Vegas sports royalty welcomes the Raiders with open arms
- Covered Oakland Raiders for CSNBayArea.com and Sacramento Bee for eight years
- Member of Pro Football Writers Association
- Previously worked at Los Angeles Times, Las Vegas Review-Journal and Sports Illustrated
LAS VEGAS — It was sometime in the winter of 1990-91, with the undefeated, top-ranked defending national champion UNLV Runnin’ Rebels in the midst of a 45-game winning streak, when Stacey Augmon and Larry Johnson sat for a midseason photo shoot.
The two All-Americans and soon-to-be NBA lottery picks were the most high-profile players on the most high-profile team in the nation, a rollicking and raucous squad being bandied about as the greatest in college history. Yet this pic was to be a mood shot, in black and white. So Augmon pulled out a pair of Raiders caps, Los Angeles Raiders caps, threw one atop his head and handed the other to Johnson.
“Larry thought I was crazy because he’s from Texas,” Augmon, who grew up in Pasadena, California, said of the nearly three-decade-old memory. “I made him wear the hat. But after that, he became a Raider fan.”
Indeed, Augmon’s conversion of Johnson was a harbinger of things to come in Las Vegas, with the Raiders relocating to Sin City and many of its denizens suddenly clinging to everything with a Silver and Black motif.
With so many sporting figures from Southern Nevada and/or making their homes there — we caught up with some, past and present, to talk about the Raiders’ move. Other notables include Andre Agassi, NASCAR’s Busch Brothers, Kurt and Kyle — who both went to Durango High School — Mike Tyson, Floyd Mayweather Jr., the UFC. And the CBA has rolled through a few times, along with the WBL and the IBL, not to mention the XFL and the UFL.
The Las Vegas Raiders, though, after spending the previous 25 seasons in Oakland following 13 in L.A., are entering an entirely different environment than the roost the Rebels ruled.
“Vegas is the most unique city in America; it’s a big town, little city,” said Reggie Theus, who helped take UNLV to the 1977 Final Four. “There was what, 500,000 people there when I was [in school]? Now it’s two million? Back then, you knew all the main players in town by first name. When you were out at dinner you’d see Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Lola Falana, Wayne Newton. And they knew us. But getting the NFL in town, that was shooting for the moon. Over the moon.
“It does feel fitting, though. You have to be a Vegas guy to understand Vegas. No doubt this was supposed to happen. What a phenomenal business move for the NFL.”
And back then the Rebels, known for Gucci Row and deep NCAA tournament runs, were truly the biggest team sports show in town — the only team sports show — with UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian as big as any headliner on the Strip.
“It was more difficult to get a ticket to the UNLV basketball game,” Tarkanian said on an HBO special about the Rebels, “than it was to the Frank Sinatra show.”
Yes, Sinatra recruited for Tarkanian.
The Raiders, with coach Jon Gruden, are bringing a certain star power that has been missing in Las Vegas since Tarkanian was forced to resign from UNLV in 1992.
“Tark was like a rock star,” said Greg Anthony, the point guard on that national championship team and a Las Vegas native who went to Rancho High School. “I didn’t think you would ever say this about someone who had his physical characteristics, but ladies loved him … and men wanted to be around him. He had a quick wit and was great with stories. He was revered by celebrities, entertainers, politicians, corporate types and even by some considered to be organized crime figures.
“Coach had the ‘it factor’ and coaching in Vegas lent to that. No matter where he went, Coach was the focal point.”
Chucky, Tark the Shark. Tark the Shark, Chucky.
Indeed, some see a correlation in mystique between the renegade Raiders and Shark’s band of Runnin’ Rebels, who counted the likes of Tyson, MC Hammer and Evander Holyfield among their fans. The Rebels were addressed in their locker room by NFL great Walter Payton before their 1990 NCAA title game demolition of Duke.
“Tarkanian gave them a personality that was different than everybody else,” Raiders owner Mark Davis said. “Bigger than life. The towel. They would win games magnificently and everybody else jumped on board. And I did, too.
“All those guys are important to us. Augmon. Reggie. That’s a bridge that we value.”
Told the late Tarkanian once said he was a Chargers fan, Davis paused.
