Running and Gunning with Reggie Theus, 1979

[Entering the 1978 NBA draft, UNLV’s Reggie Theus fully expected Portland to claim him with the seventh pick. When Portland claimed swingman Ron Brewer of Arkansas instead, Theus was surprised, then shocked when Chicago, a team that showed no pre-draft interest, nabbed him two picks later. But Theus regained his composure and embraced his future in Chicago alongside veteran center Artis Gilmore. “To me, basketball is an art,” he explained his style of play. “Everybody has their own way of expressing themselves, and mine is to be an all-around unselfish player.”

Theus’ art would run head-first into the old-school science and precision of his first head coach, Larry Costello. Their generational rift about what it means to be an unselfish player would make communication and their professional lives difficult in Chicagoland. In this article snipped from the Chicago Tribune on February 25, 1979, veteran NBA scribe Bob Logan and sarcasm lay out some of the issues that befell Theus early in his career. Logan’s story reminds us that today’s NBA retirees were once on the receiving end of the same generational sniping—deserved or not—that we hear late at night from the Atlanta studios of TNT.]


Chicago fans must be getting punished for the sins of many past lives. Who could perpetrate enough dirty deeds in the standard four-score-and-10 allotment to deserve the overpaid athletic underachievers foisted on us?

In summer, there are two bad baseball teams, no waiting. Either a Cub pitcher is unleashing a North Side lollipop that will shortly go into orbit alongside the Telstar satellite or a Sox batter is flailing away while Harry Caray’s anguished “PAA-ped it UP!” anesthetizes the beer-soaked Comiskey proletariat. 

Fall is the perfect time for the Bears to inflict the latest all-thumbs quarterback on the Soldier Field faithful. He falls, and so do the Lilliputians of the Lakeshore. 

But only in winter can Windy City losers stage an incestuous affair under one roof. Instead of a sleazy motel, it’s that tower of tackiness, Chicago Stadium, where the Black Hawks perform like they’re skating on the basketball boards, and the Bulls react as though they’re running on thin ice. 

In a basketball season of near-total disaster, the same merciful providence that sent Bruce Sutter to the Cubs and Walter Payton to the Bears is operating to ease the pain for suffering Bulls’ fans. They don’t have to stay home and watch “Charlie Chan Blows a Layup” on the late, late show, because Hollywood has come to them.

Well, almost. Though he’s from Inglewood, a Los Angeles suburb, it’s so close to Tinseltown that boyishly handsome Reginald Theus could be mistaken for a movie star. What this 6-feet-6 ¼ inch rookie has done here so far suggests that it won’t be long before they’re calling him a National Basketball Association star. 

On the Chicago roster, Theus is listed as a guard, something of a misnomer. Actually, he’s an entertainer. The Bulls’ first-round draft choice has the size, speed, and skills to become an all-star in the NBA. What really sets him apart, however, is the same quality possessed by That Other Reggie [Jackson] in baseball—charisma. 

When Theus storms downcourt in the Stadium, Bulls’ fans come out of their seats and their lethargy, venting their emotions with an eerie bellow that bounces off the frozen snowbanks surrounding the West Side playpen:

“REG-gie! REG-gie! REG-gie!”

“When I hear that, I want the ball badly,” confesses the object of all this adulation. “If I’m into my own game, I can get everybody else going, too. It’s tough for a rookie to come into a new situation and try to be that kind of player.

“You know veterans, and rightfully so, aren’t going to turn over control of the floor just like that. It’s hard to accept, but I understand.

“I know I can take the ball and get a good shot anytime I want or set one up for somebody else. That’s the way it was for me in high school and college. The Bulls don’t want it to be that way here. I’m aware of that. The fans appreciate what I’m capable of doing, and at some point in every game, I can give them a bit of what they’re looking for.

“They go home and say, ‘Maybe the Bulls lost, and we didn’t get our money’s worth, but at least we saw Reggie make one helluva move.’ That’s not being arrogant, just being honest and analyzing my game. I can turn myself on as well as everybody else, and I do it quite often. That’s what I enjoy; making a basketball game fun.”


Some basketball purists would nominate Reggie for the José Cardenal Memorial Trophy, a bronzed Oscar Mayer wiener, if they heard him expounding such heresy. They’d be just as wrong as the Bulls were when they shackled Theus in a futile attempt to make him something he isn’t—a controlled, disciplined, dull player.

