Remembering a legend
For “Sudden” Sam Smith, the late Jerry Tarkanian will be remembered as a coach who “always gave black players a … chance.”
BY KIMBERLY BAILEY-TUREAUD
“What I loved about Tark is that he always gave black players a second chance,” says former UNLV star “Sudden” Sam Smith. He was speaking, of course, about Jerry “Tark the Shark” Tarkanian — the legendary basketball coach who died Feb. 11 at age 84.
As a young man growing up in Las Vegas, Smith remembers dreaming about playing for the Runnin’ Rebels. But to be considered at the time, he first had to demonstrate his skills on the proving ground of junior college basketball. After high school, he played on a small campus in Oklahoma, where his court dominance earned him an invitation to suit up for UNLV. Soon he was taking orders from the towel-biting coach, whose highly-charged style earned him a reputation as one of the game’s most influential innovators.
“Initially, I was very nervous in practice, because Tark was a renowned coach and the players would sometimes freeze me out from the ball,” Smith recalled. “Coach Tark would tell me not to worry about it and to keep playing. I can remember our first game — the ball was thrown to me while I was far down the opposite end of the court. I remember throwing the ball back down court toward the basket, and Coach Tark rose out of his chair and screamed while the ball was airborne: ‘Sam, what are you doing? We don’t play ball like that!’ But soon the ball came down and hit all net through the hoop. Tark sat down back in his chair on the sideline, in amazement. I was then known as a long range shooter.”
His skills eventually earned Smith a slot on several NBA teams, including the Atlanta Hawks, Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Bulls. He made history as the first player ever to convert a four-point play, and throughout his career always adhered to Tark’s most memorable piece of advice: “He said, ‘Sam when you get the ball — shoot.’”
Proud to have been a member of the Rebels squad known as the “Hardway Eight” — which included such iconic players as Jackie Robinson, Reggie Theus, Robert Smith, Eddie Owens and Larry Moffett — Smith insists that he and his teammates helped UNLV live up to its name. “I have to say that the ‘Runnin’ [nickname] for the Rebels basketball team came from Reggie Theus and myself,” he said. “Before we started playing for UNLV, they were not running and passing the ball
at a fast pace. We talk all the time about us being the ones who brought that type of basketball to UNLV.”
Casino lights along the Las Vegas Strip were recently dimmed to mark the passing of Tarkanian, whom Smith believes will never be forgotten.
“I would go see Coach Tark while he was ill, at least once or twice a week, to tell him how much I appreciated all that he did for me,” Smith said. “I am so glad that I was able to express my gratitude before he passed. The night of his passing, I had a dream where I saw Coach Tark in a glow of light and he greeted myself and my wife at an Italian restaurant. He said, ‘Sudden Sam, how are you doing? You were the best shooter I ever had.’ I replied in the dream, ‘Coach, how are you?’ He said, ‘I am just fine Sam. Just fine.’”