Greg Anthony is a practicing politican and businessman from Las Vegas. Larry Johnson is a refugee from the hard streets of Dallas and the local police station. George Ackles once lived in a religious commune in Virginia. Elmore Spencer spent a month in a psychiatric ward in Atlanta. Anderson Hunt grew up in Detroit but dreamed of being a Rebel. Stacey Augmon was a homebody growing up in Pasadena, Calif.
Individually, they are a diverse lot, but together they are one of a kind. Together they are the University of Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin' Rebels. Together they are, according to many observers, The Greatest Team Ever. As diverse as they appear to be, on a basketball court they are the London Symphony, playing together from the same sheet of music."There is no jealousy," says Augmon. "We play together. Everyone knows his roles."
The Rebels have taken the sport to a new level. Not only have they won 43 consecutive games, but they have won 32 of them this season by an average of 24 points per game. Now they are four games away from winning their second consecutive national championship.
Tonight, the UNLV Runnin' Rebels will meet the University of Utah Runnin' Utes in the semifinals of the NCAA West Regional, in the Seattle Kingdome.
The question of the hour, of course, is can anyone stop the Rebels? Or is the NCAA tournament merely going through the motions?
The Rebels are 16- to 20-point favorites in tonight's game, which will begin at about 8:30 MST. They have huge advantages everywhere. Experience? The Rebels start four seniors (including three fifth-year players). The Utes have one senior on their entire roster. Talent? Johnson, Augmon and Anthony are rated potential lottery picks in the NBA draft. Ackles and Hunt are projected first-round picks. Some think Spencer, a junior who splits the center position with Ackles, will be a lottery pick someday. That makes six potential first-round picks on one team. At Utah, nobody's being called a cinch draft choice, yet alone a first-round pick, although Josh Grant might make the grade someday.
Quickness, strength, athletic ability? It's not even close. "They have better athletes all the way down the line," says Grant. Big-game tests? Utah has not faced a team that ranked in the Top 20 all season. UNLV has met (and often wiped out) the likes of Arkansas, Georgetown, Florida State and Louisville.
"This is the best college team I have ever seen, " says Alabama-Birmingham Coach Gene Bartow, a former UCLA head coach and assistant. " . . . I can't imagine a team - now or in the past - being better than UNLV."
The Rebels are used to such praise. They are regularly being compared to the great Walton and Alcindor UCLA teams, to Indiana in 1976, to the Worthy-Perkins-Jordan team at North Carolina, to the Ewing Georgetown teams.
UNLV Coach Jerry Tarkanian refuses to compare teams of different eras, but he does say, "This team is the best we've ever had at UNLV." Which is saying something for a school that has won a minimum of 28 games for eight consecutive seasons.
"If somebody beats (UNLV), it's an accident," said Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim.
But just who are these guys, anyway?
- Larry Johnson (6-foot-7, 250, forward, 22.9 points per game, 11 rebounds per game, 67 percent shooter, All-American). "When I was 15, 16, it was all about having fun and trying to survive in my neighborhood, day to day," Johnson told the New York Times recently. "I used to run the streets, my mom used to be crying all the time, coming to get me out of the police station all the time. Sports took me off the street."
Johnson attended Odessa Junior College for two years before coming to Nevada-Las Vegas. He is eager to claim the NBA's big money to help his family; nevertheless, he bypassed a certain lottery pick in last year's NBA draft and millions of dollars to return to UNLV.
- Stacey Augmon, 6-8, 205, forward, All-American, Olympian, 1989 national Defensive Player of the Year, 17.2 ppg., 7.4 rpg., 59 percent shooter, 68 steals, 113 assists). Augmon says basketball and his siblings kept him from taking up life on the streets of his native Pasadena. "Coming up, I was very shy," he says. "I stayed at home a lot because of my shyness."
He came to Las Vegas four years ago and has started every game since then.
- George Ackles (6-9, 215, 8.6 ppg, 6.1 rpg.). Following his parents' divorce, he moved with his mother to the Calvary Pentecostal Camp in Monroe, Va. Unable to play basketball there, Ackles convinced his mom that he needed to move to North Carolina to play ball again. He eventually attended Garden City JC in Kansas and then came to the Rebels.
"I thought I'd be working right now, doing a 9 to 5 job," says Ackles. "I never thought I'd be able to play basketball, because I didn't start playing until my junior year in high school."
Ackles, who missed last season with a broken wrist, has a team-high 69 blocked shots this year - a skill he says he developed while playing goalie for his high school soccer team.
- Greg Anthony (6-2, 190, All-American guard, 11.3 ppg, 270 assists, 73 steals). Anthony is vice chairman of the Young Republicans of Nevada. He also holds a real estate license and owns his own company. Two years ago he served as a summer intern for Nevada Congresswoman Barbara Vucanovich in Washington, D.C., and last summer he was an aide at the World Economic Summit in Houston.
A Las Vegas native, Anthony began his college basketball career at the University of Portland but transferred to UNLV after a year, seeking more visibility. He hopes basketball eventually will help promote his other interests.
- Anderson Hunt (6-11/2, 175, guard, MVP of the 1990 Final Four, 17.6 points per game, 41 percent shooter from three-point range). Growing up in Detroit, Hunt decided as a prep freshman that he wanted to play for UNLV, but a low SAT score forced him to miss his first college season. He paid his own way for a year at UNLV until he became eligible to play for the Rebels and accept a scholarship.
- Elmore Spencer, 7-0, 265, center, 6.6 ppg., 4.1 rpg.). Prior to Spencer's senior season in high school, his mother suffered a fatal heart attack while talking on the phone to a recruiter. "As soon as she died, it was an abrupt maturation process," recalls Spencer, who was left alone with his younger sister. " . . . I was a young man with responsibilities."
Spencer originally said he would attend Georgia, but after graduating from high school he was diagnosed as manic depressive. He spent 36 days in the psychiatric ward of an Atlanta hospital.
Johnson, Augmon, Hunt, Anthony, Ackles and Spencer - basketball's Dream Team. Or is it? Four games will tell. Asked how he felt about the Rebels being called The Greatest Team Ever, Augmon replied, "What if we lose tomorrow? Then what will they call us?"