Despite his ability to be a crowd-pleasing performer on a crowd-angering team, this maiden voyage has been rough for Theus. Even if the Bulls were winning, Reggie’s instant rapport with the fans would evoke a certain amount of resentment among less-spectacular teammates. Because the team is rapidly fading from the playoff picture, his razzle-dazzle passes and one-on-one forays make the quick guard a convenient whipping boy.

That’s not precisely what Theus expected when he dropped out of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas after his junior year to be eligible for the 1978 NBA draft under the hardship rule. The Bulls made him the eighth players chosen on the first round, and last summer he signed a four-year, no-cut contract with a bonus up front and salary escalating to $150,000 in the final season.

Ah, last summer. Bulls’ fans look back fondly on it through ice-encrusted eyelids while witnessing the “Stadium Blizzard” of 1978-79—a hail of a lot of points by NBA opponents. Norm Van Lier was the playmaker in those balmy days before the freshman general manager, Rod Thorn, made an even balmier decision to unload him without signing an adequate replacement.

The Bulls were doomed from that moment, and much of the ballhandling burden fell on Theus, preventing him from developing other skills, like finding his man on defense. The eager rookie responded with a trick bag full of hit-and-missile passes designed to produce easy Bull baskets.

Unfortunately, some of these identified flying objects struck teammates in difficult places—on the hands—and others ricocheted in all directions. It soon became apparent that Reggie’s reflexes were a split-second faster than most. So far this season, that’s created more problems than it has solved.

Not for the fans, though. They’ve taken to voting with their tonsils and whenever Tom Edwards says, “Thee-us!” over the Stadium public address system, they cheer. When Edwards mentions that the Bulls are coached by Larry Costello, they boo. A key to understanding Reggie Theus is that he feels uncomfortable, almost apologetic about the boos.


“I really never try to show off,” Theus insists. “What happens is just my reaction to the defense. If I make a move and my man gets in the way, I gotta do something else.

“That’s why Coach Costello gets mad at me sometimes. I have no excuses. He’s telling me to do one thing, and I want to do it, but none of my passes or (behind-the-back) ballhandling things are programmed.

“Larry puts a lot of blame on the Bulls’ guards. We don’t run the offense, we don’t guard anybody. He’s pretty rough on us at times. I think he’d like me to be an image of himself out there. You know: straight quarterback, nothing that isn’t in the book. I have a lot of respect for him and Scotty (Bulls’ assistant coach Robertson), and there are certain things a rookie has to put up with, like yelling at me to get through to somebody else.

“But, if I did exactly what the coach wanted, I wouldn’t be myself. A player has to work hard, and he also has to be happy. I don’t believe in sacrificing your mind.”

Is the generation gap between Theus, 21, and Costello, 47, too wide to bridge? Reggie’s business agent, Dee Henry, thinks so.

A woman who doesn’t sacrifice her mind either, Henry coordinates a $22-million budget for Los Angeles Junior College, the world’s largest, with more than 130,000 students. She’s the wife of Leon Henry, who coached Theus at Inglewood High School. They regard him as part of the Henry family.

“Reggie and Larry Costello have completely opposite views of what guards are,” Lee Henry said. “He’s a nice man, but I don’t believe Reggie could ever play the type of game Costello coaches.

“Being a point (playmaker) guard is not Reggie’s strength. We get a call from him almost every other day, and early in the season, he was very down and hurt by all the criticism from the Bulls’ coaches. Things are a little better now, because Reggie has proved he’s one of the top rookies in the NBA.

“It was a complete surprise when Chicago drafted him, because Portland was very interested, and he’d already been up there to visit. The Bulls never even called us before the draft. I don’t think they have much interest in what kind of person Reggie is. If he gets traded, I hope it’s back here to the Lakers.”


While it’s true that the Bulls’ owners haven’t accepted many humanitarian awards lately, Larry Costello inadvertently has become the villain in this controversy. It’s unfortunate, because of all the words that might be employed to describe the earnest, honest Costello, “villain” is perhaps the worst choice. Actually, the Bulls coach is a basketball encyclopedia, a standout former NBA guard and playmaker, one of the last two-handed set shooters and a tireless “X” and “O” scribbler on yellow legal pads.

Costello masterminded the Milwaukee Bucks to the 1970-71 NBA championship, but Thorn aroused Bulls’ fans by recommending him for the coaching job here instead of Jerry Sloan, who is to basketball in Chicago what Ernie Banks is to baseball. It was a “must-win” situation for Costello in 1978-79, because anybody with a supercenter like Artis Gilmore is supposed to produce victories, not excuses.

