Commentary

Disappointment, rejection and effort shape Theus' story

Reggie Theus is more than just a pretty face, J.A. Adande writes looks can often be deceiving.

Originally Published: November 9, 2007
By J.A. Adande | ESPN.com

It would be a hard enough sell trying to portray Reggie Theus as a guy who never had it easy if he hadn't picked this location: poolside at the Palms Hotel, with women strolling by in bikinis and hip-hop blaring from the speakers.

Reggie Theus
Rocky Widner/Getty ImagesTheus is bringing his hard work ethic to Sacramento.

This is the image you probably already had of Theus, the pretty boy who always had things given to him, who glided from the basketball court to the television set and now has been handed an NBA coaching job after only two years as a college head coach (which is one season fewer than he spent playing Coach Fuller on "Hang Time").

He removes his shirt and leans back on a silver lounge chair to soak up the sunlight on a fall afternoon, the day before the Kings play their final exhibition game in Las Vegas. Just to top it off, here comes the waitress, delivering an ahi wrap sandwich.

"People probably think that this is the way I've lived my whole life," Theus says. They don't know that his youth was spent cleaning floors, not sucking on a silver spoon. They don't know that he never got to share his success with his father, who died when Theus was in high school. They don't know even that even this latest remarkable turn in his life -- being named head coach of the Sacramento Kings -- was tempered, coming in the same summer he buried his brother, a Vietnam veteran who was never the same after he came back from the war.

So yeah, right now, it's the good life (cue the Kanye West music). But "If it all went bye-bye tomorrow, I'd be OK," Theus says.

It would just reset to South Los Angeles, where Theus grew up near 118th and Main streets, not too far from where Watts burned during the 1965 riots. His parents divorced when he was 4 years old, and as soon as Reggie was old enough the youngest of Felix and Willie Mae's four children did what the rest of the kids did and helped their father's janitor service, even running it for a while after he passed away. Clean in the morning, go to school at Inglewood High, basketball practice, then clean some more.

Theus swept, he mopped, he ran the buffer machines over the floor. Have you ever read about studies that show smell can bring back memories and trigger strong emotional reactions? The scent that stayed with Theus is the smell of vacuum cleaner bags. There's no way it would be new car smell. His father always owned a collection of old, beat-up automobiles, usually with a mop bucket in the back seat. He never took a vacation, just went somewhere to relax on an island.

And that's one of the things that hits Theus about his father's death the summer before his senior year in high school. Felix had a heart attack at age 59. Reggie's convinced he worked himself to death.

"In just a short period of time after that, I would have been able to help him out," Theus said. "It wouldn't have been long."

For the next year the kids tried to continue the family business. Theus would clean before school and clean after basketball practice. Then he spent three years at UNLV before he left early for the NBA draft -- the Chicago Bulls took him with the ninth pick in 1978.

The fact that he played in the league seems to be enough for his new batch of players. "He just knows everything you deal with on and off the court," Kevin Martin says -- but you can tell they haven't bothered to look up his stats.

They probably don't realize that only 41 players in the history of the league scored more than Theus' 19,015 points. They don't recognize his commitment, that he didn't miss a game his first five seasons in the league and played the max 82 eight times.

[+] EnlargeReggie Theus
Rick Stewart/Getty ImagesTheus' success as an NBA player should help in getting his players' attention.

What they're feeling though is the lessons learned from losing too much, from a career that featured only four trips to the playoffs in 13 years. Step one is putting your own interests aside for the sake of the team, which led to the much-discussed midnight curfew Theus instituted for road trips.

"Nobody likes it, but we have to be professionals," Kings forward Kenny Thomas says. "He just wants the best out of us. It's a way of trying to show us what we need."

Theus says: "It's got to be about the game and not about seeing your friends. If you fight me on that then you're telling me that you're not concerned about the game. If you're out at one in the morning someplace outside of being at your hotel or with your teammates, your priority is not the game."

It's a good culture change for the Kings, for whom parties at the Palms can count toward the league-mandated appearances at team functions.

"We've been an organization that's been lax about our players," says Gavin Maloof, who co-owns the team with his brother Joe. "We're players owners, if you will. At some point you have to put on the brakes and say this is a business, we're paying you a lot of money to go out and perform. How are you going to do it if you go out all night?"

