By Alexander Bolton - 09/10/09 10:05 AM EDT
Danny Tarkanian knows that defeating a political icon like Sen. Harry Reid is no slam-dunk. So he’s enlisting his own “Dream Team” to the cause.
Former NBA all-star forward Larry Johnson, who played for Tarkanian’s father nearly two decades ago at UNLV, has offered to raise money.
Then there is Dad, aka Jerry Tarkanian, aka “Tark the Shark,” the legendary NCAA and NBA basketball coach whose name may be bigger than Reid’s in the state of Nevada.
Having Reid (D-Nev.) and Tarkanian side by side on a ballot next November would test political and sports allegiances — not to mention inspire the sports books along the Strip to put political races next to the weekly roster of NFL games.
“I thought I would have a very strong campaign and a good chance at beating Reid,” said the younger Tarkanian, who has entered the race as a Republican. Danny played for his father and led UNLV to its first No. 1 ranking back in 1982-1983 as the team’s point guard.
Reid and Jerry Tarkanian are hardly strangers. Tarkanian attended a fundraiser for Reid two years ago, and Reid introduced legislation in the Senate to push back against the NCAA after it sanctioned the coach.
When asked about Danny’s challenge in light of the friendly history with the Tarkanian family, Reid said: “It’s a free country.”
The 2010 Nevada Senate race promises to be awash with money, mudslinging and star power. Reid, who is facing a tough reelection, can count on having President Barack Obama in his corner.
As many as 10 Republicans have announced a challenge or are weighing one. But to Nevada voters who follow politics casually, one name stands out.
Recent polls show Danny Tarkanian ahead of Reid by as many as 11 percentage points, and even though it is very early in the political season, they have emboldened his view of unseating the Senate leader.
“We won the tip-off and scored a bucket and then got a steal off the inbounds pass to score a second bucket and we’re up four to nothing, but there’s a lot of time left in the game,” Tarkanian said of the polls.
In politics, the young Tarkanian doesn’t have the same winning record as his dad, who retired with a 990-228 career coaching record and turned UNLV from a basketball backwater into a national powerhouse.
Danny Tarkanian lost a race for state Senate in 2004 and came up short again in a race for secretary of state in 2006.
But he’s well known, though a little more because of his dad than his own on-court exploits. Tarkanian said hardly a day goes by that a basketball fan doesn’t ask him about his father or compliment his father’s epic career. He hears a comment about his own collegiate career about “once every week or two.”
Even among Republicans in Washington, he’s better known because of his dad.
When asked about Tarkanian’s chances as a candidate, National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) said: “The coach’s son?”
Tarkanian will travel to Washington in the next few days to meet with Cornyn and solicit help from the national party.
Tarkanian said he would make the same argument against Reid that Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) made in 2004 when he shocked the political world by defeating then Democratic leader Tom Daschle (S.D.).
“He’s a powerful guy, particularly in Washington, D.C. but that doesn’t translate back in the state, which he’s ignored. He’s done a tremendous job moving up the Democratic leadership ladder but he’s ignored the concerns of his home state.”
Johnson and Stacey Augmon, two of the stars who led UNLV to its national championship in 1990, are still friendly with the Tarkanians, and both helped Danny raise money in the past.
Tarkanian said that Johnson, who lives about half the year in Las Vegas, has already promised to help his challenge against Reid.
Tarkanian needs the fundraising help because Reid plans to spend $25 million on his reelection, according to Reid campaign manager Brandon Hall.
The GOP challenger may even get some help from Barkley, a well-known high roller who visits Vegas frequently on gambling trips, but that may be a stretch.
The Tarkanians consider Barkley a longtime family friend. He and basketball great Michael Jordan got to know the Tarkanians at annual Nike-sponsored basketball retreats.
“When I see them in Vegas they always come up and say hello,” said Danny, who nevertheless isn’t counting on Barkley or Jordan to endorse him because “they don’t want to do anything controversial” or that might cause them to lose an endorsement deal.
The challenge could be personal for Reid, who came to Tarkanian’s defense in 1990 when the NCAA came down hard against UNLV for recruiting violations that took place a decade earlier. Reid battled the athletic governance body after it banned UNLV from post-season play.
Reid charged the sanctions were imposed without due process and introduced legislation in the Senate to establish a “Coach and Athlete’s Bill of Rights.”
“The NCAA is an entity that has no due process, it’s a tyrannical body and I was happy to help Jerry,” Reid said in a brief interview.
The elder Tarkanian didn’t forget the favor. Two years ago Jerry attended a fundraiser for Reid hosted by his daughter, according to an adviser to Danny Tarkanian. (Danny’s mother is a local Democratic politician.)
Reid’s spokesman Jon Summers said that Reid has paid close attention to his constituents’ needs and can point to a long list of accomplishments. He cited Reid’s successful push to close the nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain, an effort to protect the state’s military bases from closing and a campaign to transform Nevada into a leader of the emerging clean energy economy.
“The Republicans have their rhetoric but they’ll have to deal with reality,” said Summers.