HBO’s ‘Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV’ a treat, even for non-hoopheads

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Everyone’s favorite Rebels are back in a new HBO documentary, “Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV.”

The hour-long movie, which premieres March 12, has everything you’d expect in a show about one of college basketball’s most talked about teams: highlights, hilarious anecdotes, shots of the strip and an overwhelming feeling of fun.

That’s what those teams were about, right? Fun. Well, and the Amoeba defense, but that doesn’t really translate into good TV.

Let’s take a peek at the fun.

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Anyone who saw any college basketball in the late ’70s, late ’80s or early ‘90s has some picture of UNLV basketball in their head. Even if you weren’t a huge fan. It was one of those programs that elevated beyond the sport.

Whether it’s Reggie Theus streaking to the hoop when the team burst onto the scene as the original Runnin’ Rebs in 1977 – all the way to the Final Four – or Larry Johnson and crew beating Duke by 30 points in the 1990 championship game, the picture’s usually the same — dynamic players winning games and their coach, Jerry Tarkanian, on the sideline, usually chewing a towel.

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The movie is Tark’s show as much as it’s UNLV’s. Nearly 20 years after he left the school because of NCAA violations, he remains the face of the program, a beloved coach who brought it from nothing to the greatest show on the strip.

He’s now 80, has been out of college basketball for nine years and speaks fondly of those teams, though much of has a lingering bitterness toward the NCAA, which he thought got off lightly in the documentary. I liked the balance. The producers didn’t shy away from any of the issues surrounding UNLV – Lloyd Daniels’ arrest, the now infamous “fixer” photo, among them – and had enough of both sides to suit me.

Besides, that was decades ago. What I wanted to see most — the highlights, and people reflecting on those times – the documentary delivers, and then some. Dunks, defense, shooting, it’s all there from UNLV’s heyday, including those mind-boggling years of seemingly invincible teams. Hey, even Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski’s on there talking about how good those Rebels were.

But, like any good documentary, it thrives when relevant parties relate their feelings about the team.

Most every player’s there to share their memories (sadly, no Larry Johnson) as well as some notable fans. ABC late night host Jimmel Kimmel makes for an rather entertaining guest, complete with a story about how he and friends once ran across Tark in L.A. during a tournament, and the coach asked if they could give his wife, Lois, a ride back to the hotel. Smiles ensued, both on Jimmy’s face and mine.

Also impressive were the things I’d forgotten about the team. Like how point guard Greg Anthony broke his jaw during a fall in the 1989-90 season, the year they won it all.

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And, of course, there’s the 1990-91 season, in which UNLV nearly pulled off an unbeaten season, only to lose to Duke in the Final Four, serving as a showcase for what I consider to be the greatest game of the ‘90s. No fewer than seven future pros were on the court, playing in a game that would end the Rebels’ reign as college basketball’s dominant team and usher in back-to-back seasons of Duke taking over.

It’s TV diehards fans will love, and non-diehards will enjoy. What better way to spend the night before Selection Sunday?

Runnin’ Rebels of UNLV airs at 9:30 p.m. ET on March 12.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.