There’s a hot-shot, 6-foot-6 senior guard at Fairfax High named Reggie Theus Jr. about to make his college choice.
The new Cal State Northridge basketball coach had heard of the kid. But his hands are tied.
“He’s already made a commitment – and I’ve always taught him when you do that, you stick to it,” said his father, Reggie Theus, after attending a gathering on the Northridge campus Friday to officially announce his arrival as the Matadors’ new caretaker of the program. “There was never a guarantee I’d have this job when he made the decision. We had to do what was best for him. We can’t say what school it is yet, but it’ll be a great opportunity.”
Opportunity has presented Theus with another head coaching job, following an outstanding NBA career, a diversion into acting (see: coach Bill Fuller in “Hang Time”) and various broadcasting roles (an original TNT studio host, and on Fox’s “Best Damn Sports Show Period.”)
As a communicator, Theus can draw from the 16 different head coaches he played under in 13 NBA seasons. That’s not including listening to Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV in the late ‘70s, to working as assistant under Rick Pitino at Louisville nearly 10 years ago. Both of whom were named to the Basketball Hall of Fame last week.
The former Inglewood High legend, whose oldest daughter Raquel (“Roqui”) played basketball at UC Irvine and appears on the BET reality series “Baldwin Hills,” and whose youngest daughter Rhyan plays volleyball at Redondo High, gave us a better understanding of how his family (with wife Elaine) will benefit from digging deeper roots in L.A. as he starts on the recruiting trail for CSUN officially starting Monday:
Question: Wouldn’t the best way to get on the map start recruiting here be by changing the name to “Northridge Gulf Coast?”
Answer: (Laughing) They (Florida Gulf Coast, which made it to the Sweet 16 earlier this month) did have an amazing run. And that really does help us. We’ve always told kids, back to when I was coaching at New Mexico State – you don’t have to be at a school that gets all the attention in a ‘power conference’ to achieve your goals. I’ve told some friends and people who are at other colleges: We will be in the NCAA tournament before you will. That’s how I feel here. Every time that happens, it helps not just the Big West but other conferences of our size.
Q: So there’s no way to talk your son out of his decision and come here? You’re happy with what he’s about to do?
A: I’m ecstatic. I missed the first two years of his playing in high school (as an assistant coach with the Minnesota Timberwolves under head coach Kurt Rambis) but I’ve been here the last two years (doing TV work and as the head coach of the Lakers’ D-League Defenders). To watch him grow the last two years shows me that he missed me. That to me was a great lesson going forward. Even though we have a great relationship, I saw growth in him being at home and dealing with me every day. I saw a lot in his maturity and attitude, not just his game. Where he’s going is a tough, hard-nosed coach to deal with.
Q: He’s not going to Rutgers, then?
A: No, no, that’s not happening. That’s a whole other thing.
Q: How do you draw from your experiences in college and the NBA in preparing for this coaching job?
A: I’ve seen a lot do it right, and do it wrong. Jerry Sloan (who he played for as a rookie with the Chicago Bulls) talked about things that I remembered when he thought I wasn’t listening. Bill Russell (his coach for a year with the Sacramento Kings) was a great story teller. Willis Reed was very much a Rocky Balboa guy, limping into the game in the Garden was really who he is. Cotton Fitzsimmons (in Phoenix) traded for me and showed me how to take the weight of the world off my back. His personality was large. He showed you can have fun with your players and have a personality and still get taken seriously and get your work done.
And then there’s the guy with the best one-liners of anyone around was Jerry Reynolds – not a great head coach by any means, but had great wisdom and showed me what responsibility was all about on the floor.
Now, Jerry Tarkanian, playing for him I played as hard for him as a possibly could. He showed me I was a player that I wanted to be. If he told me to run through a wall, I’d ask, ‘What wall coach?’ Enormous motivator, very unconventional, showed me you don’t always have to follow protocol to get things done. There’s a 1,000 ways to do it. A true Rebel.
Coach Pitino, I came to him after years of being around basketball with a paper bag of basketball knowledge, and he showed me a blue print, how to get from A to B to Z, gave me a plan to run a team. If he was tired some days, it’s because I was soaking up his energy. The way he dealt with his staff, a big-time program by a Hall of Fame coach. On the floor what was important with individual instruction, work ethic. Working two years with him was like seven with someone else. If you were working out in the workout room and he walked in, you pushed yourself more because you didn’t want him to see you working at a mid-level. His knowledge and focus and determination, the way he gets after his players, he’s one of the most sincere guys you’d want to be around. He always told me: “You have to rule your program with an iron fist, but always know when to hug your players, too.” They have to believe you as a leader. He’s a big reader of war stories and leadership.
Q: What kind of things could you learn from Tark – legally or illegally – about the way to recruit? Did he push the limits in recruiting, and can you see lessons in how he did things?
A: I believe in doing things the right way. Integrity is extremely important in how you want your players to take out of a program and into their next lives. Tark had a personality that allowed him to go to an event at the White House, and then go to the darkest, deepest ghettos in the America, and act the same way. I believe I have the same abilities to walk both sides of that fence. My basketball career, in everyplace I’ve been, gives me the ability to prove myself in every part of the country. We’re not just about being a California school. I’m getting calls from all over the country about players now. We’ll do things the right way, and we’re going to out-work people. That’s our motto, on the floor and off it.