The Bulls have been losing big, however, and somebody has to get blamed. It’s not fair to say the coach is bum-rapping Theus. Much more than that is involved.

The chasm between Reggie’s wheel-and-deal, flash-and-crash assaults on the hoop and Costello’s disciplined, controlled approach spans more territory than a basketball difference of opinion. Theus’ style reflects the “now” generation: loose, cool, go-it-alone, self-oriented, distrustful—even contemptuous—of dogmatic solutions.

By contrast, Costello is puzzled by the “me-first” attitude of today’s players, because he always was willing and eager to submerge his identity for team goals. He’s a trifle defensive about it, but the annoyance at his prize rookie’s flamboyance is real.

“Reggie’s a good kid, a hard-working kid,” Costello insists. “He’s just got to learn that in this league, you can’t go dribbling through a crowd with your head down. He doesn’t look for the open man or the trailer on the fastbreak.

“I know we’ve had to use Theus a lot at point guard. That’s not his best role, but he has to get his game under control and stop worrying about pleasing the fans with those turnaround shots and that kind of stuff.

“All that wild dribbling and running around does is turn the ball over. Reggie knows and all our guards know if the break’s there, I want them to take it. If not, pull up and run the play. It’s that simple.”


Not really, although Costello had no trouble doing it his way when he was the Syracuse Nats’ crew-cut playmaker back in the 1950s. Costello is not an insensitive man, and he agonizes over what seems to him the refusal of today’s players, like the Bulls’ off-again-on-again Mickey Johnson, to accept responsibility and fulfill assigned roles. 

“I guess you could call it lack of discipline,” the coach says. “Reggie listens and tries to learn, but then he goes out there and gets wild, throwing the ball all over the floor. What good is a behind-the-back pass if it ends up in the balcony? We need execution and floor leadership, not learning experiences.”

In truth, there has been more sound than fury in this war of words. Theus is anything except a hostile, chip-on-the-shoulder confrontation-seeker, demanding that the Bulls do it his way. Neither is Costello an Archie Bunker prototype.

The problem is the Bulls’ losing record, not Reggie’s winning performance. Defeat is the ultimate, unacceptable crime in sports competition on any level, a reality that supersedes Thomas Jefferson’s vision of America developing its own “aristocracy of excellence.”

This is not a world that Reggie Theus made, but he’s trying to live in it, trading physical skills for money, future security, and a short-lived sense of identity as “REG-gie!”—the darling of Stadium fans. Thanks in large measure to the guidance provided by the Henrys as designated pinch parents, Theus is better-prepared than most rookies to cope with the grinding, often cruel pressure cooker that is pro basketball. Merely surviving the travel involved in the 82-game schedule is something of an accomplishment. To play well and consistently under these conditions, as Theus has, is downright laudable.

The NBA has destroyed kids with more talent than his. Despite a lot of adversity, including minor surgery last summer to repair torn right knee cartilage, Reggie is making the grade. At the midseason All-Star break, his 16-points-per-game scoring average was tops for this season’s rookie crop, and he led the Bulls in assists, indicating that not all of his disco-fever passes end up in the Stadium balcony.


Clearing away the smokescreen of personal style for a moment, just how good a player is Reggie Theus?

“When I saw him playing college, I thought defense was his strongest area,” says Sloan, the Bulls’ Mr. Defense for 10 years. “But Reggie’s having problems with it in the NBA. He doesn’t fight through picks aggressively enough, and he should get back against a fastbreak better than he does.

“Defense is 90 percent desire, though, and Reggie has all the tools to be a good defensive player if he wants to make the effort. He’s a better scorer than he is a shooter, but with that size and speed, offense is no problem for Theus.”

The Houston Rockets’ Tom Nissalke speaks for the majority of NBA coaches in listing Theus in the top rank of rookies along with Kansas City’s Phil Ford (a cinch to be Rookie of the Year) and Portland’s Mychal Thompson.

“Reggie’s a remarkable talent, no question,” Nissalke says. “We sure could use his quickness on the Rockets.”

As a person, the kid from Inglewood is not doing badly either. A bachelor, he has an active social life, but is cautious about relationships because of his fear that, in some cases, his celebrity status is the reason for his popularity. He’s friendly, sincere and open, even after a loss—the real test of a pro athlete’s temperament. Some of these men-children are not emotionally equipped to handle such stress.

