Jerry Tarkanian didn’t mind taking a chance on players with checkered pasts.
He believed in second chances. Third ones, too.
And on the day Mr. Tarkanian died Wednesday, many of his former Fresno State players expressed gratitude in the way their coach gave them opportunities to redeem themselves through basketball.
Ex-Bulldogs star Courtney Alexander was one of many whom Mr. Tarkanian helped out.
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Alexander got his chance after he had been kicked off the Virginia basketball team after being found guilty of domestic assault.
He thought his basketball career was over. No college wanted him. He was too much of a liability. Mr. Tarkanian thought otherwise, called Alexander, never mentioned the assault incident and merely said that there was a spot waiting for him at Fresno State if he wanted it.
“Without Coach, without Fresno State, I don’t know what happens,” Alexander said via telephone Wednesday. “Fresno State was the only school that would accept me. So to say Coach Tark meant a lot to me, it’s an understatement.
“My college career was severely in jeopardy, as it should’ve been. And who knows if my NBA career would’ve ever happened. I didn’t know where Fresno was but I was happy to come out there and play for Coach Tark.”
Recovered addict Chris Herren, another former Bulldogs star who had been kicked out of his previous school before transferring to Fresno State, believes Mr. Tarkanian helped him get his life back together — even after his playing days. Drugs and alcohol shortened his NBA career and sent him down a path of misery for 10-plus years.
“I was fortunate enough to play for the greatest coach in college basketball history,” Herren told The Bee last week during a visit to Fresno for a motivational speech. “I didn’t understand that at the time, as I do now. But his compassion and his empathy for my struggles was second to none. I’m forever grateful for that.”
Under Mr. Tarkanian’s direction from 1995-2002, the Fresno State men’s basketball team regularly packed Selland Arena and showcased some of the top talent to ever come through the program.
Bulldogs players were treated like rock stars, drawing loud applause from waves of fans eager to get their autographs.
“Playing for coach was fun and exciting,” ex-point guard Demetrius Porter said. “He brought teams to Fresno that you dreamed of playing as a kid. He invested in his players and would do whatever he could to help.”
Former Fresno State coach Boyd Grant, who led the Bulldogs from 1977-1986, recalled the challenge of facing Mr. Tarkanian and his powerful UNLV teams.
“He beat a lot of people,” said Grant, who led Fresno State to the 1982-83 National Invitation Tournament championship. “The thing about Jerry is a lot of people said he won because he had talent. Well that isn’t true.
“He had talent, but sometimes it’s tougher to coach talent than maybe the other way because sometimes you have to have discipline and toughness. And I really felt like all of his teams, at least the ones I played against, were extremely tough. When the third quarter started you better be ready because if you're not ready, you're going to get beat.”
Former Bulldogs star Larry Abney noted that Mr. Tarkanian preached how big talk would mean nothing without hard work.
“He said you can say all that you want to and when we get between those lines … you can’t fake it when you get out there,” Abney said. “You have to back it up on the court. That resonated in me. Not just on a basketball court but in life. You can talk all you want to and tell everybody what you’re going to be, but you have to put the work in in order to prove yourself.
“You can’t fake it. You can't fake reality. You can't fake what’s real. It’s a lesson that I carried with me forever. When I talk to kids today, I tell them that same story.”
Mr. Tarkanian regularly stressed that basketball lessons could be applied to real-life situations.
“Coach Tark taught me personally what it takes to think and become a constant thinker,” ex-Bulldog Shannon Swillis said. “That did not only help me in basketball but has helped me in life as a whole.”
But beyond the game planning and his pep talks, Mr. Tarkanian, above all else, was revered for his love of basketball and compassion for troubled teenagers.
“A lot of people always ask me what’s the biggest thing that you took away from (Mr. Tarkanian), and I think it was his heart for his players,” ex-forward Travis DeManby said. “He would do anything to give people the benefit of doubt, second chances. It was strictly because he loved his players and he wanted the best for them.”