s a mutual respect for all of our games.”

George concurred: “And we rely on one another, we hold one another accountable for all of our actions. But it’s all about pulling for one another. At the end of the day, we’re all we really have, going over to Spain and playing for a gold medal. So we gotta make sure that everybody feels confident and comfortable, knowing that we got each other’s backs.”

DCousins_Reaction

DeMarcus Cousins reacts after teammate Paul George suffered a broken leg Friday night in Las Vegas.
Photo courtesy of: Cassy Athena/cassyathena.com

That couldn’t have been more evident immediately after George’s right leg crumbled into the basket stanchion 27 seconds into the fourth quarter of the USA Basketball Showcase. Harden reacted first, since it was his lay-up George tried contesting. Durant doubled over looking as if he wanted to burst into tears for his now-closer friend. DeMarcus Cousins was flailing his arms up and over his head repeatedly. Stephen Curry sat worried, visibly shaken, with a towel over his head.

And the leader of the brotherhood, Coach K, he looked like a concerned parent as he hovered over George while the medical team and George’s parents were there with them. You’re not supposed to be emotional, and not supposed to care as a reporter. But it was disheartening, and touching, and sad, and moving – all rolled into one. For about 12 or 13 minutes, soaking up the scene, it was an indescribable role I’m not sure I’d want to be a part of again. I love what I do, but that was downright frightful.

And there I did it again, another adjective.

“There’s a brotherhood in the NBA and to me, at moments like this, family or brotherhood shows its heart, it shows its depth, and that’s what I thought our players showed during that time,” Krzyzewski said at the post-game press conference. “We as a coaching staff just told them to relax. We felt at that point we should not go forward and not to worry about playing again, let’s put all of our focus and all of our energy, whatever, if you believe in a higher someone up there above, let’s focus on that in regards to Paul.

“We focused on prayer, and thinking about Paul George.”

How profound.

And touching.

Not to mention revealing, of that camaraderie and brotherhood everyone spoke of the first four days of the training camp, then exercised Friday night when a member of the brethren went down.

“That’s the type of environment we try to set, and we try to live by,” said Derrick Rose during an exclusive interview. “As a brotherhood playing together, just leaving our egos at the door, that’s what makes us a stronger team.”

Even – and especially – when a member of that team experiences a horrific injury.

See what I did there? Again…

Get well soon PG

imageBy Jesse Granger

One of the bright spots of the Runnin’ Rebels disappointing 2013-14 season was an energetic transfer from the University of Connecticut.

Roscoe Smith brought intensity and heart every night he took to the floor, and breathed energy into a team that suffered through a season full of missed expectations. Smith’s theatrics and leadership made him a fan favorite, particularly screaming in opponents’ faces as he jumped up and down while guarding the inbound pass.

What better place for UNLV’s theatrical leader to continue his basketball career than Hollywood, California – with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Smith made his professional debut last Friday in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas in front of a sold out crowd.

“I played in front of a lot of UNLV fans, and to represent the UNLV program, it was definitely very interesting,” Smith said. “I was very anxious, but I slowed down and let the game come to me.”

He started the game on the bench, but checked in at the 4:36 mark of the first quarter. He was held scoreless in the first half, missing both of his shots, and looked uncomfortable on the floor.

“The biggest difference is the talent level,” he said. “There are a lot of great guys out here that can play basketball. Some guys are more physical than others, some are quicker than others and some jump higher than others.”

His scoring drought ended in the third quarter when he slammed home a two-handed dunk, and his game opened up from there.

“After I got that dunk everything just started feeling like it was back to normal,” Smith said. “Once you get that first bucket you’re like ok, it’s just basketball. I’ve been doing this my whole life.”

He ended the game with 8 points on 3-of-5 shooting, and added 2 rebounds and a block in 14 minutes of playing time. A solid outing for his first game in the NBA, especially after the criticism he received when choosing to forgo his senior season at UNLV to enter the NBA draft.

“I feel good about (the decision),” said Smith, who is averaging 4.0 points in 11.3 minutes per game after the first three games of the Summer League. “I think I had an impressive year at UNLV. Coach Rice and all of the other UNLV staff members definitely had a lot of confidence in me. They definitely helped me improve, not just as a basketball player but as a person. Today for the first time as a professional athlete I think I did pretty well. I don’t have any complaints at all.”

Making his debut in Las Vegas could have put added pressure on Smith, but he felt it only helped him.

“Coming to Las Vegas, I feel like this is still my first family, so they just support me. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m just trying to improve as a player every day.”

His trip back home even allowed Smith to catch up with some old teammates.

“I saw a few guys from the team that came and supported me.” Smith said. “I talked to a few guys yesterday. I’m going to watch Kevin Olekaibe and cheer for him. I’m his biggest fan, and I wish him the biggest luck right now.”

Similarly to Smith, teammate Khem Birch also chose to leave school early and went undrafted. The two remain close, and are trying to help each other as they make the next step in their careers.

“I actually talked to Khem all of last night. I experienced it first, so I’m going to give him a pep talk about it and what to do. Just be aggressive all day and everything will work out.”