Las Vegas Sun
Friday, June 16, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Lon Kruger was an outsider when he arrived in Las Vegas in 2004.
Sure, his basketball travels had seen him pass through the city a time or two, but as a lifer who had coached five teams and taken three programs to the NCAA Tournament, he could have said the same about any town.
Two decades later, Kruger calls Las Vegas home, and the feeling is mutual. And for a community that can be deliberate about who it chooses to embrace, it’s all the more remarkable that he will be inducted into the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame on Friday.
Kruger, who won 161 games and led UNLV to four NCAA Tournament appearances over his seven years with the program, will be one of six inductees in the 2023 class.
Kruger almost didn’t want the job.
UNLV had suffered through some lean years, missing four straight NCAA Tournaments from 2000 to 2004, and after his time in the NBA with the Atlanta Hawks, Kruger was looking for the right fit.
From the outside looking in, Kruger was skeptical. He initially passed on the opportunity, but former UNLV athletic director Brad Rothermel talked him into reconsidering.
“Actually, when we first talked about the job I really didn’t think that would be of interest,” Kruger says. “I said thanks, but it was probably not the right timing. And I left it at that. Then Brad Rothermel called and said the timing may actually be good. He thought it was possible to get the excitement back again, with the potential of Rebel basketball and how significant it was, historically, in the city of Las Vegas.”
Convinced UNLV could be resurrected, Kruger took the job. Then he did what he had done at every stop in his coaching career — he put together a team of hard-working players and went about winning a lot of games.
The shadow of legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian had loomed over the program since his departure a decade earlier, but Kruger didn’t shy away from the challenge. He built teams that were easy to root for, and once they started winning, fans returned to the Thomas & Mack Center.
With his son, Kevin Kruger, playing point guard, UNLV went 30-7 in 2006-07 and marched to the Sweet 16. Kruger still counts that run as one of his fondest memories as a coach.
“Going to Chicago in 2007 for that NCAA Tournament and winning against Georgia Tech,” Kruger recalls. “And then we played Wisconsin right there in the United Center, with 16,000 Wisconsin fans there. We were certainly outnumbered, but people just felt good about those guys and the way they played. Those are good memories.”
Under Kruger’s leadership, UNLV proceeded to qualify for the tournament in three of the next four years, further stoking local interest. In Kruger’s final season at UNLV, the team drew 13,917 fans per game, good for 18th in the nation and tops among west coast schools.
In addition to putting a winning product on the court, Kruger felt the fans came back because they were invested in his teams.
“I think people recognized we were very genuine in our feelings about Las Vegas and the people here,” Kruger says. “Our practices were always open, so people could come to practice and bring their families. It was a team that the community felt ownership in.”
Kruger didn’t just connect the fans to the program, he also made it a point to reconnect with the past. Instead of shunning or ignoring Tarkanian and his players, Kruger invited them back.
Tarkanian became a courtside staple at the Thomas & Mack Center in his later years, and the program’s all-time great players returned to campus, too.
“I had a lot of respect for the history and tradition at UNLV,” Kruger says. “We knew how important it was to former players to feel part of the program. We reached out to coach Tark, and because of his interest, his former players jumped back on board. They came to reunions and relived those memories. That was exciting because of the way Las Vegas appreciated those teams. I think it all happened because Tark was on board with the invitation and wanted them to be a part of it.”
By the time he was done at UNLV after seven years, Kruger had restored UNLV’s winning tradition, reignited the passion of the fan base and reestablished a link to the program’s glory days.
And along the way, Kruger had become part of the Las Vegas community.
Kruger maintained ties to the city through the Las Vegas Golf Classic tournament, which is part of Coaches vs. Cancer program (of which Kruger is the chairman). And he and his wife, Barbara, kept a summer home in the valley.
When Kruger retired following the 2020-21 season — with 674 wins, 20 NCAA Tournaments and two Final Four appearances under his belt — he took up full-time residence in Las Vegas.
Even today, Kruger’s fingerprints are all over the UNLV program. Kevin is heading into his third year as head coach, so Lon is a regular presence at practices and serves as a sounding board for the coaching staff. He also played a key role in the building of the Mendenhall Center, spearheading the fundraising process that saw UNLV claim one of the best practice facilities on the west coast.
Because of his accomplishments, Kruger is no stranger to Hall of Fame treatment. A Kansas native and former standout player and coach at Kansas State, he has already been inducted into the KSU Hall of Fame. And last year he went into the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame.
Being honored by the Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Fame has a special meaning for Kruger, however. He may have come in as an outsider, but he’s now a Las Vegan, through and through.
“Barb and I, when we lived here, we knew this is where we’d be retiring at some point,” Kruger says. “We knew this was the place. This is where we always wanted to be.”
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