Theus appears able to cope with such things. He has traveled a long distance, in more ways than one, since moving to Inglewood from the Watts district of Los Angeles just before bloody rioting erupted there in 1965. “Reggie was a very timid child,” recalls Dee Henry. “I first met him in my typing class at Monroe Junior High School and wasn’t overly impressed. He was frail, thin, and short, just like any other kid.

“At that point, Reggie wasn’t able to compete, socially or economically. Inglewood was just becoming integrated then, and most of the other Black kids in school had professional parents—doctors, lawyers, or journalists. His parents were separated, and he lived mainly with this father, who ran a janitorial service that was more or less a one-man operation.”

Theus looks back on that period with a sense of perspective unusual in a 21-year-old, aware that he is unusual and searching for the explanation. “My dad, Felix, died just before my senior year at Inglewood,” he says. “He was 59 years old, and I was getting to the point where I had enough confidence in my ability to tell him, ‘One of these days, I’ll be able to take care of you.’

“Fortunately, I had been practically adopted by the Henrys by then, and they provided enough support to help me withstand the shock. It’s hard to believe how one person could have such an influence as Coach Henry did with me.

“I look to him for guidance. He would pass out little poems and sayings to the high school team, and I still have them. I know it sounds corny, but Mr. and Mrs. Henry made me a better player and a better person.”

[Here’s one more story for you, and it’s fairly brief. It’s from long-time Chicago sportswriter Dave van Dyck, who picks up Theus’ career three seasons later. He’s still being asked to reign in his wheeling and dealing in the open floor by Chicago’s “tight-fisted,” “personality-stifling” front office. What is interesting here is van Dyck describes how Theus has the supreme sex appeal and charm to market just about anything. But Madison Avenue wasn’t interested and neither were the advertisers in Chicago. Theus just didn’t look the part of Chicago’s preferred working-class hero. 

None of this probably would be worth mentioning today, except Michael Jordan came next. Unlike Theus, Jordan didn’t need to be one of the boys. Early in his career, he already could be just like Mike, thanks to the emergence of lucrative national marketing deals for the NBA’s top Black players. That allowed Madison Avenue to craft a likeable TV image for Jordan to smile, say little, and sell everything from hamburgers to sneakers. Of course, what came next on the basketball court didn’t hurt either in boosting his popularity. This article from van Dyck ran in the March 1982 issue of Basketball Digest under the headline: Runnin’ Reggie Theus: Chicago’s High-Speed Superstar.]

Even when Reggie Theus was voted to the Eastern Conference All-Star team last winter, he got no respect. Immediately, charges of ballot-box stuffing were heard from around the league. 

Even when Reggie Theus signed a long-term contract extension last summer, he got no respect. The Bulls took advantage of his agent, Theus’ lifelong friend, to pay Reggie about half of what he is worth for the next five years. 

Even when Reggie Theus scores 30 points and gets seven assists, he gets no respect. His coaches in the pros have always blamed him for trying to be a thoroughbred in a plow-horse offense.

Even with the looks and personality of a movie star, Theus gets no respect in his new home. The Chicago sports fan likes his heroes with broad shoulders and scars on their faces.

In any other NBA city, Reggie Theus is a character in the mold of Magic Johnson. In Chicago, his flamboyancy has been buried and his personality stifled. “Why do you think that is?” Theus wonders aloud in a moment of reflection. “I have no idea why some people get tremendous amounts of publicity. Most of the time, I guess, they’re made or one writer in the right spot puts your name out there and it kind of snowballs. Not that they’re not deserving, but if you aren’t in the right position at the right time . . . Everyone knows I’m a, quote, all-star, unquote. But not all over, I’m not.”

It bothers the 24-year-old, 6-feet-7 guard, but he attacks it like he attacks the patient offense of the Bulls, which he once said almost drove him to the hospital. He accepts it and adjusts and tries harder. “I hope I have finally established myself as one of the best players in the league,” he says, “but I still feel I have tremendous room for growth.

“I have always felt that if you work hard and keep your life clean and keep your priorities straight, things will eventually come to you. If not, it’s not meant for you.”

Maybe Theus gets no respect because he is too easy. He smiles during adversity. His weakness is that he trusts everyone (thus the reason for signing the terrible contract extension just before the season when he would have been a free agent). His problem is that he just can’t understand why everyone isn’t like him.

