Long ago, Jerry Tarkanian acquired a fondness for Long Beach, the city in which he has never lost a basketball game. He was barely in his 40s then, still with black hair.
This afternoon at 12:30 in the Long Beach Arena, Tarkanian, now 60 and mostly bald, will try to extend his coaching record to 85-0 in Long Beach when top-ranked Nevada Las Vegas, which beat UC Santa Barbara, 95-66, Saturday night, plays Fresno State for the Big West Conference tournament title.
He will also be trying to win his 44th consecutive game in the squat, cylindrical arena that sits near the ocean.
"I had a great time in Long Beach, five great years, but I never think about that winning streak," Tarkanian, who coached Cal State Long Beach from 1969 to 1973, said Saturday night as he watched Fresno State defeat Pacific in the first semifinal.
The arena itself, though, doesn't warm his heart. "It's cold in here and the seats are all spread out," said Tarkanian, who is 19-0 in Long Beach in his 18 seasons as UNLV's coach. "It's not really a good basketball facility. But winning here has been nice."
His most vivid memories of the 12,000-seat arena are from his last home game as Long Beach's coach, a 76-66 victory over Marquette on March 3, 1973, before a crowd that has always been listed as 12,987.
(Actually, it was about 11,000, but Long Beach Press-Telegram sportswriter Loel Schrader had made up the number he called into the newspaper because he wanted to make UCLA jealous.)
"It was the first time I was on national TV for a regular-season game," Tarkanian recalled. "I was a nervous wreck and I look over and see (Marquette Coach) Al McGuire, and he has a beer and hot dog in his hand."
Now, almost 20 years later, it was Tarkanian who looked relaxed, and he remained that way about an hour later when the Rebels began to roll in their customary fashion against UC Santa Barbara.
He leaned back in his chair, his legs crossed, his hands on his head as the Rebels started on their way to their 40th consecutive victory over two seasons.
Using a harassing defense and an assortment of steals, dunks and three-point baskets, the Rebels moved to a 27-10 lead midway through the first half to the delight of the red-clad Rebel rooters, who, though sitting a lot farther from the court than they do at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, made a huge amount of noise.
It was going to be another fine night for Tarkanian in Long Beach, just like all of them had been in the early '70s, and when it was over the Rebels would be 29-0 this season. They are trying to be the first undefeated national champion since Indiana in 1975-76.
The Rebels increased a 48-27 halftime lead to 73-45 with 9:35 remaining. At that point Tarkanian took out Larry Johnson and Anderson Hunt, who had each scored 20 points, along with Stacey Augmon, who had 16.
The Rebels dominated the Gauchos as they have dominated the Big West teams since they have been in the conference.
They have won nine consecutive conference championships and six of the previous eight conference tournaments, losing only to Fresno State, 51-49, in 1984, and to Utah State, 86-79, in 1988. They are 147-13 against conference opponents in regular-season games and are 23-2 in the conference tournament.