SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — The final steps of Jerry Tarkanian’s amazing basketball journey were hard to make. But he managed to make them nonetheless.
The 83-year-old former UNLV coaching legend, who took the Rebels to four Final Fours and won the 1990 national championship, needed the help of a walker Sunday to accept his ultimate honor — induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame.
But make it to the stage of Springfield Symphony Hall he did.
Tarkanian accepted his award and rightful place among the game’s greatest. Accompanied by Hall of Famers Bill Walton and Pete Carril, Tarkanian was greeted with a rousing standing ovation from the crowd of approximately 2,000 as he was officially enshrined along with 11 others, including Las Vegas resident Gary Payton.
With his health sketchy and his strength waning after the installation of a pacemaker in July, Tarkanian’s acceptance speech was delivered on videotape. In the four-minute presentation, he thanked his family, his friends in coaching, his players and his assistants who helped him get to the top of his profession.
“Thank you to the Hall of Fame for giving me this special honor. It means so much to me,” said Tarkanian, who won 990 games as a junior college and Division I coach, 509 in 19 years at UNLV.
It was the culmination of an amazing weekend for Tarkanian, whose entire family, including his 11 grandchildren, were present to share the experience with him.
At times, he found it difficult to talk, but it was clearly evident he was enjoying himself and the attention.
“I had no idea this was so big,” he said of the various events that surrounded induction weekend. “Everyone’s been so nice to me.”
Walton, who didn’t speak Sunday, said it was an honor long overdue.
“An injustice has been corrected,” Walton said. “When you think about Jerry Tarkanian the man, what he did for people, never looking at color, willing to give young men a second chance in life, that means more to society than anything he did in basketball, which is quite immense.”
Walton said the fact that Tarkanian won at nontraditional basketball locales — he started his Division I career at Long Beach State and ended it at Fresno State — speaks volumes about his coaching ability.
“He wasn’t coaching at UCLA or North Carolina or Kentucky or Duke,” Walton said. “He went to places where there was no track record of success and made each of those programs successful. And after he left, those programs struggled to maintain the success he brought them.”
Tarkanian’s wife, Lois, got his acceptance speech rolling, talking about her husband’s Armenian heritage, how his parents escaped persecution, moved to the United States to start a new life and how Jerry used sports as a vehicle to gain an education and launch his coaching career.
She mentioned how Tarkanian’s stepfather told him he would never amount to anything in sports and that he should consider becoming a barber. And she had the right answer to his stepfather’s suggestion of cutting hair.
“Here I am, an immigrant’s son, being inducted into the Hall of Fame, the pinnacle of my profession,” Lois Tarkanian said on behalf of her husband of 57 years.
Then it was Tark’s turn.
“I have loved the game of basketball since my earliest memories,” he said. “Basketball has been good to me.
“I’ve been able to be comrades with some of the finest people in the coaching profession. Sure, we can sometimes be combative and argumentative. But we all love the game of basketball and, deep down, most of us understand that.
“To my players, coaches and staff, thank you for all you did. I wouldn’t be here today without you.”
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval said in a statement that Tarkanian is “a Nevada legend” who left “an indelible impression upon Nevada.”
Tarkanian is UNLV’s first inductee into Springfield. A UNLV logo adorned the drapes behind the stage and also was affixed to the balcony.
“It gives great credibility to the university, the athletic department and the basketball program,” said coach Dave Rice, who played for and coached under Tarkanian and was among several former players and coaches to attend the ceremonies. “It’s about the legacy and credibility of having Coach Tark in the Hall of Fame.”
Payton, who played 17 years in the NBA and was a nine-time all-star, has lived in Las Vegas for the past 16 years. During his acceptance speech, he gave special thanks to Tim Grgurich, Tarkanian’s longtime assistant at UNLV who worked with Payton with the Seattle SuperSonics.
“If it wasn’t for Coach Grgurich taking me back to my college days and helping fix my game in 1993, I wouldn’t be here today,” said Payton, the only NBA player with 20,000 points, 8,000 assists, 5,000 rebounds and 2,000 steals.
Payton, a former Oregon State All-American who averaged 16.6 points in his NBA career, was known as “The Glove” for his stifling man-to-man defense. He also was known for his trash-talking ways on the court, and no opponent, not even Michael Jordan, was immune to getting an earful.
“I’m the greatest trash-talker of all time,” Payton said late in his acceptance speech, which he read off his iPad. “But you know what? I can back it up.”
Two other men’s coaches — Rick Pitino, the current coach at Louisville who has won two national titles, and former coach Guy Lewis, who took Houston to five Final Fours — also were inducted. Lewis, 91, was in a wheelchair.
Tarkanian, Payton, Pitino and Lewis joined Bernard King, who averaged 22.5 points in 15 NBA seasons; North Carolina women’s coach Sylvia Hatchell; five-time WNBA All-Star Dawn Staley; former New York Knicks guard Richie Guerin; former NBA deputy commissioner Russ Granik; and Oscar Schmidt, who played in five Olympics for Brazil.
E.B. Henderson, who learned basketball at Harvard in 1904, then introduced it to African-American students in Washington, D.C., and four-time American Basketball Association All-Star Roger Brown of the Indiana Pacers were enshrined posthumously.
Conact reporter Steve Carp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter @stevecarprj.