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Remembering Jerry Tarkanian’s strange NBA coaching career

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Jerry Tarkanian, who died today at age 84, will be remembered most for coaching UNLV from 1973-1992.

But he also crossed paths with the NBA a couple times, nearly coaching the Lakers until tragedy interfered and coaching the Spurs until they lost their patience with him (which didn’t take long).

The Lakers were close to hiring Tarkanian in 1979, but when his agent was murdered, they chose another coach.

Michael Connelly of the Los Angeles Times in a 1989 article:

The meeting with Jack Kent Cooke and Jerry Buss had gone well. Vic Weiss was close to a deal that would bring University of Nevada, Las Vegas, basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian to Los Angeles to lead the Lakers, the team Cooke was selling to Buss.

Briefcase in hand, the stocky but energetic Weiss, a 51-year-old sports promoter, sometime agent and businessman, left the meeting room at a Beverly Hills hotel, hopped into his Rolls-Royce and headed over the hill to his house in Encino.

But Weiss never made it home. Three days later, on June 17, 1979, his red-and-white Rolls-Royce was spotted in the garage of a North Hollywood hotel.

Police opened the trunk and there was the body of Victor J. Weiss, hands tied behind his back. He had been killed with two gunshots to the head.

Though not a professional sports agent, Weiss handled contract negotiations for his friend Tarkanian as a hobby. It was that hobby that brought him to the negotiating table with Cooke and Buss at the Beverly Comstock Hotel on June 14, 1979.

According to police accounts of the meeting, details of the agreement to bring Tarkanian to the Lakers were written by Weiss and Cooke on a piece of paper that Weiss dropped into his briefcase when he left.

“He was probably confident as he left,” Orozco says. “Negotiations went well.”

Weiss was to go to dinner with his wife, Rose, but first, police say, he planned to call Tarkanian, who was waiting at a Long Beach hotel for word on the negotiations. Tarkanian never got the call, and the talks would never go further. The Lakers eventually hired another coach.

Weiss was reported missing by his wife, but there was no sign of him until four days later when a security guard spotted his Rolls in the garage of the Sheraton Universal hotel. After Weiss’ decomposed body was discovered and removed, detectives found no clues to what had happened.

Weiss’ wallet and briefcase were gone, but his diamond ring and watch had not been taken. That led police to rule out robbery as a motive. Cooke, Buss and Tarkanian were quickly eliminated as having any involvement. That left police with the mystery.

Instead of Tarkanian, the Lakers hired Jack McKinney, who coached the team just 14 games before suffering a serious head injury in a bicycle accident and ceding way to Paul Westhead.

Coincidentally, McKinney is one of the few non-interim coaches with shorter tenures than Tarkanian.

The Spurs lured Tarkanian from UNLV in 1992, but they fired him after just 20 games.

Robert McG. Thomas, Jr. of The New York Times:

A professional coaching career that began with the jitters and included bouts with chest pains, team dissension and unaccustomed underachievement came to an abrupt end yesterday afternoon when Jerry Tarkanian was dismissed as coach of the San Antonio Spurs hours before the team’s 21st game of the season, against Dallas at home.

The 62-year-old Tarkanian, hailed for his coaching achievements as Tark the Shark during 19 tumultous seasons at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, had seemed to be a fish out of water almost from the moment he joined the Spurs this year after his rancorous departure from the college ranks.

Tarkanian acknowledged preseason jitters at the prospect of making the often treacherous transition from college to the pros and had every reason to be concerned.

There were injuries to Willie Anderson and Terry Cummings, plus the defection of Rod Strickland to Portland, which left the Spurs without a first-rate point guard. Tarkanian was forced to resort to a makeshift lineup that included the use of rookie forward Lloyd Daniels in the backcourt.

By the end of November, the pressure on Tarkanian was so intense that he was hospitalized briefly while suffering from chest pains, and by early this month some of his players, in particular Dale Ellis, were in open rebellion, complaining publicly about Tarkanian’s tactics.

Tarkanian may have actually brought about his own dismissal with a letter he sent to [Spurs owner Red] McCombs on Monday urging the acquisition of a point guard and arguing that the team could simply not win without one. “All I wanted was a point guard,” he said.

