When the cheering section for Joe Darger is at full strength, it includes his father, his mother, his 18 siblings and his father’s other wife.
They wear red T-shirts, blow on red noisemakers and wave red pompoms. They appear no different from any other group in the U.N.L.V. family section — only larger and louder.
“We cheer for all the players,” said John Darger, Joe’s father. “We like to get a little rowdy.”
John Darger is married to Carollee Darger, Joe’s mother. He is also married to Elizabeth Darger, the mother of eight of his children. He calls himself a polygamist.
His children range in age from 2 to 40, with Joe in the middle at 20. A 6-foot-7 sophomore with spiky blond hair and a feathery shooting stroke, Joe is the most accurate 3-point shooter on the Nevada-Las Vegas basketball team. The Runnin’ Rebels, 25-6 after a 65-47 victory over Colorado State on Saturday, are poised to qualify for the N.C.A.A. tournament next week.
“I think we’re going to be on the road for a while here,” Carollee said.
Fifteen of Joe’s family members drove to Las Vegas on Saturday for the team’s regular-season finale. They came in a three-car caravan, six hours from their home in Riverton, Utah. They left Riverton after a morning baptism and arrived at the Thomas & Mack Center just in time for tip-off.
Pregame introductions at the Thomas & Mack are not to be missed. They are basketball’s version of a Las Vegas show, with fireworks exploding from the scoreboard, flames shooting up from each basket and cheerleaders strutting across the hardwood in faux leather uniforms.
This does not seem like a place for a Mormon who left the student dorms last year when he learned they were coed. But Joe has found a home at U.N.L.V., perhaps because the family here is nearly as open as his own.
Dating to the days of Jerry Tarkanian, U.N.L.V.’s famous former coach, the Rebels have been noted for running the fast break and for accepting players who are out of society’s mainstream.
“We’ve always taught our kids to respect other people’s beliefs and ways of life,” John said. “We always tell them, Don’t judge anybody for any reason.”
College basketball has plenty of experience with nontraditional family structures: parents in jail, parents in shelters, parents missing entirely. Joe grew up with three parents in the house.
Although Elizabeth Darger did not make the trip to Las Vegas on Saturday, she watches Joe’s games with almost as much interest as John and Carollee. She helped bring up Joe and is described by family members as his surrogate mother.
Joe, who averages 6.3 points, declined to comment for this article, saying that his coaches did not want to create any distractions heading into the postseason. But with the N.C.A.A. tournament starting March 13, the television cameras will inevitably find Joe and his family.
When Joe played at Riverton High School, he was a top prospect and a subject of intense gossip. During road games, opposing fans would taunt him with chants about his family. When he met college coaches, he would immediately tell them about his background. Some were taken aback, but they did not stop recruiting him.
“I know the kid really well, and I like him a lot,” said Rick Majerus, a former Utah coach, who recruited Joe in high school. “I met the family, and they were very nice people — certainly loved their son and cared about him.”
John Darger is a 60-year-old real estate developer with bushy gray hair, a thin goatee and a deep singing voice. He grew up with 46 siblings. His father had several wives. Polygamy was passed down like a family heirloom.
When John met Carollee 32 years ago, he was a construction worker and a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They were married in the Salt Lake Temple. For anniversaries, John still writes songs for Carollee.
John considers himself a Mormon, but he is no longer recognized as one. Because polygamy is illegal and the church renounced the practice more than a century ago, John said that he had been excommunicated. His children, however, remain active members of the church and have given no indication that they will practice polygamy.
“We have never pushed our kids to pick our lifestyle,” John said.
John and Carollee sat in the lower bowl of the Thomas & Mack Center on Saturday night with a few of their younger children. The older ones, who now have children of their own, were directly above them. The family was unable to get enough seats in the same row, so it had to split up.
The family cheering section erupted when Joe sank two early 3-pointers, and it cringed when he jammed his right thumb chasing a rebound. Standing on the sideline in the second half, with his right hand wrapped in tape, Joe watched his team pull away for a victory. He hugged every senior who came to the bench.
At the end of the game, the Dargers walked down to courtside and waited for more than an hour as Joe signed autographs. They wanted to congratulate him on the game and check on his hand. When he finally came over to meet them, they gathered in a huddle and discussed plans for the night.
Much of the crowd seemed headed to nightclubs on the Strip, but the Dargers retreated to a house in a subdivision just outside Las Vegas. John and Carollee bought the house for Joe, partly because they did not want him to live in a dormitory, and partly because the family needed a place to stay after games.
“Joe generously agreed to give up his bed tonight,” said Crystal Lee Darger, one of his older sisters. “He’s sleeping on the couch.”
The house is two stories, in a gated community, and Joe normally occupies the master bedroom. Nine basketballs roll around the floor. The walls are covered with photos of his girlfriend and his favorite players.
“We think this works better than the dorm,” said Carollee, sprawling out on an oversized beanbag chair.
Carollee is 49, with long brown hair and a sharp sense of humor, often aimed at her husband. Besides rearing children, she runs a health-food store in Salt Lake City called Shirlyn’s Natural Foods. Over the years, her daughters have worked by her side.
As Carollee relaxed on the beanbag chair, children came and went. Her sons cooked burritos. Her daughters gave each other massages. When polygamy was raised as a topic of conversation, they laughed. They say they think it is amusing that people are so fascinated by it.
“We are just people,” Carollee said. “We are normal people.”
The Dargers live in a seven-bedroom house in Riverton, about 20 miles from Salt Lake City. All the children were born at home, delivered by a midwife. When they were young, they often slept three to a room. The whole family shared two bathrooms.
“That was a battle for survival,” said Angel Lee Darger, one of Joe’s older sisters. “But it’s also how we learned to get along so well.”
At first, the family lived on a farm outside Riverton. The children had to wake up at 5 a.m. every day to help their parents milk the cows and feed the chickens. When the family moved into town a few years later, the wake-up calls did not come any later.
John still roused the children at 5 a.m., but instead of farming, he took them to the local recreation center to shoot baskets. Jason Darger, one of Joe’s older brothers, claims to have made 93 of 100 3-point attempts during one of those sessions.
As the children got older, they played full-fledged games of five-on-five. Their annual holiday showdown made the local news. Of John’s 18 children, all but the 2-year-old have played some level of competitive basketball.
“By the time they turned 5, every one of them was in a league,” Carollee said. “I think it taught them a lot.”
Many of the children are grown now; only Joe does not live in Riverton. Their houses are separated by no more than 10 minutes. For birthdays, they pick one night each month to celebrate. For Christmas, they draw one name from a hat and buy a present for only that person. Still, the stack of presents is three feet high.
Every Sunday in Riverton, the family gathers to eat dinner, read Scripture, play chess and sing. Sometimes, John tries out a gospel or country piece that he has written. Usually, though, he falls back on his old favorites, “Jimmy Crack Corn” and “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad.”
When Joe is in town, he and John take turns on the guitar.
When everyone is singing together — 50 children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces — the house can become loud.
There are no fireworks, flames or leather-clad cheerleaders, but still, the Dargers can put on a Las Vegas-type show.