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Ex-UNLV assistant Cle Edwards gave much, asked for little

The Hill District is a neighborhood in downtown Pittsburgh hard by the Allegheny River that became a hub of African-American culture in the city. It was considered the tough part of town when Cleveland Edwards grew up there and evolved into a hard-as-nails point guard at historic Fifth Avenue High, and later, at Robert Morris Junior College and Pitt.

“The Hill kind of started where the Penguins played at the old Igloo (Civic Arena), went through Duquesne University and all the way up to the Pitt campus,” said Jim Bolla, the former Lady Rebels’ basketball coach, Edwards’ Pitt teammate and his longtime Las Vegas buddy. “Cle was the man on The Hill, trust me.

“He and Willie Stargell were the two guys on The Hill that everybody knew.”

Cle Edwards, who followed former Pitt coach Tim Grgurich to Las Vegas where they were assistants under Jerry Tarkanian, died Saturday of kidney and heart failure. He was 71. He never left Las Vegas after becoming one of Tark’s trusted lieutenants and confidants.

But having grown up in Pittsburgh, he would have loved the comparison to Stargell.

Beyond the title

The obituary headlines mostly identified Edwards, who also coached at Bishop Gorman, as a former Rebels interim head coach during the 1994-95 season. There were two interim coaches that season after Grgurich replaced Rollie Massimino as head man and was hospitalized after seven games. It would be one of the most forgettable seasons in UNLV history. Edwards was head coach for the final 14 games during which a UNLV team playing out the string went 5-9.

That is the first thing that comes to mind for many casual Rebels fans at the mention of Cle Edwards. Which is unfortunate. Because he meant so much more to the program than being the last guy put in the impossible situation of righting a sinking ship.

His first stint as a Rebels’ aide was from 1984 to 1990. UNLV wasn’t taking on water in those days. It was swamping opponents like a tsunami. The Rebels went to two Final Fours during Edwards’ time on the bench and won the 1990 national championship.

Grgurich was architect of the Rebels’ suffocating Amoeba defense, which he brought from Pitt. Edwards was the assistant the players went to with issues that nearly always got resolved behind the scenes — i.e., before Tark had to deal with them.

“He was very much a communicator who knew how to bring people together,” said former Pitt star and longtime Las Vegan Keith Starr, Edwards’ closest friend. Starr was talking about Cle Edwards being a giving person who never asked for much in return when Starr’s cellphone buzzed.

It was Stacey Augmon, the UNLV defensive wizard who spent 15 seasons in the NBA. The “Plastic Man” also wanted to talk about his pal Cle.

Mentor and friend

That has been happening a lot since Cle died. Other players have shared sentiments through social media.

“Cle Edwards was the person who kept a lot (of) UNLV basketball players (in) line and cared about us, off the court, and made sure we tried to do the RIGHT THING! Thank You!! We lost a Real One,” wrote Mark Wade, point guard of the 1987 Final Four team.

But you didn’t have to be a sublime distributor of the basketball to benefit from Edwards’ generosity, humanity and big brother instincts.

Joyce Aschenbrenner, a former sports information director at Pitt and UNLV, shared an anecdote about her face turning black and blue following deviated septum surgery (of which Edwards was unaware), and how Cle immediately wanted to know who was responsible so he could punch them in their nose.

Tina Kunzer-Murphy said when Edwards heard she was getting married, he insisted she accompany him to The Jewelers of Las Vegas to meet with Mordechai Yerushalmi, the owner and shopkeeper. The former UNLV athletic director said all she wanted walking in was a simple gold band. She walked out with diamonds.

That’s just the way Cle Edwards was. If he could do for you, he did for you.

Even on his death bed.

“The day before he went into (hospice), he couldn’t breathe on his own, but he was trying to set me up somewhere where I could get something to eat,” his best pal Keith Starr said. “That was Cle. Always looking out for people.”

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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