Sports writing, I have often told family, friends and total strangers who asked what I did for a living, is the world’s best job.
I always kept that in mind during several decades of watching and writing about men, women, boys and girls who ran, jumped, threw, caught, drove, rode, stroked, swung, kicked and hit — and the folks who coached them.
Sports writers are always looking for a story. Boring people can make championships, but colorful people make good copy.
Jerry Tarkanian was both a champion and colorful. He forged a career in the bright lights of Las Vegas, and I was there to watch during a brief tenure as a young sportswriter at the Las Vegas Sun in 1975-76.
In a city fueled by celebrity, Tark’s star shone as brightly as any. He wasn’t Jerry Tarkanian — he was Tark the Shark. His team wasn’t UNLV Men’s Basketball, it was the Runnin’ Rebels. Last week after he died at age 84, I read a story that reported Tark even got Frank Sinatra to help him recruit a player.
Tark wrote a column for The Sun while I was there, and the typed pages had to be hand-delivered to our office. Occasionally Tark himself delivered his column, and he and I would kibbitz about Fresno State — he attended in the early 1950s; I graduated in ’69.
I remember razzing him about the game during the 1968-69 season when Tark brought his nationally ranked Long Beach State team into Selland Arena and lost to the unranked Bulldogs under Ed Gregory. During our chat nearly a decade later, Tark pretended to be irritated, then laughed and said Gregory never let him forget that game.
(Gregory went on to a long career as an NBA coach and scout, while Tarkanian took UNLV to national prominence and himself into the basketball Hall of Fame.)
A lot of road passed under the wheels of both Tark and me in the next 30 years. The Rebels won a national title, there were NCAA investigations and sanctions, and a running feud that eventually was settled with Tark receiving a large sum of money from the NCAA.
I went on to write sports for The Bee, and became reacquainted with Tark. Even as Fresno State became embroiled in off-court issues and Tark didn’t always enjoy what he read in the newspapers, he liked individual writers. Hanging with Tark, even for just a few minutes in an interview situation, was always a highlight.
About a decade or so ago, some 40 years past his state championship seasons at Riverside and Pasadena junior colleges, I ran into Tark while covering Vance Walberg’s Fresno City College team in the state tournament in San Diego.
Tark, then retired from coaching, pulled up a chair next to me at press row. We shared Las Vegas and Fresno stories, the conversations always revolving around his favorite subject: basketball.
He loved watching Walberg’s Rams, who played with the same intensity his Rebels had won with back in the UNLV heyday.
The final time I saw Tark was last year, from the bleachers at Save Mart Center when Fresno State honored him at halftime of a basketball game. He was frail and did not speak, but the audience did — loud in its cheers for a former Bulldog who beat everyone in college basketball and the NCAA.
With today’s technological advances, sports can become inundated with facts and numbers, often drowning fans in a sea of stats and analysis. Me, I always watched for the drama and the personality. Tark gave us both — in spades. Everyone who remembers the Tarkanian era at Fresno State has his/her favorite moments. I have two, both last-second, game-winning shots — by Dominick Young to beat Utah in 1996 (remember the photo of him tackling Tark?) and by Tremaine Fowlkes to beat Memphis in the NIT in 1998.
Yes, he gave us personality — Tark the Shark, sucking on a towel. He gave us drama — both on and off the court. He gave us grit and panache, a mix of Fresno soil and Vegas neon. He was one of a kind we may never see again.
Sports writers write about games, sure. But we also write about NCAA violations and player misdeeds and penalties and such. Those issues will always be part of Tark’s legacy, along with the national championship, his Hall of Fame effect on the college game and how he made basketball at Long Beach State, UNLV and Fresno State nationally relevant.
It’s not my intent to comment on that big picture. I’m simply looking back in fond remembrance at a guy I got to hang around a few times during my career. And I liked that guy.
He was one of the coolest dudes I ever got lucky enough to know in the sports news business.