Another flight delay at Los Angeles International Airport. The Cal State Long Beach men's basketball team waits patiently to take a four-game winning streak to Las Vegas. The 49ers had ascended the night before to second place in the Big West Conference and now were to face the league's glamour team, first-place and 18th-ranked Nevada Las Vegas.
The 49ers won last year at UNLV in perhaps the most stirring victory in school history. "A memory I'll always have," center John Hatten says as he waits in the airport boarding area. "But we're not going to live on memories; I feel we're ready to play Las Vegas. It's a big game because it's on ESPN (TV)."
Last year's 79-77 victory was accomplished with senior players, since departed. This team has less experience--several newcomers have never been to frenzied Thomas and Mack Center.
But Hatten does not look upon the gambling capital's glitter as a distraction: "You can have fun as long as you don't let it affect your play. It's no different than hanging out at the beach. You play the slot machines for an hour, you've done about all you can do."
Coach Joe Harrington, 43, looks young enough to pass for a player and has a confident demeanor befitting the man named by Basketball Times as one of the nation's top five up and coming coaches. For him, Las Vegas evokes memories of jackpots--the game itself and $3,000 he won in a slot machine payoff. "Might happen again," he says.
Although his team plays its home games in a small gym, Harrington is a big-arena guy. Thomas and Mack is "a fun place to play, a great atmosphere," he says. "And it's always a challenge to play against the best team in your league."
The flight is called. "Here we go," the coach says.
It is a good day for flying. The plane glides above sand-colored mountain ranges. After about 30 minutes, the descent begins. The young players feel a dip in their stomachs. The city, which from above fails to convey its glamour, at last materializes in the desert. The brown and creviced terrain is dotted with turquoise swimming pools.
The plane lands and rolls to the terminal. The team files down the America West ramp, into the cavernous building. The news, heard on a TV above the jangle of slot machines, is that UNLV has just defeated Temple University at Thomas and Mack. The announcer adds that a "not very good Long Beach team is coming tomorrow night."
"The first thing we hear when we walk off the plane," Harrington says. "And the drama continues."
His assistant, Seth Greenberg, says: "That's the perception of our team; we can use it as a motivator. We weren't very good when we were 3-6."
But the 49ers are 12-11 now.
Players and coaches mill around while trainer Dan Bailey rents five cars for the trip to the Marina Hotel.
"The keys are free throws and defensive rebounding," Greenberg says. "Get them in foul trouble to negate their hustle. And we have to take away their second shots."
Hatten, a 6-foot-9 bruiser wearing pink socks, is not irked by the sportscaster's comment. Accustomed to the 49ers not getting respect, he says, "We're picked to finish eighth every year."
Freshman guard Bobby Sears sits on his bag, finding it hard to believe that a year ago he was at Inglewood High School. "I think (UNLV) will be tired," he says with a smile.
"If it becomes a street fight," Hatten tells Sears with a touch of defiance, "we'll win it. . . . We're meaner, we want it more."
Practice Sunday night is conducted at the huge Thomas and Mack Center as litter from the afternoon's UNLV-Temple game is swept from the sea of red seats. "The kind of place a game should be played," says assistant coach Butch Carter, a former pro player. "It's like an NBA arena."
UNLV has played 90 games here over the years, and lost only six.
Harrington feeds Sears passes during shooting practice, then warns his players before they leave to return to the hotel: "Go tonight in pairs, and be in your rooms by midnight."
To Bailey, he says, "Dan, give these guys money to eat on."
"How much?" Bailey asks.
But the players pipe up that they would prefer $10.
Guard Tyrone Mitchell, who had had a big but tiring game the night before against New Mexico State in Long Beach, says: "All I want to do is get off my feet and get some sleep."
Hatten and forward Jeff Eastin, though, prefer the hotel casino. So does Harrington, whose luck continues. He wins about $600 Sunday night in slots and roulette and shows guard Brian Jones the finer points of gambling with the same fatherly manner he might use to show him the intricacies of getting open for a jump shot.
Monday morning. The players are awakened at 10:30 and at 1 head back to the arena for a shoot-around. Witnesses include what is probably the team's oldest booster, 84-year-old Tina Johnson; her son, Rich Johnson, and his wife, Bernice. They had driven from Long Beach. Tina says watching Harrington win money, not the Liberace Museum, is the highlight of her trip so far.
Sears looks loose. He always smiles. "Vegas is nice," he says. "But I'm not old enough to play anything."
Harrington's advice as he gathers his players on court: "Come out, relax and play hard."
"We're as ready as we can be," he says, walking out into the gorgeous afternoon.
Just before 9 p.m.--the game is to start late because of TV--they roll out a red carpet for "Your Runnin' Rebels!" Lineups are introduced amid spotlights and thunderous fireworks. The atmosphere Harrington loves. The big game is ready to start before a less-than-capacity crowd of 17,191, including ex-UNLV football star Ickey Woods, now of the Cincinnati Bengals.
But the start is not good for Long Beach. UNLV gets easy baskets inside--and second shots. The 49ers are not getting defensive rebounds. It is 7-0 quickly.
When Sears makes two free throws, the 49ers are down only 18-14 with 11:08 left in first half. And, as Greenberg had hoped, Vegas is in foul trouble.
But it does not matter. The talented Rebels take control.
'Ended in a Hurry'
"This game ended in a hurry," observes Frank Burlison of the Long Beach Press-Telegram six minutes later when it is 39-23. He had expected a close contest.
TV sets on the East Coast are probably being clicked off.
It is 54-33 at half-time. The 49ers had allowed an average of 51 points in each of their last four games.
For the rest of the night, the men and women with jeweled watches and big diamond rings who sit in courtside seats--Gucci Row as it is called--have little to do but tend to their conversations.
It is past 11 when the game mercifully ends, 104-74, with the 49ers no longer holding second place in the conference.
The Rebels have buried Long Beach under a barrage of three-point shots. Barry Young finishes with seven of 10 from long range, and the team's total ends up 10 of 16. The 49ers make none.
Harrington, known to throw fits after close defeats, is calm. He makes no excuses: "They beat us inside and outside. I never thought they'd be tired . . . It's always more fun to play than practice at this time of year. We didn't play well. This is a great place to play. Everyone talks about the Thomas and Mack--but I'm 1-1 here. Let's wait for the future."
No Doubt of Outcome
Hatten, who scored 20 points, is already talking about tonight's game at UC Irvine as he leaves the dressing room. Even if the 49ers had played their best, "I don't think we could have beaten them (UNLV)," he says.
The players climb back in their rental cars for a trip to the McDonald's at the Barbary Coast Hotel. In the parking lot, Sears looks at a statistics sheet from the game. He had scored 12 points. Good experience? "Yes, it was," he says.
After the meal, they return to their hotel. It is late, and the plane for home--and the future--will leave at 7:30 in the morning.