“Well,” Davis smiled, “nobody’s perfect.”
There is a history between the Raiders and Las Vegas, linked by late radio announcer Bob Blum, who was friends with Al Davis. In 1964, the Raiders played the Houston Oilers in an exhibition game at Cashman Field. And in 1972, Ken Stabler, George Atkinson, Tom Keating and Tony Cline held a kids clinic at UNLV’s year-old Las Vegas Stadium … the day after the Raiders thumped the Los Angeles Rams 45-17.
Maybe Augmon, who already has bought season tickets for 2020, was onto something with his choice in headwear after all.
Southern Nevada has changed. Gone are the 99-cent breakfast specials, affordable all-you-can-eat buffets, cheap hotel rooms, free parking and the Rebels dominating not only the national scene, but Las Vegas.
We’re a long way from 1994, when Las Vegas was the undisputed king of trash sports, with the International Hockey League’s Thunder, the Arena Football League’s Sting, Roller Hockey International’s Flash, the Continental International Soccer League’s Dustdevils and the Canadian Football League’s Posse all calling Vegas home.
But the NFL and the Raiders?
“I would never, ever have thought I’d see anything like this in that town,” said Augmon, who became a Raiders fan when the team moved to L.A. in 1982, when he was a freshman at Pasadena Muir High School. “But Vegas definitely can support it. The hotels are going to sell out the suites and everyone else is going to fill in. The money’s there. I mean, even if a basketball team goes there, the money is definitely there and people are flying in and loving Vegas.”
Tarkanian’s Rebels repped Las Vegas with a certain swagger that embodied Sin City.
The Raiders are bringing their own swag.
“I’m sure,” Theus said, “wherever Tark is, he’s doing a happy dance.”
As are other members of Las Vegas’ royal sporting court:
Ryan Reaves, Vegas Golden Knights
The worst birthday the Golden Knights’ right wing has ever had? Try his 15th.
A day earlier, on Jan. 19, 2002, the Tuck Rule effectively ended the Raiders’ season on a snowy night in New England in what would be Gruden’s final game as Raiders coach … until he returned in 2018.
“Not just my birthday,” Reaves rued, “that ruined my whole year. I was watching it on TV and I just had my hands on my head like, ‘What the hell is going on here? Are they just trying to screw us over?’
“From that point on, I’ve hated the Patriots and Tom Brady. Deflategate? They should have been kicked out of the league.”
Reminded that Brady and his new Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad are scheduled to come to Las Vegas for an Oct. 25 game, Reaves exhaled.
“Yeah,” he said with an 18-year-old grudge, “then they’ll get stomped, too, at Allegiant Stadium.”
Reaves, the Golden Knights’ enforcer, has had football in his blood since birth and Raider Nation citizenship since Jerry Rice came to the team in 2001. Yes, even as a kid born and raised in Winnipeg, Canada.
And why not? His dad, Willard, was a CFL star running back, the league’s Most Outstanding Player in 1984, a year after Warren Moon was feted, a year before Mervyn Fernandez. Willard had a cup of coffee in the NFL, playing in one game with Washington (he was thrown for a 1-yard loss by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Jerome Brown on his lone carry) and two games with the Miami Dolphins (he returned a total of six kickoffs for 84 yards) in 1989.
Yeah, football seemed to be in the younger Reaves’ future (his brother Jordan is a defensive end with the Saskatchewan Roughriders). But a knee injury and the allure of hockey was too strong. So Ryan kept rooting for his favorite team from afar … until that team arrived in his new city this summer.
“Just the vibe of watching the games, the Black Hole, the team just fascinated me,” Reaves said. “Besides our [Golden Knights] jerseys, I like the L.A. Kings’ jerseys, that black and silver. Like the Raiders.
“The Raiders, the Bad Boys, I guess that does complement my style. I didn’t fight as much when I was younger.”
Reaves, who scored the game-winner against, yup, Winnipeg in 2018 that lifted the then-expansion Golden Knights into the Stanley Cup Finals, attended the Raiders’ home opener last September in Oakland with his young son and sat in Davis’ owner’s suite. Now, his son, who is 4 years old, asks whenever they pass Allegiant Stadium, “When will the Raiders play in their new home?”
