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.