Here are the 10 shortest tenures by coaches who began the season with a team:

  • 1. Carl Bennett, 0-6 with the 1948-49 Fort Wayne Pistons
  • 2. Butch Van Breda Kolff, 3-4 with the 1972-73 Phoenix Suns
  • 2. Roger Potter, 1-6 with the 1949-50 Tri-City Blackhawks
  • 4. Jack McKinney, 1-8 with the 1984-85 Kansas City Kings
  • 4. Mike Farmer, 1-8 with the 1966-67 Baltimore Bullets
  • 6. Andy. Phillip, 6-4 with the 1958-59 St. Louis Hawks
  • 7. Jack McKinney, 10-4 with the 1979-80 Los Angeles Lakers
  • 8. Scotty Robertson, 1-14 with the 1974-75 New Orleans jazz
  • 9. Jerry Tarkanian, 9-11 with the 1992-93 San Antonio Spurs
  • 10. Bob Hopkins, 5-17 with the 1977-78 Seattle SuperSonics

Tarkanian, by a fairly wide margin, is the most modern coach on that list. It’s still baffling how his NBA coaching career could go up in flames so quickly in a time similar enough to today, when the league is fairly stable and doesn’t include player-coaches.

Really, I marvel at the whole spectacle.

His impact on the NBA wasn’t huge, but Tarkanian was definitely one of the more interesting characters in the league’s history.

Jeff Van Gundy predicts NBA will cancel rest of season

NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy
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Kirk Herbstreit sent waves through college football when he predicted the upcoming season will be canceled due to coronavirus.

Now, NBA analyst Jeff Van Gundy is sharing a similar assessment of the sport he covers.

Gary Washburn of The Boston Globe:

He doesn’t believe the 2019-20 season will resume.

“I understand how you can start again, but what’s the plan if the next person gets sick, like another Rudy Gobert-type of situation, we’re going to play through it? We’re going to cancel it again? That to me is why I don’t see any of these things taking place.

“I have no idea how they can pull off the season, and I have no idea what’s going to happen, and I hope next season isn’t impacted.”

Van Gundy is spot-on with his warning about another sick person. Can the NBA effectively test players, coaches, referees, etc. then keep them isolated? Until a vaccine is available, that’s practically essential. A single case of coronavirus would undermine the entire operation.

Holding games in one location would reduce risk. It wouldn’t eliminate risk.

Remember, the NBA planned to continue games (without fans present) until Gobert’s positive test necessitated a shutdown. Controlling coronavirus is far easier said than done.

I don’t share Van Gundy’s concern about next being impacted, though.

Next season will likely be impacted. Multiple future seasons could be impacted.

That’s worth the tradeoff.

The NBA is approaching its playoffs – the most lucrative and compelling portion of the season. It’d be a mistake to throw away the postseason just to keep future regular seasons on track.

After all, haven’t we spent the last year discussing declining interest in the regular season? A shorter regular season next season would be a perfectly acceptable tradeoff in order to hold this season’s playoffs. Heck, the NBA could shorten multiple upcoming regular seasons as it phases back toward a normal calendar.

Van Gundy is right to express caution about resuming play. The NBA shouldn’t restart anytime soon. But no matter when it’s safe to hold games again, the league should finish the season. Figure out future seasons from there.

China again delays basketball season due to coronavirus

Chinese Basketball Association (CBA) chairman Yao Ming
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As the NBA contemplates how and when to resume its season, China – on an earlier coronavirus timeline – can serve as a model.

The Chinese Basketball Association suspended its season in February and planned to resume in April. Then May. Now, it’ll be even later.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

In a setback to the resumption of professional sports, the Chinese government issued an order Tuesday delaying the restart of the Chinese Basketball Association and other group sporting events, according to documents obtained by ESPN.

CBA teams have been informing players that they still intend to return to play and hope to have more clarity in a few weeks, sources told ESPN’s Jonathan Givony.

There’s probably a bigger lesson here about not blindly trusting messaging from China.

For the NBA, it’s a grim warning about the difficultly of restarting a basketball season amid an ongoing pandemic.

ESPN moving up Michael Jordan documentary to April

Bulls great Michael Jordan and Phil Jackson
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ESPN threw cold water on hopes its 10-part documentary on Michael Jordan and the Bulls, originally scheduled for June, would premiere early with the sports world lacking content due to the coronavirus.

Apparently, that was a misdirect.

ESPN release:

Today it was announced that the premiere of “The Last Dance,” the highly anticipated 10-part documentary series will air on ESPN in the U.S. on Sunday nights over five weeks from April 19 through May 17. The series will also be available outside of the U.S. on Netflix.

The series, directed by Jason Hehir (“The Fab Five,” “The ’85 Bears,” “Andre the Giant”), chronicles one of the greatest icons and most successful teams in sports history, Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls, and features never-before-seen footage from the 1997-98 season as the team pursued its sixth NBA championship in eight years.

ESPN statement: “As society navigates this time without live sports, viewers are still looking to the sports world to escape and enjoy a collective experience. We’ve heard the calls from fans asking us to move up the release date for this series, and we’re happy to announce that we’ve been able to accelerate the production schedule to do just that. This project celebrates one of the greatest players and dynasties ever, and we hope it can serve as a unifying entertainment experience to fill the role that sports often play in our lives, telling a story that will captivate everyone, not just sports fans.”

