Chris Jeter had to cut the conversation short. There was a car accident and Jeter, a 15-year veteran of the Las Vegas Metro Police Department, was one of the closest to the scene. He had a job to do, which meant that his talking about his college coach, Jerry Tarkanian, could wait.
Jeter was a reserve forward on the famed Runnin’ Rebels teams of the late-80s and early-90s. He won a national title in 1990 and played on the 1991 team that entered the NCAA tournament undefeated before losing to Duke in the Final Four.
But he was also a kid that came from a rough neighborhood in Southeast San Diego, a kid who initially enrolled at Missouri before being ruled academically ineligible, a kid that needed the second chance that was offered to him by Coach Tark.
That second chance is not one that was offered up by many other schools.
“A lot of us came from the harder side, whether it was L.A., Texas, D.C.,” Jeter told NBCSports.com on Wednesday, just hours after learning of Tarkanian’s death. “Tark really took a liking to the hard type of guys, the guys that a lot of schools didn’t want to take a chance on.”
Tarkanian’s legacy is complicated. He laughed in the face of NCAA regulations, turning him into the Rebel of college basketball, a bad-boy image that only enhanced the renegade reputation of his basketball teams. He was an advocate for student-athlete rights long before it became a trend, before his time when it came to criticism of the NCAA’s brand of amateurism, and it made him a target. Some media vilified him and helped make him a target of the NCAA’s enforcement arm, enough so that he managed to win a $2.5 million settlement when he sued the association for harassment.
But Tarkanian was also a guy that wasn’t afraid to give kids a chance, kids that had a record, or that didn’t have the grades, or that flamed out at their previous program. Kids that other programs didn’t want to give an opportunity to. He certainly could win this way — there was plenty of talent-with-baggage available in those days — but, as he told Dan Wetzel of Yahoo! Sports, he could also change the course of that person’s life. He could give that player’s family a future.
“Maybe not all my guys were going to become doctors and lawyers,” he told Wetzel. “But they were exposed to college, they learned to value education and so maybe their kids are the ones who will become doctors and lawyers.”
He’s the perfect example.
“I wanted to get out of Southeast San Diego,” he said. “I really, truly did. Just to make it in life.”
So he took advantage of that second chance that Tark was offering. He enrolled at UNLV in 1987, he spent four years playing spot minutes, never averaging more than 1.1 points, and eventually earned his degree. He’s still living in Las Vegas 24 years later, a police officer with a family, a life that didn’t always seem like a certainty when he was still in California.
“Tark was very, very instrumental in me becoming a law enforcement officer,” Jeter said. “I remember the conversation clearly. He asked me what were my goals when I graduated, and I told him that I wanted to become a police officer.
“Take a student athlete from where we came from, and what he did for a lot of us was to give us a voice that we really didn’t have. He really just helped us out becoming who we are as people. For those of us who took the path that he gave us and received our degrees and became parents, hopefully role models, [because of] that voice he gave us.”
Jeter has become a parent, and if you haven’t heard of his son, you will one day soon.
His name is Chase Jeter, and he’s a top 10 recruit nationally, a McDonald’s All-American that will be heading to Duke next season to play his college ball. A school where becoming a doctor or a lawyer or a businessman is the norm that is steeped in college basketball history and tradition.
“I remember my dad telling me stories about the type of poverty he lived in when he was a kid,” Chase said. “Being able to go to UNLV and have an opportunity to play in college for Tark was just a blessing for him. I know he’s grateful for that, and I know I’m grateful for [my] opportunity.”
Tark wasn’t perfect, but he did a lot of good to help a lot of people that wouldn’t otherwise have had the opportunities that he helped provide. The elder Jeter, who had left Missouri after all of one summer school session, was a 6-foot-9 African-American from a drug and gang-infested part of San Diego with a temper. As he told a local paper back in 1990, “I’d say about half my friends from high school are dead.”
But he was also a smart kid, a kid that wanted better for himself, a kid that only needed an opportunity.
Tark was right when he gave one to him.
That said, Tark was also wrong, about Chris Jeter and many of his former teammates.
“He was wrong because we do have lawyers and doctors and police officers,” he said. “A lot of people thought that we would not become doctors and lawyers and businessmen, but by him taking a chance on us, we were successful in doing that. He was successful in giving the athletes that no one would recruit the time, the benefit of saying you can become [whatever you want] by pushing yourself.”