Tarkanian rebels against losing start, too Spurs coach adjusts quickly to pro game

December 01, 1992|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

When this NBA season was less than two weeks old, Jerry Tarkanian, the basset-eyed, bald-headed new coach of the San Antonio Spurs, already had lost half as many games as he did during his last three seasons at Nevada-Las Vegas, where his Runnin' Rebels were 95-8 and won the NCAA title in 1990.

The waters of the pro game were unchartered for "The Shark." Before the season began, he panicked slightly when two of his key players -- forward Terry Cummings and all-purpose guard Willie Anderson -- were sidelined with major injuries.

Several other players suffered minor injuries as the Spurs lost their first two road games in Sacramento and Denver, and Tarkanian said: "I'm scared. We've got so many people hurt, and no one to replace them. And, if we ever lose [center] David Robinson, we could go 0-82."

But like so many other times in his past, Tarkanian has survived the storm and is ready to take on the enemy -- with a full-court press.

He has made rapid adjustments to coaching the bump-and-grind NBA game, although he is frustrated by the lack of practice time. And his youthful Spurs (5-6), who visit the Washington Bullets tonight, have won four of their past six games to restore their coach's optimism.

"Yeah, we're definitely making progress," said Tarkanian, whose long-running battle with the NCAA led to his resignation. He left UNLV as the college coach with the best all-time winning percentage (625-122, .837).

"I knew I'd have to learn the pro game, especially how to defend isolations, work against double-teams and keep my main guys from getting exhausted over 82 games," he said. "But, heck, a pro coach going to the college game for the first time would have to make the same adjustments."

But one thing for Tarkanian hasn't changed a bit. He is still playing the role of Father Flanagan in "Boys Town," taking in the type of players no one else wants.

Former UCLA coach John Wooden, who knew Tarkanian when he was coaching at Long Beach State in the early 1970s, once said: "Jerry's the Pied Piper who takes in lost souls no one else would, people everyone else avoided, myself included. Transfer students, severe disciplinary problems, severe academic deficiencies. He devoted himself to these types."

The problem children he nurtured in college are now grown men, but Tarkanian still can find room on his NBA roster for the likes of Lloyd Daniels, a New York playground legend whom Tarkanian tried to enroll at UNLV despite the fact he was illiterate, and William Bedford, the much-traveled, 7-foot center who most recently was cut by the Bullets after spending less than a week in their training camp.

Said Tarkanian: "I want talented guys who were big disappointments everywhere else. Guys people didn't get along with, or try to work with, and were branded failures. You've got to spend a lot of time with them, and then try to work something positive."

Tarkanian, who began scouting Daniels as a ninth-grader, said he saw a purity of soul in the New York orphan who was shot three times during a drug deal in a Las Vegas crack house, and has spent the past three years trying to put his life back together.

Daniels, 25, played anywhere he could find a game, the CBA, the USBL, even a brief tour with a team in New Zealand, before Tarkanian invited him to the Spurs' training camp this summer.

Daniels, a fluid, 6-foot-7 player who said he was cured of drug addiction after a tour at John Lucas' rehabilitation center in Houston, has been one of the surprises of the young season, averaging 16.0 points and 4.2 assists as the Spurs' backup point guard.

"I love this kid," said Tarkanian. "Once I was sure he was free of drugs and alcohol, I didn't hesitate inviting him to camp. He's sweet-natured, and he's got such a great feel for this game, especially his passing and court vision. Lloyd is just a natural."

But Tarkanian is still several proven players from becoming a contender in the Western Conference. Neither Daniels nor Vinny Del Negro, who honed his game in Italy last season, is a true point guard like Rod Strickland, a free agent who defected to Portland.

"I had no say in that," said Tarkanian, a big Strickland booster who urged the Spurs to re-sign him.

Tarkanian is fast gaining a following in San Antonio, where he lives in a hotel and spends most of his free time watching NBA games at a nearby sports bar.

"Heck, I'm 62, and I don't need the fast lane anymore," he said. "I'm thankful I've got a hotel maid to pick up after me, and there are great restaurants in town.

"My wife and kids are always visiting me on weekends and make some of the road trips. I really like San Antonio and the people here. The only thing I hate is losing basketball games."

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