In the fall of 1997, Michael Jordan, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf and head coach Phil Jackson agreed to let an NBA Entertainment film crew follow the team all season long. The result would be a remarkable portrait of an iconic player and a celebrated team – a portrait only now being revealed, more than two decades later, in “The Last Dance.”

As the series weaves its way through the tumultuous 1997-98 season, viewers will be transported back to how it all began – from Jordan’s childhood roots, the Bulls’ dire circumstances before his arrival and how the team was built after drafting him in 1984, to the struggles that eventually led to the team’s first NBA championship. As the series takes the audience through the Bulls’ first five championships, viewers will experience the off-court challenges, struggles and triumphs that were a part of the culture-shifting phenomenon created by Jordan and the Bulls.

It’s an unlikely scenario that serves as a fascinating backdrop for the inside tale of the 1998 championship run, with extensive profiles of Jordan’s key teammates including Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman and Steve Kerr, head coach Phil Jackson, and featuring dozens of current-day interviews with rivals and luminaries from basketball and beyond. All throughout, the tension and conflict that defined that final championship run are very much on display.

“Michael Jordan and the ‘90s Bulls weren’t just sports superstars, they were a global phenomenon,” said director Jason Hehir. “Making ‘The Last Dance’ was an incredible opportunity to explore the extraordinary impact of one man and one team. For nearly three years, we searched far and wide to present the definitive story of an era-defining dynasty and to present these sports heroes as humans. I hope viewers enjoy watching our series as much as we enjoyed the opportunity to make it.”

ESPN

Sunday, April 19

9 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 1

10 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 2

Sunday, April 26

7 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 1

8 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 2

9 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 3

10 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 4

Sunday, May 3

7 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 3

8 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 4

9 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 5

10 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 6

Sunday, May 10

7 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 5

8 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 6

9 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 7

10 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 8

Sunday, May 17

7 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 7

8 p.m. ET – Re-air of “The Last Dance” Episode 8

9 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 9

10 p.m. ET – Premiere of “The Last Dance” Episode 10

NETFLIX (outside of the U.S.)

Monday, April 20 – 12:01 a.m. PT – “The Last Dance” Episodes 1 and 2

Monday, April 27 – 12:01 a.m. PT – “The Last Dance” Episodes 3 and 4

Monday, May 4 – 12:01 a.m. PT – “The Last Dance” Episodes 5 and 6

Monday, May 11 – 12:01 a.m. PT – “The Last Dance” Episodes 7 and 8

Monday, May 18 – 12:01 a.m. PT – “The Last Dance” Episodes 9 and 10

This is welcome news, but April 19 is still a ways off. The wait is about as long as the NBA has already been on hiatus.

In the meantime, NBC Sports Chicago has a fantastic feature on Michael Jordan’s 1995 comeback.

Knicks reportedly eyed trade for Terry Rozier before deadline

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The Knicks needed a point guard.

That was the undisputed fact heading into the last trade deadline. New York had Frank Ntilikina, Elfrid Payton, and Dennis Smith Jr. on the roster, but none of them were the lead guard the Knicks needed, which forced RJ Barrett to play more in that role, plus it was not good for the development of Kevin Knox.

We know the Knicks had targeted D’Angelo Russell at the trade deadline but didn’t have the players and picks to interest the Warriors (who eventually traded him to Minnesota for Andrew Wiggins). Now comes a report from Ian Bagley of SNY.tv the Knicks also targeted Charlotte’s Terry Rozier.

But prior to the news of the [new Knicks president Leon] Rose hire, there was strong support in some corners of the organization to try to acquire Charlotte guard Terry Rozier, per sources.

The framework of one deal that had internal support sent Julius Randle, Smith Jr. and a future first-round pick to Charlotte for a package that included Rozier and Malik Monk, per sources.

Randle does not appear to be part of the Knicks long-term rebuilding plans, and there have been questions about his fit next to Barrett (New York’s best young player). While Smith has potential New York was ready to move on.

However, Rozier has two years and $36.8 million guaranteed after this season, and while he can get buckets — 18 a game for the Hornets, shooting better than 40 percent from three — he would have been a stop-gap answer for the Knicks. Rozier’s play improved as last season went on as he adjusted to playing more of a two-guard role next to Devonte’ Graham, but with the Knicks Rozier would have been back on the ball. This trade would have been classic old-school Knicks move, taking on contract another team doesn’t want for a short-term fix.

What Rose and the Knicks decide to do with Randle — who is owed $38.7 million in the next two seasons and averaged 19.5 points and 9.7 rebounds a game with his bully-ball style — will be something to watch this summer. Along with seeing who gets hired as coach, it will be a sign of the kind of team Rose wants to build.