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Jerry Tarkanian's greatest loss might have been George Gervin

George Gervin was the star who got away from Jerry Tarkanian during his coaching days at Long Beach State

How many points would Hall of Famer George Gervin have been worth for Long Beach State in an NCAA tournament game?

It’s a what-might-have-been question 49ers fans could ask.

Three, maybe?

Former UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian died Wednesday. For five seasons he was Long Beach State’s coach, winning 122 games in the shadow of UCLA’s John Wooden. All seven of the 49ers’ NCAA tournament victories came during the Tarkanian era.

But the 49ers lost to the Bruins three times in the NCAA tournament, including a 57-55 defeat in the 1971 Western Regional final. Had it not been for a bout of homesickness, things might have been different.

Gervin, who scored 20,708 points in 10 NBA seasons, was a freshman at Long Beach State in 1969. But he wasn’t happy

Gervin didn't much like life in Long Beach. After the first couple of weeks, he missed home and his girlfriend. Tarkanian recognized the problem, having seen it many times before. He wasn’t about to let Gervin slip through his hands without trying something.

“We knew George was homesick and his girlfriend kept calling him," Tarkanian said in 1988. “We told his roommate to look after him over the weekend and to call me or an assistant if there were any problems.”

The roommate and teammate, Eric McWilliams, was to keep Gervin happy -- at any cost.

The instructions seemed simple. Stick with George. George wants to go to the movies? Make sure he gets there and back. George wants to go out to dinner? Go ahead, and treat him, if you have to.

Tarkanian returned Monday morning, and guess what? No George.

McWilliams had followed instructions perfectly, too perfectly. When Gervin asked McWilliams to take him to the airport, McWilliams complied. Gervin hopped a plane back to Michigan. He transferred to Eastern Michigan, where he set the school's single-season scoring record. He then jumped to stardom in the American Basketball Assn. and NBA.

Had he not, Long Beach would have had Gervin and All-American Ed Ratleff on the court when they faced the Bruins in 1971.

Long Beach State had a seven-point lead with five minutes left in the game when Ratleff fouled out in a call he has disputed. The Bruins rallied and went on to win a sixth NCAA title.

“I got called for a foul in which I didn't do anything,” Ratleff said in a 2008 story from the Long Beach State website. “Very strange call. It was my fifth, and I was out of the game. But we still had a chance to win. We had the ball late with the score tied, and Dwight Taylor had a wide open jump shot. But he missed it, UCLA got the rebound, and scored. And the Bruins wound up winning by two points. What I also remember about that game is that we didn’t get a lot of calls, especially in the second half. I later was told [UCLA Athletic Director] J.D. Morgan got on the officials pretty good as they walked off the floor for the halftime intermission.”

That might not have mattered if Gervin had not been homesick.

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