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Monday, February 23, 2015

How could anyone think Jerry Tarkanian would ever throw in the towel?

            You don’t have to be a sports fan to know the name Jerry Tarkanian.

          Tarkanian, who died Feb. 11 at age 84, made headlines for years as one of college basketball’s greatest coaches. While he became famous for his lopsided record (761 wins /202 losses), he became familiar as the bald-headed guy who chewed through towel after towel as his teams raced up and down the court.
          Tarkanian might well be remembered as an entirely lovable character except for this: The people who ran college basketball clearly did not love Jerry Tarkanian. 
          I always thought that was funny in a culture where winning is revered above all else. But after reading his obituaries, I don’t see anything funny about the way Tarkanian was bullied and ultimately betrayed by the sport to which he devoted his life.
          One of the many anecdotes illustrating that devotion has stuck with me for years: Tarkanian once encountered a distraught colleague while crossing campus after practice. Tarkanian asked why he was so upset. The bewildered professor wondered aloud if Tarkanian could possibly not know that the space shuttle had blown up.
  Tarkanian’s response: What’s a space shuttle?
          The point was that there was precious little room in Tarkanian’s life for anything—or anyone—that didn’t dribble, pass or score, He watched basketball, read about basketball, talked about basketball and most likely dreamed about baskeball.
          He’d been that way since childhood. Tarkanian grew up in the Armenian immigrant enclave of Fresno, California, son of a Genocide survivor. As Tarkanian told it, his mother “fled her homeland on horseback with only the clothes on her back after her father and eldest brother were beheaded by Turkish soldiers.
He was 13 when his father died, and his mother eventually remarried. His step-father insisted the boy’s sport obsession would be his ruin. He told Jerry to become a barber. His mother, however, stood by him as he played basketball for Fresno State.
Tarkanian went on to coach the Long Beach State team in 1969 while not yet 40 years old. He coached there for five years and led his team to the N.C.A.A. tournament four times, winning 99 of 116 games. Fans and players cheered, but the sport’s ruling body decided there must be something fishy about this upstart’s extraordinary success.
He’d moved on to the University of Nevada at Las Vegas before the N.C.A.A. decided Tarkanian had been cheating. The same accusation recurred throughout his career, as Tarkanian and his teams were intermittently suspended.
The most serious and lingering complaint against Tarkanian was that he recruited players with questionable academic credentials. It’s a charge that goes to the very core of college sports as a vital part of a young person’s education and not as some sideline venture designed to raise money and inflate a school’s profile.
          Oh, wait: Isn’t that what college sports became a long time ago? Does anybody really think college basketball players—or football players, or baseball players—get recruited because they’re really good at quantum physics?
          I don’t know where the N.C.A.A. draws the line between athletic prowess and intellectual achievement, or even if it should. What I know is that despite the controversies and harassment, Tarkanian transformed a UNLV team once jokingly called the Tumbleweeds into a college basketball powerhouse known as the Runnin' Rebels. They won the N.C.A.A. championship in 1990 by the biggest margin ever.
The next year, the N.C.A.A. came down hard on Tarkanian and the school. Tarkanian fought back even harder. He insisted, as he always had, that he’d never broken the rules. He sued the N.C.A.A. Six years later, they settled up and paid Tarkanian $2.5 million.
By then he’d moved home in a very real way, to coach his old team at Fresno State. His old community embraced him in a way college basketball never did.
Tarkanian retired from coaching in 2002, embittered by his experience with the sport’s ruling body. “They’ve been my tormentors my whole life,” he told a news conference. “I’ve fought them the whole way. I’ve never backed down.”
Anyone who knows Armenians could have told the N.C.A.A. from the start that he never would. 

Thursday, February 12, 2015

The opportunity for all of us to tell the Armenian story is too precious to pass up

I read a few excerpts from Stories My Father Never Told Me to an enthusiastic audience last Sunday at St. David Armenian Church in Boca Raton.

I was quite pleased that the book received such a warm response. Even more important, the audience responded strongly to the message at the end of my talk.

As we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Genocide, Armenians face unique challenges posed by the Turkish government’s continuing and emphatic denial of history.

Few other ethnic or religious groups are subjected to taunts and insults merely for mourning their dead.

The pressure applied by the deniers is sometimes invisible but it has been extremely effective in distorting news stories and in blocking Armenians’ access to some media outlets and speaking venues.

I’m told that even some well-known Armenian-Americans have opted out of appearing at commemorative events because they fear professional setbacks. I was incensed when I heard that. After all, our grandparents weren’t allowed to opt-out of the Genocide.

The irony of any Armenian in this country being afraid to speak out is extraordinary: in Turkey, where false history is a matter of law, they’d face real sanctions. But here, any Armenian with a story to tell can’t be stopped.

Here’s how I put it on Sunday in a message I’ll repeat each time I speak:

As a long-time journalist, I’m a great believer in the power of free speech to educate and invigorate a society—and I’m certain facts obliterate falsehood if they’re allowed into the light.

For Armenians, that light has never been brighter or more powerfully focused than it is this year as we commemorate the Genocide’s centennial. We must all take that opportunity to tell our story as loudly we can, and let the truth prevail.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

On the anniversary of the Genocide, it's important to remember those who heeded the call to stand and fight for survival

Armenians everywhere are commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, an earnest and energetic campaign by the rulers of the Ottoman Empire to end their existence.

Vartan Aslanian,
Armenian freedom fighter
I’ll be writing about the commemoration throughout the year, looking back on the Genocide and at its continuing effects. But I think it’s important to note that the centennial calculation is deliberate but not precise.

Although the final extermination plan was launched in 1915, Armenian subjects of the Ottoman Empire were repeatedly brutalized and slaughtered throughout the latter part of the 19th century.

Massacres perpetrated by Sultan Abdul Hamid II beginning in 1894 claimed hundreds of thousands, and are often cited as the precursor to the Armenian Genocide.

In fact, persecution and intimidation of Armenians predates even that catastrophe. Raffi’s great novel of Armenian awakening, The Fool, was published in 1881. Set against the background of the then-recent Russo-Turkish War, it portrayed a weak and timid Armenian population that could not survive unless Armenians learned to stand up and fight.

Many responded to the call. Allied with the Young Turks, Armenian freedom fighters were instrumental in restoring parliamentary government to Turkey in 1908. The celebration was short-lived, as the triumvirate that consolidated power turned on the Armenians with genocidal fury.

As the Genocide commemoration proceeds, you’ll see many images of mutilated victims and the emaciated survivors then known as the Starving Armenians. You should see at least one image of an Armenian who did what he could to stop the madness.

The Armenian freedom fighters didn’t succeed, but they deserve to be honored along with the martyrs.