LAS VEGAS -- Jerry Tarkanian shifted in his easy chair to find a place it didn't hurt so much. "My butt is sore," he said. It's what happens when you're 82 years old and you fell four years ago. Back in the day, Jerry Tarkanian roared. On this day, his voice was a whisper, tiny and airy as a child's.
"He's worn out by physical therapy this morning," his wife, Lois, said.
Maybe it'd be better to talk another day?
"No, no, he needs this," she said.
In early April, for the first time, Tarkanian will be a  finalist for election to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
A question to him: Would you like to be in?
His lips barely moved. "It'd be nice," he said.
What would your players think?
Again, a faint breath of air. "They would like it."
We should shout it out. Jerry Tarkanian belongs in every basketball Hall of Fame. He built teams at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas that were wonders of the craft. They were at once aggressive and careful, disciplined and relentless. To see UNLV leave Duke alongside the road in the 1990 NCAA championship game, 103-73, was to see basketball made beautiful. In 31 seasons at Long Beach, UNLV and at his alma mater, Fresno State, Tarkanian's teams won 778 games. He took UNLV to the Final Four four times.
This is also worth a shout: Tark was right all along. He called the NCAA corrupt long before such thinking was fashionable. Today we're entertained by the NCAA's debacles in Los Angeles and Miami, where its investigators have violated the association's own rules. They did it to Tarkanian for 30 years. He finally filed suit against the NCAA in 1992, claiming an investigator lied about his findings in a vendetta designed to drive him out of coaching.
In 1998, six weeks before a trial was to start in Las Vegas, the NCAA settled out of court. It paid Tarkanian $2.5 million. In addition, NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey said in a statement, "The NCAA regrets the 26-year ongoing dispute with Jerry Tarkanian and looks forward to putting this matter to rest."
Tarkanian's lawyer, Terry Giles, said trial testimony would have shown that, except for one minor infraction, the NCAA had no evidence to support sanctions levied against Tarkanian's programs at Long Beach and UNLV. "It is really important to understand how horrible this situation was," Giles said. "The things that we discovered were unbelievable." As part of the 1992 suit, Tarkanian was able to show the NCAA investigator had lied because a UNLV player had secretly tape-recorded his interrogation by the man.
Why is Tarkanian not in the Hall of Fame already? He retired 11 years ago with one of the game's most extraordinary résumés. No answer comes from the Hall people. They keep their processes secret. An Honors Committee of 24 voters decides who gets in. Those voters' names are not made public.
The best guess is that Tarkanian has been de facto blackballed by people who believe the NCAA's accusations against him. "For thirty-some years," Lois Tarkanian said, "they presented themselves as these on-a-white-horse, holier-than-thou, highly-moral guys. All the time, they hounded us, never gave us any peace, and they had no reason to do it. Jerry's coaching friends told him he'd never get in the Hall of Fame unless he shut up about the NCAA. Well, he wouldn't shut up."
Tarkanian was basketball's Jean Valjean, pursued and persecuted by the NCAA's Javert. Lois Tarkanian is a Las Vegas city councilwoman who through it all has been her husband's voluble advocate. At his side on this day, she said, "Jean Valjean stole a loaf of bread. Jerry did less. He wrote a column for the Long Beach newspaper."
In that column, written while he coached Long Beach State, Tarkanian said the NCAA ignored cheating by big-time schools and picked on the powerless. "One time they had come down hard on Centenary, which is this little school in Louisiana that you probably never heard of," Tarkanian wrote in his autobiography, "Runnin' Rebel." "I defended Centenary, saying that there was no way they were cheating like the big SEC schools that bought everyone." He also said Kentucky "did more cheating in one day than Western Kentucky did in a year." Next thing you know, he said, the NCAA investigators "were coming after us."
The Tarkanians believe the heart of the problem was geographic. Long Beach State was in UCLA's neighborhood. While Tarkanian raised Long Beach up from nothing to national stature, John Wooden kept winning national championships. It was common knowledge -- first reported by the Los Angeles Times, later affirmed in books by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Walton -- that Wooden's players lived off the largesse of a sugar daddy with deep pockets. The construction magnate Sam Gilbert kept them in cashmere and cars. The Long Beach guys wore denim and walked.
"Sam Gilbert was a cold, vicious, scary man," Lois Tarkanian said. "Jack Scott [now dead, then an anti-authoritarian activist at Ohio University] had helped Walton write his book. Scott told us that Gilbert told him to shut up or he'd be found in the ocean."
Still, the NCAA never touched UCLA in Wooden's time. Instead, it followed Tarkanian from Long Beach to UNLV because he insisted on telling what he believed to be the truth, that the most powerful programs making the most money for the NCAA were given passes, while investigators targeted the unknowns and the expendable. He once said the NCAA was "so mad at Kentucky they gave Cleveland State two more years of probation."
That was Jerry Tarkanian then. He is an Armenian-American whose father died when he was 10, whose mother moved the family from Euclid, Ohio, to Cleveland to Pasadena, Calif., who saw discrimination and learned tolerance, who rode basketball out of the city and into college, who knew an Armenian's kid's troubles were every black kid's troubles. As a coach starting in a time when African-Americans were rarely recruited by big-timers, he put a hand out to those in trouble. "Who was I to look down on anyone?" he said in his autobiography, written with Dan Wetzel. "I was like them. I was them."
Tark now is old and infirm. A walker stands near his easy chair. An NCAA championship trophy sits on a table behind him, next to a plaque bearing a score: UNLV 103, Duke 73. He watches a lot of basketball on the big-screen TV across the way. He goes to the occasional UNLV game and practice. Though her husband broke an arm in that fall four years ago, Lois Tarkanian now calls it "a blessing in disguise." Doctors discovered a bone spur in his neck pressing against his spine. "He's lucky he wasn't paralyzed or killed," she said.
She sat on the fireplace hearth near her man. I asked her about the Hall of Fame.
"Now, after everything else he's gone through, and now that people understand he did nothing wrong," she said, "maybe some good things will come."