“I’m so excited; I’ve only been to one Raider game,” said Reaves, who counts running back Josh Jacobs and safety Johnathan Abram as his favorite players. “But now that their stadium is literally across the street from our arena, you best believe I’m going to every game I can.”
A trio of Vegas baseball royalty
Two notable things went down on the Las Vegas sports landscape in the spring semester of Greg Maddux’s junior year at Valley High School in 1983 — the Runnin’ Rebels ascended to their first No. 1 national ranking and the Stars set up shop at Cashman Field in North Las Vegas as the Triple-A affiliate of the San Diego Padres.
“And that was it,” Maddux, a four-time Cy Young Award winner and Hall of Famer, said more than 37 years later. “Tark was bigger than Frank Sinatra back then. He was Vegas.”
Yeah, there’s a generation (or two) gap when it comes to Las Vegas’ old and new school baseball royalty. Consider: The last time the Raiders won the Super Bowl, in January 1984, Maddux was a high school senior. And the last time the Raiders actually played in a Super Bowl, in 2003, Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant were 10 and 11 years old, respectively. Neither recall watching Tarkanian at UNLV or his overshadowing Ol’ Blue Eyes, and why would they? Both were born the same year the Shark finished his 19-year run with the Rebels.
But the NFL? That’s a universal language all three baseball lifers understand. Especially with the Raiders now calling their hometown, well, home.
“The whole city’s excited … we never thought we’d get an NFL team and being able to see the Raiders there, they’re going to have the support of the city,” said Harper, a Las Vegas High graduate, the 2012 National League rookie of the year and 2015 NL MVP. “It’s going to be different to see all these major sports teams coming in and possibly MLB now and possibly the NBA.
“Especially Gruden coming. It’s going to be fun.”
Harper was a Dallas Cowboys fan growing up. “In Vegas, you kind of just root for the best and the Cowboys were America’s Team … my dad was such a Cowboys fan,” he said. “He loved Emmitt [Smith] and [Troy] Aikman.”
Maddux gravitated toward the NFL team in whichever city he was playing: “When I was in Chicago, I liked the Bears. When I was in Atlanta, I was a Falcons fan. Even in San Diego I followed the Chargers.”
Bryant was football agnostic. “It’s kind of like when we got the Golden Knights,” said Bryant, a Bonanza High graduate, the 2015 NL rookie of the year and the 2016 NL MVP. “I never really paid attention to hockey, but now I find myself watching more and more of it. Same with football … now I feel like I’ll be more invested in it just because we have a team in our city now, and that’s exciting.
“[Las Vegas] was never really known for sports. Obviously, it was just known for gambling, a tourist city.”
So much so that Bryant is still asked by Las Vegas know-nothings: “What casino do you live in?”
“I always tell people there’s a city outside of the Strip,” Bryant laughed. “Now we have major league sports, which is a whole other dimension that brings a lot to the city. Vegas has a lot to offer. Just hot there in the summers, but it’s perfect for sports.”
Yes, Bryant said Raiders season tickets are in his future.
“Vegas does things right,” said Maddux, who also is the volunteer pitching coach at UNLV. “I’m fired up. I never thought it possible. I never thought I’d see a hockey team in the desert.
“I never thought I’d love the Raiders.”
Randall Cunningham, UNLV
How transcendent was Cunningham as UNLV’s quarterback? He had his No. 12 UNLV jersey retired during a Rebels game … in which he was playing. And while he would go on to a 16-season NFL career in which he would go to four Pro Bowls and be named the PFWA’s 1990 NFL MVP, it was at UNLV where he was an All-American … punter.
Yes, Cunningham cut his football teeth in Southern Nevada but never allowed himself to think his adopted city would one day play host to the NFL.
“Never. Not in my wildest dreams,” Cunningham said. “Now, I’m believing that Magic Johnson is going to bring an NBA team to Las Vegas. I mean, who would think the Golden Knights would come here? Ice hockey, in the desert?
“No one would have ever thought that anything would rule over Las Vegas besides UNLV basketball. When I was in school, it was UNLV basketball … and then us.”
