For Tarver, the Quest Is Over--or Is It? : Basketball: Santa Clara High School All-American has selected Nevada Las Vegas, but there still is no signed letter of intent.


Relaxation at last. A two-year stretch of unrelenting pressure to win high school basketball games and the favor of big-time college coaches was finally over. All eyes had been on Shon Tarver long enough.

Now it was his turn to watch.

Tarver settled back to enjoy what to most viewers was the NCAA Sweet 16. For the All-American from Santa Clara High in Oxnard, however, it was the Final Four.

Months ago, Tarver had narrowed his college choices to Nevada Las Vegas, UCLA, Syracuse and Georgia Tech. All were among the Sweet 16. This was Tarver’s last chance for comparison shopping.


After Thursday’s games, he had a long talk with his father, John, and a short one with Tim Grgurich, a UNLV assistant.

On Friday, Lou Cvijanovich, Santa Clara’s coach and father of UNLV reserve guard Stacey Cvijanovich, accompanied Tarver to Oakland to watch the Runnin’ Rebels defeat Ball State in the West regionals. They stayed and watched UNLV eliminate Loyola Marymount.

Tarver spoke with UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian. The die was cast. There is a tandem in Las Vegas--Tarver and Tark.

“If I work hard, I can be their number three guard next year and get 15 to 20 minutes a game,” said Tarver, a 6-foot-5 guard who is two-time state Division IV player of the year. UNLV’s starting backcourt of Anderson Hunt and and Greg Anthony returns next season.

Tarver’s choice is surprising only because the UNLV program is clouded by an NCAA investigation of the school’s treatment of Lloyd Daniels, a former New York high school star.

“Tark promised us that if sanctions are severe, Shon would be released from his letter of intent,” John Tarver said. “Tark was very upfront about the possibility of probation when he first recruited Shon. He didn’t talk around it.”

The talking ended April 11 for most top recruits around the country. Through May 15, they are allowed to sign letters of intent.

Tarver, however, has made an agreement with Tarkanian that he not sign. If he signed and later was granted a release by UNLV, he would be writing off a season of eligibility.

Officials acknowledge that Tarver is protecting himself by not signing--but only to an extent.

“If he wants to ensure four seasons of eligibility, he shouldn’t sign a letter at all,” said Fred Jacoby, chairman of the national letter-of-intent steering committee. “But the problem with not signing is that after May 15, most schools have given out all their scholarships.”

UCLA and Syracuse have contacted Tarver since he made his unwritten commitment.

“Both implied that he’s welcome at their schools if UNLV gets hit hard,” John Tarver said. “Of course, they have to continue to recruit to help their programs, so it’s not certain that they would have a scholarship for him. They implied that they would.”

Troublesome circumstances. Yet Tarver’s choice was not made on a whim and a whirlwind weekend. Shon and his father had employed a patient, patterned strategy in attacking the decision, weighing the merits of each school.

They figured they had only one shot.

“Our family has been through this a number of times. We are leaving nothing to chance,” said John Tarver, who attended Colorado on a football scholarship and played running back for the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles from 1972-75.

John’s brother, Bernard, played tailback for USC in the late 1970s, and another brother, Roger, played fullback at Washington in the early ‘80s.

Last fall, Shon Tarver narrowed the field to 10 schools, and his father invited each coach to the Tarver home. “We sat down face to face with the people who will be like his parents for the next four years,” John Tarver said.

The next phase was visiting UNLV, UCLA, Syracuse and Notre Dame before the season. Tarver soon ruled out the Irish and added Georgia Tech to his list.

“The third phase was to observe the teams,” John Tarver said. “Will he fit in like the coach says? How are the players?”

Emotions were impossible to eliminate. Shon, normally gregarious, became withdrawn in the days preceding his decision.

“I lost contact with him for a while, but since he made the decision he has come back to being himself,” said John Tarver.

“If I tell my son what to do, he’ll never grow up. We went through this process just like a ballgame. And the decision was made in the fourth quarter.”

Santa Clara finished the season 28-0 and with a 45-game winning streak. In Tarver’s two seasons at Santa Clara, the team was 55-1 and won two state championships.

He was named All-American this season after averaging 31.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 4.0 blocked shots. He finished his four-year varsity career with 2,445 points and a 25.0 average.