All Reggie Theus has ever asked of people is that they like him. They don’t have to love him, just like him. They don’t have to drool over him, just be courteous. It is all he asks while he gives everything. When someone questions his sincerity, criticizes his compassion, he has a favorite reply: “Why do you think that is?” It is both a question and an answer.

NBA egos are fragile parcels to be handled with care. They belie the strong bodies they hide within. Not so with Theus. While it is not hard for Theus to talk about himself, it embarrasses him. He doesn’t want to hurt any of his teammates, and he doesn’t want to rap the only professional organization he has known (or probably will ever know). If anything, Theus’ ego has been forced to become strong, not bigger, in this tight-fisted franchise.

Jerry Buss rewarded the style and flamboyancy of Magic Johnson with a million-dollar contract. The Bulls rewarded Theus with $250,000 a year and then hid it until it was revealed in a newspaper several months later. Perhaps it is no mistake that Theus’ new agent (since his last contract signing) is George Andrews, who also represents Johnson.

Like Johnson, Theus is a truly humble person. His only request during an afternoon-long interview was “that you don’t make it sound like I’m crying for more publicity, and that I spend all the time talking about myself. Make sure you put in the parts about my teammates.”

He has held the criticism of the Bulls’ front office to a minimum, saying publicly that “noble people” would renegotiate the renegotiation. He says he will never withhold his services or demand to be traded.

“I always want to do the right thing,” he says, “for my teammates, the fans, the kids out there who Idolize you. A person should never fight until he has to, until you try to do it the right way, and there is no other way to do it.”

Theus has not been pushed that far yet. In fact, his eternal optimism and faith in others make him feel that the deserving recognition is not far off. “I’m moving there,” he says. “Each year, I’ve gained more respect, more exposure.

“You know, I feel extremely blessed. God has taken care of me. I’ve always been watched over, even in adversity. I’ve always been able to find something positive, no matter how negative things are. Basketball came extremely easy for me. The other side of basketball (the contract problems, the criticism) is coming extremely hard. It has a tendency to make a person’s attitude stay at a certain level.

“It’s coming, but it hasn’t been easy. More and more people are understanding my game. Larry Costello [his first coach in Chicago] said things about me in my rookie year that really hurt. It was like he was pointing the finger at me for losing. I had a helluva rookie year, but Phil Ford beat me out for rookie of year. We were losing. I guess that’s part of it. When you’re losing, people don’t notice you. When you win, the prizes are always much bigger.”

So, Magic Johnson get the 7-Up commercials. Last season, when the Bulls made the playoffs, was the first since his days at Nevada-Las Vegas that Theus could say he’s been a winner—at least team-wise. The statistics say something else. He is the only NBA player to lead his team in scoring and assists in each of the last two seasons. He has scored more points than any other player drafted since 1978.

Yet, the fame and endorsements never have come. “Why do you think that is?” he asks. Perhaps he is stuck with a franchise which stifles personalities and in a city where even heroes like Red Grange and Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers have escaped after their playing days.

“Hey,” Theus says in a light moment, “I think I could be pretty good at endorsements, don’t you? If I had the opportunity, I think I could do it well. I think I would be good at selling the public. I can smile, and I have white teeth, and I can certainly talk.”

He holds up an imaginary product and flashes a little-kid giggle. Then he is embarrassed. There is a lot of little kid in Theus. When he has time, each autograph that Reggie signs is personalized with several lines of encouragement, like a note to a friend in a high school yearbook. He also is very self-conscious. 

What others think of him is as important as what he thinks of himself. He dresses in only the best clothes and dreams of making it in Hollywood. Kids growing up in Inglewood, Calif., have different values than those growing up in Chicago.

If he has respect, it is among the women—and for good reason. He has looks and personality and self-assuredness. When his new contract was made public, letters of protest poured in to the Bulls office. Most were from women. One named Sondra wrote, “There are many new Bulls’ fans here in Chicago, and you can give the credit to Reggie for bringing us over. Treat him right. Don’t let him leave. We love him.”

“On a scale of 1 to 10,” said a female in an NBA office, “I would rate him a 10 ½ .”  Another in an NBA front office was asked what she liked about him. She replied, “He’s got Reggie Theus eyes.”

Indeed, Theus does have a quiet following out there. But he wants some respect for his on-court moves as well. Someday maybe he will have it, probably not until the Bulls are big winners. No matter, he says, “I just like being out there. I like every minute of it. And all I really ask is that people respect me and treat me in accordance with how I treat them.”

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