On Bobcats' short list, Theus says he can do the job
Of all the college coaches rumored to be in line for a job in the NBA, the only one who's actually interviewed for one this spring is New Mexico State's Reggie Theus.
Theus interviewed Tuesday with the Charlotte Bobcats brass, including Michael Jordan and Bernie Bickerstaff. Theus was the face of the Chicago Bulls prior to Jordan, leaving the season before the Bulls drafted Jordan out of North Carolina.
Theus said he has heard that the Indiana Pacers also are interested in possibly talking. The Sacramento Kings also may have some interest, which is not surprising considering that Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof have donated money to his New Mexico State program. Theus, a former NBA All-Star, has a long history with the Kings, having been traded to the team from Chicago when the franchise was in Kansas City.
"It's not something I'm pursuing," said Theus, who coached the Aggies to a 25-9 record and their first NCAA Tournament since 1999. "I'm very loyal to my job but at the same time Mac [NMSU athletic director McKinley Boston] understands I'm an NBA guy.
"I know I can get it done [coaching in the NBA]. I can have the same relationships with NBA players. I understand it. I've walked in their shoes. I understand the good and the bad of the NBA. I understand the attitude and what players expect.
"The difference in college and the NBA is that in college you don't have to want them to like you, but in the NBA, it's a players' game. I understand the difference between the two. I know what it's like. I have no doubt in my mind that I can communicate and I can play the style of play that wins. I can do this."
NMSU posted back-to-back winning records in Theus' first two seasons at the helm. He was hired after the Aggies went 6-24 in 2004-05.
According to reports out of Charlotte, N.C., Theus is one of five candidates the Bobcats have interviewed. The Associated Press reported Theus, former Cavs coach Paul Silas, former NBA player and assistant Mario Elie, Grizzlies assistant Lionel Hollins and former Heat coach Stan Van Gundy also were interviewed.
Theus said the NBA's trend of hiring former players makes him a solid candidate. He said the Bobcats wanted to gauge his interest, so he flew to Charlotte and met with two people he considers peers in Jordan and Bickerstaff.
"It was just three guys sitting down talking basketball who are all from the same era," said Theus, 49. "I told Michael that I missed him by 15 minutes since I was traded to Kansas City 15 minutes before the trading deadline and then they drafted him."
Theus said NBA players want instant credibility from their coach -- and he can deliver it.
"I haven't been inundated into the college game, I'm not regimented into the college game," Theus said. "I'm the perfect candidate to marry the two together. I can marry the great things about the college and the NBA game. I understand zone. And the core of [the Bobcats] is young. They're just a few years older than the guys I coach. I become an interesting candidate."
Theus said he expects to hear back from the Bobcats soon.
"I'm as ready to coach at a high-major program as I am in the NBA," Theus said. "I don't see any difference in philosophy."
In an Associated Press report, Boston said Theus earns $325,000 to $350,000 a year and is in negotiations for a raise. New Mexico State officially gave Bickerstaff permission to talk to Theus, although that is somewhat of a professional courtesy and isn't necessarily required when an NBA team is interested in a college coach.
In March, Theus indicated he wanted a new contract with a salary increase from New Mexico State, and Boston has been talking with Theus' agent about one.
"We hope to have a press conference next week to talk about a new contract,'' Boston told the AP. "It's safe to say it would involve more money."
Theus' meteoric rise in the coaching profession shouldn't come as a shock. He has been a broadcaster and an actor, including his three-year stint as coach Bill Fuller in the NBC teen sitcom "Hang Time."
Theus, who played for UNLV during 1976-78, played in the NBA for 13 seasons, scoring at least 20 points a game in four of them, including a 23.8 average for the Bulls in 1982-83. He ended his NBA career with the Nets in 1991 and then played in Europe until 1993.
Theus coached as a volunteer at Cal State-Los Angeles as well as coaching the Southern California All-Stars, a collection of 17-and-under players. He also spent time as a summer league coach for the Sixers and Nuggets. He coached the ABA's Las Vegas Slam in the spring of 2002.
That's when he reached out to Louisville coach Rick Pitino. Well, he actually called Louisville assistant athletic director Kenny Klein since he couldn't reach Pitino.
"He wanted to tell me that he was interested," Klein said Friday. "I threw it out to coach and it intrigued him. He saw in him a person who had the passion and wanted to coach. It was evident by his work ethic."
Theus coached with Pitino for two seasons, helping the staff guide the Cardinals to the 2005 Final Four. He drew the Aggies' interest while the Cardinals were playing in the Elite Eight in Albuquerque, N.M., and was essentially hired on the spot.
"In terms of visibility and credibility, people look at my career that I've had, and whether it's announcing or playing basketball, you can see how they're waiting for me to realize the potential," Theus said. "There were a lot of haters out there when I first got my job and those guys have to say maybe they were wrong, maybe he is legit."
Since arriving at New Mexico State, Theus has recruited exceptionally well, luring in transfers like former Charlotte center Martin Iti. He landed the type of high school player that the Aggies hadn't been able to touch in the past, in Pittsburgh-area player Herb Pope. (Pope is recovering from gunshot wounds suffered last month, but Theus said Pope is expected to recover in time to join the team this fall.) The Aggies have a heralded recruiting class of five players, and are expected to remain near or atop the WAC next season with the return of leading scorers Justin Hawkins and Tyrone Nelson, as well as Iti, Fred Peete and Hatila Passos.
"We had a hell of a basketball season," Theus said. "We were tied at one point for the longest win streak in the country at 13. We were going to be in the Top 25 [before a loss at Louisiana Tech on Jan. 17]. The difference between winning 25 games and making the tournament makes your credibility and exposure jump from zero to 100."
Cross off Theus' one-time desire to coach his alma mater, UNLV. His goals are now fully focused on getting to the NBA -- via New Mexico State. Theus, who received his degree in 2002 from California Coastal, said he doesn't even think about that job any more.
"At the time [when Lon Kruger arrived three years ago], the administration didn't want anyone affiliated with Jerry Tarkanian, but since then it has changed a bit," Theus said. "UNLV was something I always wanted to do but the most important thing is to be where people want you and appreciate your work. And that emotional attachment is going away quickly. There's a window for everything and I've shown that my colors were Rebel red for a long time and now that Rebel red is turning crimson [NMSU's color].
"I have always had a vision of coaching there someday, but that is dwindling," Theus said.
For now, Theus' future is in Las Cruces, but that may only be the immediate future. His ultimate desire is to be back in the NBA -- as a head coach, not an assistant -- and he will continue to interview for openings. The day he lands his dream job could be sooner than anyone imagined. He's getting in the door, legitimately, as a credible candidate.
"If it weren't for a bad knee, I might be trying to come back as a player," Theus said. "I've had a lot of guys in the NBA in coaching tell me they respect the route I've taken to become a coach. That's when you realize that they recognize the way you're doing it. Even Michael alluded to the route I took. He said it was commendable."
Senior writer Andy Katz covers college basketball for ESPN.com. The Associated Press contributed to this report.