Keith Wilkes has always laid undisputed claim to the title of best basketball player to come out of Ventura County. Wilkes, who earned the nickname Silk for his smoothness while starring in the NBA, played as a sophomore and junior at Ventura High from 1966-68 before transferring to Santa Barbara High.

Those who have seen both continually argue whether Tarver was a better high school player than Wilkes. It comes down to a preference of style.

“He’s reminiscent of Wilkes, except that Shon Tarver has a hell of a lot more athletic ability than Wilkes did,” said Cvijanovich, Santa Clara’s coach of 32 years.

There’s the left-handed Tarver deftly tossing home an NBA-length three-point basket.

There he is faking the jump shot and penetrating before zipping a pass to a teammate neglected by a mesmerized defense.

There he is creeping down the baseline and bounding above the rim to snare a teammate’s missed shot. Before his feet hit ground, he has crammed the ball home.

“I’m not exceptional at anything, but I can do a little bit of everything,” Tarver said. “Passing, running, jumping. I play a balanced game. I can improve my defense, my ballhandling, the release on my shot.”

Opposing coaches are struck by the absence of cockiness in a player so talented. Tarver is a genuinely nice kid. “He impresses me as a fine person,” said Dick Sebek, coach at Nordhoff, a Frontier League rival of Santa Clara. “I get that from his demeanor on the court and in our conversations.

“Essentially, it’s just little things, but when a kid is head and shoulders better than everyone he plays against, it would be easy for him to be pompous. He’s not.”

Rumors circulated that Cvijanovich and Santa Clara boosters lured Tarver to Oxnard from Righetti High in Santa Maria after the first quarter of his junior year.

Tarver lived in Santa Maria for only a few months after moving there from Lake Arrowhead, where he had attended Rim of the World High through his sophomore year.

The trade school in Santa Maria where John Tarver was employed as an administrator went bankrupt. The nearest job opportunity was in Oxnard. And the Tarvers didn’t need a sales pitch to realize that the best basketball in Oxnard is at Santa Clara, which has won 11 Southern Section championships under Cvijanovich.

“I had never heard of Santa Clara,” Shon said. “My uncle said that it’s a great basketball school, and that if we moved to Oxnard, he’d recommend it.”

Perhaps Tarver was a gift to Cvijanovich for toiling for more than three decades in high schools. More likely, his reputation had paid its largest dividend.

Tarver was convinced he had entered basketball hell the first day he walked into the Saints’ gym.

“I had instant respect for Coach because of all the banners hanging from the ceiling, but he put us through all kinds of drills I was unfamiliar with,” Tarver recalled.

“I wasn’t used to such a high-tempo practice. There were guys with blood all over their jerseys. Everybody wanted a piece of me.”

As a freshman at Rim of the World, he started this first varsity game at age 13. As a sophomore, he was All-Southern Section.

It wasn’t until his defense improved, however, that Tarver could play for Cvijanovich.

“You tell me how a guy can shoot so well, can be such a fantastic athlete and not play defense. That’s beyond my comprehension,” Cvijanovich said. “We went to work on that right away. His work ethic is tremendous, and we combined that with our hard-nosed approach to practice.

“Now he can play defense with the best of them. That’s what impresses college coaches the most.”

Until they meet Tarver’s family, which is his best defense against everything from a swollen head to a depressed grade-point average.

“I’ve held the family together and Shon hasn’t been exposed to street elements,” John Tarver said. “He has a lot of his mother in him. He’s a humble, caring person.”

Besides Shon, 17, John and Jean Tarver are parents of a 15-year-old daughter, Taryn, and sons Zach, 4, Joshua, 3, and Seth, 20 months. “When I’m around the house, we all have to chip in,” Shon said. “My brothers are full of all kinds of energy.”

He finds enough study time to carry a 3.1 grade-point average and he easily exceeded the NCAA eligibility requirement of 700 on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

Tarver uses his father’s athletic career as a model.

“My success has a lot to do with my dad,” he said. “He was a real hard worker. Other players had more talent, but he had the extra drive to make it to the pros.”

In Tarver’s mind, his parents could have done only one thing differently. Because he was so tall as a 4-year-old, he began kindergarten a year early. He won’t turn 18 until December.

“He’s always telling me that if he was a junior this year, he’d be the No. 1-rated high school player in the country next year,” John Tarver said.

Instead, he will probably be the No. 3 guard for UNLV, a team that may begin the season No. 1.