Enter the Raiders, some 36 years later.
“I’ll tell you what, looking back I think I’d be in shock because we were always told there would never be an NFL team in Las Vegas because of the gambling aspect,” Cunningham said. “The shift now is, Wow. Amazing.
“We truly are the entertainment capital of the world.”
Cunningham moved back to Las Vegas late in his NFL career. He became an ordained minister and established his own church, Remnant Ministries, in Las Vegas. And this summer he was hired by Gruden, his offensive coordinator for one season with the Philadelphia Eagles, as the Raiders’ team chaplain.
Having grown up in Santa Barbara, California, the younger brother of New England Patriots fullback Sam “Bam” Cunningham, he knew all about the so-called “Badass” Raiders of Snake, Ghost, Tooz and the Soul Patrol and how they upended his brother’s Patriots team en route to a Super Bowl XI title.
Then the Eagles’ 1985 second-round pick got to play against a different vintage of Raiders in Los Angeles, referencing a backfield of Marcus Allen with Bo Jackson, Roger Craig and Eric Dickerson in consecutive seasons, and Hall of Fame cornerback Mike Haynes, who first played with Sam Bam’s Patriots.
“I always had something in my heart for the Raiders,” Cunningham said.
And the Raiders had something for him, sacking him 23 times in four games against him.
“But I’ll be the first to confess that back when the Eagles let me know they would not be retaining me [in 1996],” Cunningham said, “I put a billboard up in Oakland that said, ‘Need a quarterback? Call Randall Cunningham.’
“It didn’t happen.”
Bill Laimbeer and A’ja Wilson, Las Vegas Aces
It was on the off day between Games 6 and 7 of the 1988 NBA Finals when a handful of Laimbeer’s Detroit Pistons teammates took the then-Los Angeles Raiders up on an offer to use their El Segundo facility to work out and rehab. Yes, even as Detroit was playing the Raiders’ “Showtime” Lakers neighbors.
“I didn’t go that day,” recalled Laimbeer, now coach of the WNBA Aces. “But I did get some Raider gear. They loved seeing us in their gear because they embraced our image.”
Ah, yes, the late 1980s’ convergence of the Bad Boys Pistons and the Silver and Black Bad Boys of the NFL. Three-plus decades later, Laimbeer finds himself in the unique position of welcoming his old comrades to his new city as a three-time WNBA championship coach while his star player, Wilson, is welcoming a college buddy from South Carolina in rookie receiver Bryan Edwards, a third-round draft pick
Wilson and Edwards lived in the same apartment complex in Columbia, South Carolina, in college and now Wilson might offer some advice not only on Las Vegas real estate, but on being a pro in Sin City.
“It’s nice to be an athlete in Las Vegas at this time,” said Wilson, the NCAA player of the year and WNBA rookie of the year in 2018. “There’s a lot of support from the community. It’s a big thing for me.”
Especially when Davis shows up and sits courtside for Aces games.
“He is always there, always supporting us,” Wilson said of the Raiders’ owner. “It’s huge to have his support … he never shies away from supporting us and that’s huge.”
Laimbeer is intrigued with the prospect of Las Vegas gaining the NFL to go along with the WNBA and the NHL, as well as Triple-A baseball, UFC and professional boxing. He’s also curious about the “sustainability” of it all for a county with a population of just over 2.2 million.
“This is a long-starved city for professional sports,” Laimbeer said. “It’s a big, small town, where everybody is going to know the players. They know former players. There’s nowhere to hide.”
Most of those attending Raiders games, Laimbeer said, will be “inbound” fans.
“And the Raiders have two different big markets to draw from [in Oakland and Los Angeles], which is great for Las Vegas,” he said. “Winning is key. Consistent winning is what keeps them, and that’s what they haven’t done for a while.”
Indeed, the Raiders have had one winning season with one playoff appearance since 2002. Las Vegas’ three-year-old NHL team presented a blueprint as an expansion team playing for a title.
“The Knights came in with such a roar, it took away any question marks,” Laimbeer said. “They were winning and competing for a Stanley Cup, so it created an experience. Las Vegas is all about workers, hearty people.
“Football is football; it’s the No. 1 sport in the country.”
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