Remembering Las Vegas’ first national basketball champions

Updated April 2, 2017 - 12:36 am

A large framed photograph of a little girl standing alongside golf legend Nancy Lopez hangs on the wall of Larry Keever’s State Farm Insurance office in Summerlin.

The little girl is Keever’s daughter Stephanie, who became an All-American at Stanford and played on the LPGA Tour for 10 years.

A regulation basketball autographed by the 1990 national champion UNLV Rebels sits atop a cabinet. Spread out on the desk are scrapbooks testifying to Keever’s lifelong interest in sports.

He slides a program across the desktop. It’s from the 1985 AAU National Men’s Basketball Tournament at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. The program is in mint condition.

On the top of Page 5 is an autograph in black marker: “Armon Gilliam #35.” The former UNLV great signed his name above the long list of former AAU national champions.

The name on the top line is Paul-Son Dice, Las Vegas, Nevada.

Paul Son-Dice is the team The Hammer last played for, in 1984, before he would lead UNLV to the Final Four. Former Rebels Sudden Sam Smith and Greg Goorjian were among his AAU teammates.


 

Larry Keever was their coach. That was the year the AAU championships were played at UNLV.

Keever says most people will tell you the 1990 Rebels were the first national championship basketball team to represent Las Vegas. He begs to differ, in a trick question asked while sitting on a barstool kind of way.

“We had some quality players who were probably a little bit of a fraction past their prime,” Keever, 71, noted of a roster that included Terry Manghum, Allen Holder, Melvin Washington, Keith Starr, Bobby Jacobs, Chris Jackson, Mel Bennett and Kenny Harmon, the majority of whom were Las Vegas high school stars who played in college and/or as pros.

“Then we got fortunate to have a redshirt come to town. (Former UNLV assistant) Tim Grgurich referred him to me. It was a guy by the name of Armon Gilliam. When he walked into the gym, I said, ‘Uh-oh,’ we’ve got something going now.

“That put us over the top.”

In its heyday, the AAU national championship was about as good as it got, outside of the NCAA Tournament and the NIT and the NBA on CBS. Former AAU MVPs include Tom Meschery, Bob Boozer, Don Kojis, Larry Brown, Cazzie Russell and Darnell Hillman, all of whom played in the pros.

After winning the AAU title, Larry Keever said Paul-Son Dice received an invitation from Dale Brown to play his Louisiana State team in Baton Rouge. By then, Gilliam (who died in 2011 at age 47 playing pickup basketball) was dominating the paint for the Rebels and the team pretty much had disbanded.

“I thought, ‘I can’t go into (LSU) with a city league team,’” Keever said shortly before leaving for the Final Four in Phoenix. “But how much fun would it have been for those players and myself to experience that kind of excitement?”

Streak busters

When little Morgan William of Mississippi State hit that shot at the buzzer to end Connecticut’s 111-game winning streak Friday in the NCAA Women’s Final Four, one Las Vegan could relate.

Durango High’s Lindy La Rocque was a guard for the Stanford team that halted UConn’s first massive winning streak at 90 games in December 2010.

La Rocque sank two 3-point field goals that sparked the Cardinal’s 71-59 victory. They were her only baskets in a game in which Stanford never trailed. She also had six assists.

This is what was written afterward:

“She was efficient. She was selfless. Every time UConn made a run to trim the deficit, No. 15 (La Rocque) would make a nice pass to one of Stanford’s bigs on the inside, and UConn’s deficit would grow anew …”

The former Cardinal great, who played in four Final Fours for Stanford, is now an assistant coach at Belmont, which advanced to the NCAA Tournament and lost to Kentucky in the first round.

The hits just kept on comin’

File this under the category of Great Coaching Will Take You Only So Far.

The UNLV baseball team was 10-18 heading into a Saturday doubleheader at Iowa, with a collective ERA of 5.61. The Rebels lost 29-8 to New Mexico on March 24.

The UNLV baseball team’s volunteer pitching coach is Hall of Famer Greg Maddux, which confirms that great coaching will take you only so far. Especially when the wind is blowing out at Wilson Stadium.

0:01

In case you’re wondering why Cubs manager Joe Maddon didn’t join Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo for Big League Weekend at Cashman Field, there’s this, from the Chicago Sun-Times:

‘‘Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr. — that’s my first thought. I wish I had been there to see them back in the day. I have no interest in present-day Vegas whatsoever.’’

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

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