Reggie Theus: From Junior Varsity to the Pros, 1989

[This brief article appeared in the December 26, 1989 issue of NBA News, a publication oriented to journalists covering the NBA. It was free game for any reporter interested in profiling NBA veteran Reggie Theus. In fact, most of the content came from an earlier article in the Orlando Magic’s team magazine. 

So many articles about Theus focused on his Hollywood good looks and easy time attracting the fairer sex. Or, reporters delved into Theus’ collegiate career at run-and-gun UNLV, possibly to explain the shoot-first, pass-second reputation that sometimes dogged him in the pros. But, 30-plus years later, I’ve transcribed this NBA News story to revisit Theus and his undeniable love of the game. Theus’s career, like those of nearly all NBA players, took a lot of hard work and special people to get it up and running. And Theus certainly made the most of his opportunity, logging out of the NBA after 13 seasons with 19,016 points and, yes, 6,453 career assists.]

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Seventeen years ago in Southern California, an assistant basketball coach at Inglewood High School took one look at an “uncoordinated” 14-year-old and quickly determined he wasn’t ready to play varsity. The skinny sophomore had junior varsity written all over him. 

Michael Spaulding

Michael Spaulding, the JV coach at Inglewood, said the 5-foot-11 teenager had long legs, but that’s where the youth’s physical development ended. This kid, named Reggie Theus, was not good enough for the varsity, not yet anyway. 

Seventeen years later at the Orlando Arena, Spaulding, 42, watched Theus practice and recalled how that skinny kid eventually became a talented guard in the NBA. Spaulding took Theus on the 1972-73 JV team. “As the practice season went on, Reggie began to improve very rapidly,” he said. “After about two games on the JV team, we began to see potential for the varsity.”

Midway through his sophomore season at Inglewood, Spaulding persuaded coach Leon Henry to take Theus on the varsity squad. “We decided to develop him,” Spaulding told Nick Sweers of Magic Magazine. “Reggie got playing time. By the end of the year, he was playing a lot at point guard.”

The Sentinels finished the season with an 8-12 record, and Theus averaged seven points per game. Spaulding said Theus made tremendous progress but also “grew like a weed.” Theus was 6-foot-1 at the end of the year and would grow to 6-foot-7 before he graduated. 

What surprised Spaulding the most about Theus, however, was a conversation he had with the 15-year-old junior as he prepared for the 1973-74 season. “Reggie just came up to me one day and said he wanted to play professional basketball,” Spaulding recalled. “It was amazing to me that a kid that young knew what he wanted. He asked for all the help we could give him.”

Spaulding obliged, but not without conditions. As he explained it, few players have the “God-given talent” that’s found in Michael Jordan or Magic Johnson. Most of the good players are the result of hard work. 

“He literally paid the price,” Spaulding said of Theus’ desire to improve. “He worked seven days a week for three years. He’d have us open the gym, and he’d work out on Sundays.” 

Family life for Theus was not what one would call ideal. His mother had remarried, and Theus, a brother, and two sisters lived with their father. And matters got worse. Theus’ father died at the beginning of his junior season at Inglewood. 

Enter Spaulding and Henry, Theus’ basketball parents. As Theus puts it, “They [Spaulding and Henry] taught me how to have an attitude, to be the type of player I am now. They taught me about having a game face.”

In his junior year, Theus averaged 18 points a game as Inglewood improved to 17-5 on the season. Spaulding said Theus developed both physically and emotionally that year. “The responsibilities of life were playing on him,” he said. “His mom would come to the games and keep in touch. He’s very close to her.”

In his senior year, Theus proceeded to do it all at Inglewood. Besides averaging 23 points, he led the team in assists, rebounds, and, according to Spaulding, “floor burns.” 

After Theus concluded his basketball career at Inglewood High, he went on to bigger and better things in college. He played for Jerry Tarkanian at UNLV for three seasons, becoming a dominating player by his junior year. That season, 1977-78, Theus earned All-America recognition, averaging 18.9 ppg. after scoring in double figures all 28 games. He was also chosen as UNLV’s team MVP. 

Theus decided to enter the NBA draft after his junior season. He was selected by Chicago with the ninth pick in the first round. 

Now with his fifth NBA club in his 11th pro season, Theus entered the current campaign having scored 16,067 points for an 18.5 career average. That placed him 7th on the all-time scoring list among active players. 

The Magic have benefited from Theus’ veteran experience this season. He is currently second on the team in scoring with a 20.4 ppg. average.

Indeed, that skinny kid has come a long way. 

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