Q: Then what’s the biggest challenge in taking over at CSUN?
A: The biggest is a need to upgrade the facilities, and they’re going to change a lot of things here. You won’t recognize the place at the start of the season. The goal is to build something that will stand for an awful long time. When it’s all said and done, if the kids are just about the peripheral things, that’s not enough. I want kids willing to put the work in, not hung up on aesthetics. It’s about trying to make something out of yourself, get to the NCAA Tournament, and 99 percent of them want to either go to the NBA or make money playing this game. I have an offer if that’s their goal, I’ve been every place they ever want to go. To learn the game from someone who’s been in those places – let’s go.
(A clip from Reggie Theus from the old NBC Saturday morning young adult show “Hang Time” … and note a very young Anthony Anderson on the team)
Q: How did playing Bill Fuller in “Hang Time” prepare you for this moment?
A: Wow. You’re really going to go there? Seriously? You’d be surprised. This will crack you up. It helps me recruit. There’s a large number of people who’ve actually watched that show, and when I walk into a gym, some only know me as Coach Fuller than being an NBA player. As funny as that is. You know, that part of my life added to the stories and successes in what you have to do outside basketball. Every generation you can connect with helps. I span I think three generations. Most of the parents of the kids I recruit are my age (55). Even if the kids don’t know my career, the parents do. There are very few coaches who can walk into a gym and so many different age groups know them, for whatever reason.
Q: How did the acting help as a coach, as far as discipline, teamwork, correcting a mistake with another take?
A: The great part about “Hang Time” is we could manipulate the script. I remember there was one game when we lost, and I was really upset about how that ended up – so we ended up winning. They rewrote it (laughing). We can work out any problem that way on TV. But again, it’s life lessons – that entertainment business is like this sports business. The set is the floor. The dressing room is the locker room. The producers are upper management. It has all the same mechanisms maybe because it’s ultimately entertainment on both ends. Although the gym we had back then was only about half the size of a regular court. I designed every play, too, which is something I also got to do in (the movie) “Like Mike,” teaching Lil’ Bow Wow how to play in a lot of ways and make him look good (in a cast that included Steve Nash, Dirk Nowitzki, Alonzo Mourning, Tracy McGrady and Allen Iverson – with Theus as a broadcaster). A lot of that was changing camera angles.
Q: With your oldest daughter in the TV business, has she ever done anything that made you cringe and force you to be a coach for her as well?
A: She’s solid. Only once, she did a modeling thing and forgot to throw her gum away. So she’s on the ramp, popping her gum, and that was embarrassing a little bit.
Q: What resume must you be most proud of: Internet Movie Data Base or Basketball-Reference.com?
A: I have no idea what you’re talking about.
Q: Your list of TV and movie credits, versus everything you’ve done on the basketball court.
A: Oh, wow. One hundred percent basketball. There’s no such thing as a small job in the movie business. You either have a job or you don’t.
Q: As the recent coach of the Lakers’ D-League team, the D-Fenders . . . how did you defend yourself when others asked about why you were coaching that team?
A: Hey, that was the toughest job I ever had. Some of the kids in this conference will end up in the D-League – it’s full of “Mr. Basketball” winners, guys who thought they had it figured out and still do, but they didn’t get it then and still don’t get it. Those stories are real. It’s another great lesson about the pitfalls of the game, and it’s a lot of great opportunities for people to get called up. It’s about what you’re willing to do to be successful. There are all kinds of difficult mechanisms in that league that make it a tough job. That whole season is coaching the fly, changing things daily, being flexible.
Q: Were you flexible enough to think that maybe while you were there coaching, if the Lakers were going to make any kind of changes, maybe you’d be there on their radar, ready to step in?
A: I never thought of it that way. I was happy to be there, be in L.A. with my son playing his senior year. The office is 10 minutes from my house. That was a great ‘get’ for me, but I know the Lakers knew about my desires to be a head coach. I made no bones about wanting to get back into college.
Q: You also have to be the best-dressed coach in the Big West, automatically. Do you have any special clothing needs that a college-level coach can maintain?
A: At 6-foot-7, it’s always tough to buy clothes off the rack, so I’ve got a guy named “Hanging With Mr. Cooper” (in Newport Beach). And if people think my suits costs thousands of dollars, they don’t. I wouldn’t spend that kind of money. As the styles change, maybe the look is more trimmed down now, but all I’ve done is take my suits in and get them adjusted. I am not going to buy a bunch of new suits. It’s not that kind of party. It’s not going happen. You spend a couple hundred and just get the suits cut down. It works. I don’t think this is a job where you have to wear a suit and tie to games, but I probably will. Back in the day, Pat Riley was the guy who knew how to dress. In my era, suits and ties are what we wore on the road. The casualness with how the players dress now . . . If you wore baggy clothes back then, you were sloppy. My era was always a jacket and tie and slacks. That was the dress code. And that would not fly with most players today.