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But then things deteriorated. Calls started coming in from Las Vegas: Legendary coach Jerry Tarkanian wanted him to join his national champion University of Nevada-Las Vegas Runnin' Rebels as soon as Rider gained eligibility. Rider started to cut classes. And with a week left in spring semester, he had Fs in fifteen units. So he dropped out again, and fled, this time to Southern California.
On October 15, 1990, at his first team practice at Antelope Valley Community College, Rider took a vicious elbow to the mouth. In anger, he stormed into the locker room.
"You've got about thirty seconds to get back into practice," yelled head coach Newton Chelette. He phoned Tarkanian, Rider standing at his side: "If he does this again, he's done here. He'll never make it to UNLV."
Under Chelette's guidance, Rider would be a Runnin' Rebel in less than a year. Chelette kept him under tight supervision, forcing him to check in with academic advisors at 8 a.m. Rider led all college basketball players in the nation in scoring that season, averaging 33.6 points per game. And, for the first time in six years, he graduated. Years later, when Rider was drafted into the NBA, he told a Minnesota radio station that Antelope Valley was the only place that cared about him enough to make him go to class.
"With that lack of self discipline, I couldn't see him being able to manage the money and fame of the NBA," Chelette said. "It's a really sad, sad story. I would have liked to have managed him day-to-day, but I guess that's not the answer."
Whatever progress Rider made under Chelette was swiftly negated in Vegas. At UNLV, Rider joined a team already marred in scandal. The Runnin' Rebels were coming off a 1990 national championship and a Final Four appearance in '91, winning 45 straight games in between. But Tarkanian, who embodied the team's rebel image, was suspected of numerous recruitment violations. After one of his recruits was caught buying cocaine from an undercover police officer, and several players were pictured on the front-page of the Las Vegas Review-Journal soaking in a hot-tub with a notorious sports fixer, the Rebels were finally put on probation.
Rider's arrival in 1992 only fueled the controversy. He burst onto the national stage at UNLV, dropping an electrifying 44 points in his first nationally televised game against Georgetown. But before the end of the 92-93 season, in which he was the nation's second-leading scorer, averaging 29.2 points-per-game, he had also made headlines for fighting with a police officer and throwing a strawberry milkshake in the face of a Jack-In-The-Box employee.
People also grew suspicious of Rider's academic achievements. One of the courses on his transcript was entitled "Prevention & Management of Premenstrual Syndrome." He was finally suspended for the post-season in 1993 after the school determined that a tutor had written a term paper; the name "Isiah" atop an essay was conspicuously missing an A. Regardless, Rider was selected with the fifth pick of the 1993 NBA draft by the Minnesota Timberwolves, and with the cameras rolling and a microphone in his face, he told the world: "The dunk contest is mine."
Minnesota was a new beginning. Now that he was a professional ballplayer, J.R. wanted to be called Isaiah Rider, his legal name — a symbol of maturity, rebirth.
But then he missed his first practice with the Timberwolves. He had already missed training camp and the preseason while holding out for a seven-year, $25.5 million contract. The day after he signed, the Wolves moved a 10 a.m. practice to 5 p.m. so that Rider could join the team. But he missed his flight out of Oakland.
That night, Timberwolves head coach Sidney Lowe told the media, "This will be the last time he'll be late for anything."
Rider missed another practice a month later and another one a month after that. In three seasons in Minnesota, Rider missed at least six practices and three team flights, and showed up late for four morning shoot-a-rounds. Coaches heard every excuse: car trouble; his cab driver got lost; his car was broken into; traffic; frozen pipes in his house started a water leak; he didn't know where practice was being held. One practice he just flat-out denied missing: "I was there but my shoes just weren't tied," he told the press.
He also made headlines for spitting on the court, venturing into the stands to confront a heckler, throwing a tantrum in a hotel lobby, assaulting a sports bar manager, and telling a reporter, "I know people who can take you out."
Steve Aschburner, a former reporter for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, doesn't think Rider was as hard as his persona. In Aschburner's direct experiences, Rider was polite and charming; he showed a lot of sensitivity toward children. His downfall, Aschburner said, was that "he wanted to be an All-Star gangster more than he wanted to be an All-Star player."
The real problem, Aschburner continued, was Rider's friends. "He never left the knuckleheads behind," he said. "He took that as a badge of honor — that he never sold out."
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