THERE were only a few minutes left before Nevada-Las Vegas was due to hit the court. Head coach Jerry Tarkanian walked absent-mindedly through the Rebel dressing room located in the back reaches of McNichols Arena.
what he preached
He had a program rolled up in his right hand while his left rested comfortably on top of his bald head. Anyone who has heard Tarkanian give a pep talk before a game can tell you motivation is his strong suit.
But on what turned out to be the most memorable evening of his career, Tarkanian turned to a well-dressed man waiting quietly in the wings.
This figure stepped out of the shadows and told the future national champions that moments like these usually travel alone, that you have to be at your best to beat the best.
He looked straight into the eyes of Larry Johnson, Stacey Augmon and Greg Anthony - three eventual first-round selections in the NBA - and challenged them to leave nothing on that basketball court.
This man they called "Sweetness" described how it felt after the Chicago Bears won the Super Bowl in 1985, the only time in his illustrious 13-year career that Walter Payton won an NFL championship.
"You think you'll get back there some day," Payton said in a room so silent, you could hear the nervous heartbeats. "But maybe you won't, so don't let this opportunity pass you by. Play to win."
The players would later say - long after UNLV dismantled Duke, 103-73, in the most lopsided national championship game in history - that Payton's understated remarks commanded their respect.
"You see a man of his stature and naturally you're going to believe in him," Anthony said that night. "This was the greatest running back in history. He talked. We listened."
WHY exactly Payton was enamored with the Rebels is hard to say. He told reporters during the 1989-90 season that he started watching them on television and liked their style of play, their intensity and tenaciousness on the court.
"They play the way a champion is supposed to play - hard every minute of every game," Payton said after UNLV secured the national title. "This is a very special basketball team."
Wherever the members of that team were yesterday, when they heard the news of Payton's death, it's likely they remembered that speech.
That championship season, it wasn't uncommon to see Mike Tyson exchanging high fives in the locker room after lopsided wins at the Thomas & Mack Center. If Julius Erving wasn't making a call, then it was members of the Detroit Pistons, who drove down from Los Angeles to Long Beach, Calif., one night just to see UNLV in person.
AND yet, of all the people who came to see them play, it was Payton who impressed them the most.
Here was a man who still has the NFL record for most yards gained in a career (16,726) and in a single game (275.) He also holds the league mark for most 100-yard games at 77 and most combined yards at a staggering 21,803.
But even more important than that, Payton was one of those people who transcended sports. He was an icon in Chicago, long before Michael Jordan, for his play and personality on and off the football field.
Over the next few days, he will be remembered and missed by millions of people who have their own special recollections of the man who wore No. 34.
Time has slipped away since Payton imparted his own brand of wisdom to a talented group of players destined to hang stars of their own. But the words still ring as true as they did that night, a decade ago.
Paul Arnett has been covering sports
for the Star-Bulletin since 1990.