When he's not imposing harsh restrictions, Theus is trying to teach subtle delineations.

"There's a difference between confidence and ego," Theus says. "The quality of my life got a lot better when I was able to separate confidence and ego."

And that's where the acting experience comes into play. Seriously.

It wasn't as if Theus had parts written for him as soon as he was done playing. He went through the humbling experience of casting calls and cold reads, getting a script and having to recite his lines five minutes later in front of cold, uncaring casting agents.

"Acting classes helped me to be vulnerable," Theus says. "Men are so afraid to be vulnerable. As [his acting coach] used to say, you have to be able to stand naked in front of the people you're performing for. People want to see your vulnerability. They want to see the strength in your vulnerability, and the realness that you bring along with that will make your words true.

"I spent my entire professional career building that wall up to protect me from fans, back-stabbing, media, gossip, whatever. And the first day I walk in the class, teacher says I've got to tear that wall down."

At least looks can be an asset in Hollywood. Theus believes the "pretty boy" label hurt him when he tried to get into broadcasting and coaching, that he was just like William Hurt in "Broadcast News."

"That was the hole they wanted to put me in, not knowing where I'm from and who I am underneath," Theus said.

Theus responded by doing what he always did: working hard. He cut his television chops broadcasting summer league games in L.A. for free. He spent three weeks in Harrisburg, Pa., doing CBA games. He accumulated 13 tapes worth of examples that he could whittle down when former Sacramento Kings teammate Michael Jackson, who moved on to be a vice president at Turner Sports, asked Theus for a demo tape. Theus spent nine hours in an editing room and dropped it off in the overnight mail. It was so good, he got the job at TNT without an interview.

But he came to two realizations: (1) all the analysts sitting courtside for the network broadcasts had NBA coaching experience and (2) he wanted to be more connected to the game.

So he went to the coaching biz, which meant more rejection. He says six schools turned him down before he took an assistant's job at Cal State Los Angeles. Then Rick Pitino brought him in as an assistant at Louisville, where he worked for two years before he took over at New Mexico State. He took the Aggies to the NCAA Tournament in his second season, and for now that serves as the highlight of his coaching resume.

[+] EnlargeReggie Theus
Chris Graythen/Getty ImagesTheus has been through it all and plans to teach his players all he knows.

But the Maloofs had known Theus for years (UNLV, Palms Hotel ... connect the dots) and Gavin thought back to something Theus told them when he first took the New Mexico State job: He said the Aggies were going to win, they were going to get into the NCAA Tournament, and they were going to win their conference.

"When I first heard it, I thought, 'I think this guy's on something,'" Maloof said. "When he accomplished all three of his goals, he did what he said he was going to do. I was impressed with that. I like to say a winner is a winner. Doesn't matter if you're coaching high school or college or the pros."

And a hard worker is a hard worker, no matter what the task. And now you see how it all falls into place, the example set by his father, the lessons Theus has learned from his own life, in which every venture has been rewarded.

You think it's been easy? You try coaching your first NBA game with a starting backcourt of Orien Greene and John Salmons, while your two best players -- Mike Bibby and Ron Artest -- are injured and suspended. Try following up an opening-night loss at New Orleans with a back-to-back set at San Antonio and Dallas.

That's why when the Kings came back from a 20-point deficit to beat Seattle in the home opener, Theus grabbed the ball as he walked off the court. When you know everything it took to get that ball, it makes sense.

"Every single thing that I've been through in my life, going back to childhood, has given me the tools to do what I'm doing today," Theus said. "If you list the whole thing and then you put next to it something that this person should be doing for a living ... for me to be in charge of young men, in this capacity, I believe I have all the tools it takes to give them the knowledge.

"Not just from basketball, but from sports and life. Every single thing I've ever done in my life, I've done with the same work ethic that I've swung that mop with, that I ran that machine with and that I cleaned those toilets with. There's been nothing else that's been different."

J.A. Adande joined ESPN.com as an NBA columnist in August 2007 after 10 years with the Los Angeles Times. Click here to e-mail J.A.