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How Tark tried to keep Bill Walton from John Wooden and UCLA

Updated April 3, 2023 - 12:07 pm

HOUSTON — The swapping of stories is perhaps as big a part of Final Four weekend as the basketball games.

It’s a massive convention of tall people coming together and reminiscing in restaurants, hotel lobbies and bars with an occasional detour over to the stadium to find out who ends up winning the national championship.

But mostly, it’s the story-telling thing.

And just about everyone around these parts is armed with a Jerry Tarkanian story they can’t wait to tell, particularly once they find out their audience is from Las Vegas and attended UNLV.

By the way, wait until 2028 in Las Vegas. Tark will be Paul Bunyan. And rightfully so.

Most tales have been told a million times. Some aren’t fit for a family newspaper. But my favorite this week was orated by one of Tarkanian’s biggest fans and unlikely supporters, UCLA legend Bill Walton, during a conversation on ESPN Las Vegas.

Watch out for Wooden

As Walton tells it, he was 15 years old the first time he met Tarkanian, then the coach at Pasadena City College. Walton was a prime target of every major program in the country to the point that a line of college coaches would be waiting to vie for his attention each day as he left practice.

Tarkanian probably had no business being there at that time, but he was never one to back down from a challenge.

As Walton left the gym, Tarkanian was there to block his path. He wouldn’t let the gangly teenager through. Walton had no idea who Tarkanian was but soon got an introduction. As Walton recalls, Tarkanian poked his chest with each word.

“He says he’s there to recruit me to come play for him at Pasadena City College,” Walton said. “I shrugged. He says, ‘Bill, the word on the street is you’re going to play for Johnny Wooden at UCLA.’ I just lit up because that was my dream and my goal.”

At the time, Walton was a sophomore at Helix High School in La Mesa. Wooden had just won his third title at UCLA and was building a juggernaut.

But that didn’t stop Tarkanian from putting forward his best recruiting pitch for PCC.

“He’s still poking me in the chest,” Walton recalled. “And he says, ‘Bill, I’m here to tell you right now, that guy Johnny Wooden is a flash in the pan. You come to play for me at Pasadena City College, and I’ll make you into a real player.’ The rest is history.”

That history includes Wooden leading the Bruins to the next six NCAA championships and 10 total, including two with Walton. Tarkanian moved on to Long Beach State the next year before building a national power at UNLV.

Walton and Tarkanian then grew close over the years, with Walton serving as one of Tarkanian’s biggest advocates.

Las Vegas dream alive

To this day, Walton remains irate at how Tarkanian was treated by the NCAA and much of the basketball world.

“They tragically forced him to wait until he was almost dead to be allowed in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and I’m just ashamed and embarrassed about that,” Walton said. “When they finally let him in, they made the announcement, and Jerry called me up and asked me to be his presenter. I am the luckiest guy in the world.”

Walton is similarly passionate about Las Vegas as a sports town.

“The Final Four is coming to Las Vegas in 2028,” he said. “It’s happening. The dream is alive. We’ve made it!

“The Raiders, the Aces, T-Mobile, the Sphere. So many things going on. We’re hopeful that UNLV gets it going again. There’s so much going on in Las Vegas. It looks like baseball is coming. I just hope we have enough water.”

Don’t worry about it, Bill. The human need for water is probably just a flash in the pan.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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