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UNLV honors program legend by unveiling team in open practice

Updated October 15, 2021 - 12:17 pm

UNLV men’s basketball coach Kevin Kruger and his staff opened practice Thursday evening at Cox Pavilion for a couple of reasons:

To introduce the Rebels of the present.

And to honor and support a Rebels great from the past.

The open practice doubled as a fundraiser for UNLV legend Robert Smith, who suffered a stroke in 2019 and continues to work toward recovery. A crowd of about 250 that included women’s basketball coach Lindy La Rocque and football coach Marcus Arroyo congregated inside the gymnasium and raised $25,490 through donations and merchandise sales to support Smith’s medical expenses.

Rebels players participated in ball-handling and shooting drills before closing the practice with some celebratory dunks. All the while, Kruger and assistants Carlin Hartman, Brandon Chappell and Tim Buckley engaged with the crowd through open conversation with former Rebels guard Curtis Terry, who helped emcee the event.

Smith sat courtside — flanked by his family — and quietly watched in approval.

“He’s come a long way from where he’s started,” said his son, Elijah. “Just seeing everybody gives him inspiration. It meant everything to him.

“He cried a couple of times because it meant so much. All of this is impactful because his brain has to get all that circuitry back working. Any little thing that keeps him going — like meeting anybody he comes in contact with — will do good for him. He loves it.”

Kruger said the Rebels viewed the open practice as an organic opportunity to help Smith, a point guard who led the Rebels to the Final Four in 1977 and played seven seasons in the NBA.

“On top of that, Robert … is over the moon for the community to see his Runnin’ Rebel team,” Kruger said. “… To kind of roll them all together, it was just a lot of fun.”

The first-year coach said honoring the legacy of the program “is a huge piece” of what he wants to build at UNLV as he shapes it in his image.

Senior center Royce Hamm said the program’s rich history was something that appealed to him as he was considering his options before transferring from Texas.

“Everybody that comes to speak with us, everybody that comes to practice, they reiterate and tell us about the culture here and what it means for their fans and everybody when UNLV basketball is winning,” said Hamm, who punctuated the end of practice with a tomahawk dunk.

After it concluded, Hamm and his Rebels teammates posed for a photo with Smith at center court and mingled with spectators alongside the coaches. UNLV is retiring Smith’s No. 10 jersey on Feb. 19.

Smith, too, gleefully greeted fans after practice.

“The city loves UNLV, and they support UNLV, and they’ll support (Rebels players) really for life,” Kruger said. “This was kind of a true example of that no matter how far away from your playing days you are, the city and community will support and love you.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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