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These 49ers still looking to strike gold

Combing through the artifacts of Long Beach State basketball, which plays home games in “The Pyramid,” is quite an archaeological dig.

What an eclectic mishmash of characters, hoop dreams and hiccups.

The school nickname is the 49ers, but could easily be “The Asterisks,” or “The Elevators.”

“It’s been up and down,” Glenn McDonald, a founding forward from the 1970s, said of the program.

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You can guess Sutter’s Mill for the nickname inspiration and be off by only a century. The school was founded in 1949.

Did you know Jerry Tarkanian once had George Gervin stashed on campus before the Ice Man got cold feet and went back to Detroit?

Or, that Tarkanian claims he lost a prized recruit to USC because the school sent a dentist on a house call to fix the tooth of the player’s mother?

The school has been called Los Angeles-Orange County State College, Long Beach State College, California State College at Long Beach, California State College, Long Beach and Cal State University, Long Beach.

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Today it answers to Long Beach State or The Beach.

This year’s exciting team, led by fifth-year Coach Dan Monson, defeated UC Davis, 80-46, Thursday in a Big West Tournament opener at Honda Center, another step toward what would be its first NCAA appearance since 2007.

To date, the most memorable game in school history was a defeat, and Long Beach’s best season, 1973-74, is missing one thing: a postseason.

In the official NCAA Men’s Final Four Records, Long Beach ranks among the all-time leaders in white-out.

One page touts a 7-9 record in eight tournament appearances but, because of probation, another page expunges three years and six wins.

Long Beach’s last official NCAA win was in 1970 against Weber State.

The prominent names are more notable for what they did on someone else’s dime:

•Tarkanian put Long Beach on the map but later used it to drive Interstate 15 to Nevada Las Vegas.

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•Lute Olson, who built a Hall of Fame career at Arizona, deserted after only one season.

•Ed Ratleff, an All-American under Tark in the 1970s, more memorably played on the 1972 Olympic team that refused its silver medal after a controversial loss to the Soviet Union.

•McDonald is a warm and fuzzy side note in Boston Celtics lore for contributing to an epic, triple-overtime win over Phoenix in the 1976 NBA Finals.

•Tex Winter, architect of the Triangle (not to be confused with the Pyramid), coached at Long Beach but is better connected to King Phil (Jackson) than Queen Mary.

•Craig Hodges played with Michael Jordan in Chicago, and Bryon Russell is the Utah Jazz player Jordan shoved away before sinking a jumper to win the 1998 NBA title.

Nothing has ever been clean or easy at Long Beach.

The forgettable coaches (Wayne Morgan) fade into obscurity, while the good ones (Seth Greenberg) never thought of the place as a destination stop.

“Coaches stay a couple of years, then they’re off to someplace else,” Ratleff explained.

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The worry now is that Monson, rejuvenated after getting fired at the University of Minnesota, might take off.

“Everyone strives to be at the highest level,” Monson recently confessed. “I know this: I won’t do it just for the money. I won’t do it just for the notoriety.”

No coach has impacted the program more than Tarkanian.

“If anyone knows anything about Long Beach, they know Jerry Tarkanian was here,” said McDonald, now the school’s director of intramurals.

Tarkanian arrived in 1968 after a storied career at Riverside City and Pasadena City colleges. Unafraid of controversy, or transfers, he went 121-20 in five seasons and, incredibly, never lost a home game.

Tarkanian built a powerhouse on the back of Ratleff, whom he coaxed out of Columbus, Ohio, yet his path to the NCAA title was stymied three times by John Wooden’s UCLA Bruins.

“No one understands what we did at Long Beach State,” Tarkanian recounted in “Runnin’ Rebel,” his autobiography. “There was no reason we should have been as good as we turned out to be.”

UCLA crushed Long Beach, 88-65, in the 1970 NCAA tournament, but the 1971 matchup in the West Regional final in Salt Lake City was epic.

UCLA prevailed, 57-55, in a game people still talk about.

“It still bothers me,” said Ratleff, who fouled out late. “Usually the ones you remember are the losses. You don’t remember the wins.”

Tarkanian’s 1971-72 team might have been unstoppable had he not lost two components he thought were Long Beach-bound: Raymond Lewis and Gervin.

Lewis was a local legend, from Los Angeles Verbum Dei High, and the best high school player Tarkanian has ever seen.

At the last minute, though, Lewis enrolled at Cal State Los Angeles. Tark, in his book, said the school won Lewis over with a Corvette.

Could you imagine Lewis and Gervin on the same court?

“I’m not sure we would have had enough balls,” Ratleff joked. “I might have been the odd man out.”

Tarkanian had Gervin on campus for 19 days before the skinny star got homesick.

Tarkanian had instructed his players to take Gervin anywhere he wanted to go. Gervin asked Eric McWilliams to drive him to the airport.

“Oh, Tark was livid,” Ratleff recalled.

McDonald was in the car when he and McWilliams dropped Long Beach’s potential national title off at LAX.

McDonald thought Gervin was just going home for the weekend. “I didn’t know he was leaving, as in leaving!” McDonald said.

Long Beach was plenty good without Lewis and Gervin but, once again, in 1972, couldn’t get past UCLA at the West Regional final in Provo.

It didn’t help that 49ers center Nate Stephens was quoted in the papers saying UCLA sophomore center Bill Walton might be overrated.

“We all looked at him like, ‘Are you crazy?’” McDonald said. “Walton was such a good player. He didn’t need any fuel.”

Walton finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds in a 73-57 rout. Stephens had two points and three rebounds.

Long Beach didn’t get to UCLA in the 1973 NCAA tournament, losing in the second round to San Francisco.

Tarkanian left the next year for Las Vegas. Long Beach replaced him with Olson, who was coaching at Long Beach City College. The NCAA had already started snooping around, but Olson said he was assured there were no serious sanctions coming.

He was wrong. The NCAA banned Olson’s first team from the 1974 tournament. Led by McDonald, the Pondexter brothers (Clifton and Roscoe), Leonard Gray and Rick Aberegg, Long Beach finished the year 24-2.

McDonald still feels that was the team that could have knocked out UCLA.

“That was supposed to be our year,” he said. “I honestly believe with a high percentage we could have won the whole thing.”

Miffed over the probation, Olson left for the University of Iowa.

Long Beach, in some ways, has been out of sorts ever since.

Community love ebbs and flows at an easily distracted commuter school still competing in the shadow of USC and UCLA.

“A lot of coaches, a lot of changes,” Ratleff said.

McDonald and Ratleff hope Monson, who helped build Gonzaga into a regional basketball powerhouse, doesn’t get the itch to leave.

“I really don’t think he wants to go anywhere,” McDonald said. “I have a feeling this is where he wants to stay. I think he’s here for a while.”

Long Beach fans can only hope.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com


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