He ran his hand over the top of the bar, as if to rekindle a memory or two or a hundred. Or perhaps it was to check for his DNA.
The bar tops and other furnishings at Hardway 8 at 46 S. Water St. in downtown Henderson are reclaimed wood made from bleachers at the old Las Vegas Convention Center — home of the “Hardway Eight,” UNLV’s first Final Four basketball team, as nicknamed by former UNLV sports information director Dominic Clark.
Robert Smith, that 1977 team’s point guard, was asked how much of his blood, sweat and tears might have been absorbed into that bar top, those old bleachers.
“Probably a lot,” said the still fit 64-year-old. “I hit those bleachers quite a few times although Glen (Gondrezick, the team’s star forward known as “Gondo” for his hell-bent style) probably hit them more than me.”
It has been more than 40 years since the first of Jerry Tarkanian’s four NCAA Final Four squads stormed into the national consciousness with frenetic pace and swagger and a one-point loss to North Carolina in the national semifinals at The Omni in Atlanta.
The proprietors of the recently opened sports bar still were decades from being born when the Hardway Eight made their run. But they’ve heard the stories, because people still remember the team that transformed Las Vegas into a sports town.
“Just looking at these pictures, this brings back a lot of old memories,” said Smith, the Rebels’ present day broadcast analyst, who averaged 12.8 points and 6.1 assists and was one of six players from that iconic team drafted by NBA clubs. “And then to see the 0ld Convention Center (bleachers) — when I used to pass by that area, I would get chills.
“This is great to have something like this. What a great idea.”
The bar and grill, which has an industrial, open-air feel with exposed beams and a concrete floor and enough room to run a fast break, not only is an homage to the Hardway Eight but recognizes a lot of Las Vegas’ sports history from that era.
There are posters and framed photographs from the George Foreman vs. Ron Lyle slugfest at the old Caesars Palace sports pavilion, the Caesars Palace Grand Prix and Andre Agassi, when he had a mullet and a bare chest. There’s even a section dedicated to jai alai at the old MGM Grand.
The bar owners are millennials named Lyle Cervenka and Bryant Jane, whose first nod to Las Vegas’ history was rekindling the retro vibe at Starboard Tack off east Sahara. Cervenka is from Philadephia, Jane a native Las Vegan. Both are basketball fans.
They said opening a sports-themed bar was on their short list when they stumbled upon those old bleachers from the Convention Center rotunda where so many cheered Eddie Owens, Reggie Theus, Gondrezick, Lewis Brown, Larry Moffett and the three Smiths — Robert, Sam and Tony, not related.
“Honestly, the wood came before everything,” Cervenka said.
He and Jane were strolling around the lumber yard at an architectural design shop called Woodstock when a tarp was pulled back to reveal the old Convention Center bleachers.
“Bryant and I always wanted to open a sports bar,” Cervenka said. “But when we found those bleachers it all kind of came together. This is where this team played, made its name, great story, first Final Four team. That day we gave them a check — you’re not selling these bleachers to anybody else.”
About two years later, Hardway 8 — trendy abbreviation: HW8, as it appears on the marquee — tipped off on Water Street.
“It’s a sports bar, but not an in-your-face sports bar,” Cervanka said, meaning it has 22 beers on tap, including Rolling Rock for the college kids, but also offers more exotic fare, such as the Hardway 8 burger (bacon, sunnyside egg, caramelized red onions, aged cheddar, brandy-mayo ketchup, sesame seed bun) and the Easy Owens (Ketel One Peach Blossom, peach liqueur, lemon, Honey Bubbles sparkling).
“I think you’ll find a Smith-Smith-Smith cocktail coming fairly soon,” Jane said of a concoction that will honor Robert, “Sudden Sam” and Tony.
Perhaps they should call it the Triple Smith, and make it with triple sec.
Like a Hardway Eight fast break, it’s almost guaranteed to make your head spin.