RING, RING. Hello, I'm sorry. I can't come to the phone right now, and I hope you'll forgive me for the inconvenience. But if you'd like to leave a message, please do so at the tone. I'll be sure and get back to you as quickly as possible. Remember, at the tone. Thank you."
The tenor is sugar and spice and everything nice, and, no, Reggie Theus can't come to the phone right now because he's very, very busy. Almost two hours before a game with the New York Knicks, the Chicago Bulls' 6'6½" guard is taping a television interview.
"Yes, the seven-game losing streak is tough but...."
After he gets dressed and shoots warmups, there's another interview.
January 10, 1983
"Well, we had a team meeting yesterday and I think...." Then yet another station collars Theus. "Tonight's game is important and I have a good feeling...."
It's easy to understand why Theus (rhymes with FREE-us) is in such demand. Since joining the Bulls four years ago out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, he has been the only glamorous member of what has been for the most part a drab Chicago team. In fact, Theus is so handsome, witty and urbane that he has come to be regarded by many women as a kind of matinee idol.
In the NBA, matinee idols perform mostly at night, which is why, after a 26-point game in a 91-85 Chicago win, Theus' work still isn't done. Outside the players' exit half an hour later there's Theus happily bussing the mother of a friend and here's Theus drawing a shy autograph seeker into conversation. And there's Theus making postgame plans with some friends.
"I find all the attention rather flattering," Theus says. "It's cold out there, and if someone wants to wait for me the least I can do is be cordial and stop and speak for a moment. Besides, if I don't, they may wreck my car."
Just kidding, folks. Theus believes in going beyond what he calls the "fairytale existence" of a pro athlete. Partly for that reason, he will be the subject of a documentary on Chicago's WBBM-TV scheduled to be shown on Jan. 22.
"He's so marketable on a mass-appeal basis," says Cindy Walker, the station's program director. "There's something about him that's very attractive to women but yet isn't too threatening to men. Whenever he walks through the station, people—not just women—fall out."
At one point as the program, titled Against the Odds, was being taped at Theus' suburban Chicago town house, he said, "My father was the kind of man who could go out in the parking lot of a supermarket and talk for an hour to a perfect stranger. I know this because many times I would be sitting in the car waiting for him." Bulls fans know what that can be like. Until Theus blossomed, they had been mostly out in the cold for years, waiting for something or someone to cheer.
With new Coach Paul Westhead opening up the Bulls' offense, the unfettered Theus has averaged 27.1 points a game this season, nine higher than his career average. In his four previous seasons, he had scored more than 30 points only 13 times; so far this year he has gotten 30 or more 10 times in 30 games, with five games of 40 points or more.
And beyond just scoring, Theus is finally having fun, whipping about the court with long-legged strides, his arms flailing, seemingly able to do anything he likes anytime he wants.
"I don't know what he did against New Jersey or Detroit, but he always exploded against us," says Westhead, who formerly coached the Los Angeles Lakers. "He could do so many things with the ball."
Since coming to Chicago, Westhead has instituted a running game that is similar to the Lakers' and seems custom-made for Theus, though the coach doth protest. "I don't think the running game revolves about him, because it's based on spraying the ball around," Westhead says. "Ironically, if a team wanted to showcase a player, the best way to do it would be in a set game—giving him double screens and picks to free him."
Theus and Chicago fans don't care who gets the showcase so long as there's a show. Ever since the early 70s when the Dick Motta-coached Bulls teams featured Chet Walker, Jerry Sloan, Norm Van Lier, Butterbean Love and Tom Boerwinkle, there had seemed to be a Chicago Stadium ordinance against running. Though those teams perennially won 50-plus games a season, they were hardly a joy to watch.
Now, though the transformed Bulls have gotten off to a shaky start (10-20 in the Central Division, 10½ games behind the division-leading Milwaukee Bucks), Theus is thriving. He leads the team and is fourth in the league in scoring, is third in the league in three-point goals (14 of 40) and tops the Bulls in steals (56). And a Theus no-look pass through the legs or whirling-dervish spin through the lane brings the Stadium crowd to its feet, chanting, "Reg-gie! Reg-gie!" as if his name were Jackson.
Perhaps it's manifest destiny. The implications of being a Reggie aside, Theus is aptly named. Reginald is from the Old English Regenweald, meaning "power, force, might."
Theus comes from the Greek theos, meaning god-like. No dissent there from the scores of women who have an eye for Reggie.
However, says Cindy Walker, "I really don't think that I could have a relationship with him. My grandmother told me never to go out with any man that's prettier than me."
Although he has had numerous modeling assignments in the Chicago area, Theus' place in the Beefcake Hall of Fame was assured last summer when he made an appearance on Donahue. Phil Donahue was joined by Theus and the underwear poster child of the Baltimore Orioles, Jim Palmer. The freewheeling discussion ranged from sex to the two men's careers to the Bulls' recent selection of Quintin Dailey on the first round of the NBA college draft.
Throughout the show, Theus more than held his" own with the worldly Palmer. So much so that, in Chicago, Reggie became known as the black Jim Palmer, just as actor Billy Dee Williams is sometimes referred to as the black Clark Gable. "I thought Palmer was a nice guy and a very interesting person," Theus says. "It's pretty funny that you mention that now, though, because the underwear I'm wearing has holes in it."
Just kidding, folks. But it makes for good copy and Theus knows it. A social services major before leaving UNLV after his junior year to play in the NBA, Theus has "always wanted to be involved in public relations or the media somehow. It's something that comes naturally to me." In an era when more and more athletes are talking less and less, Theus is eminently quotable.
"Sometimes you think you're a press agent when you deal with him," says Fred Mitchell, who covers the Bulls for the Chicago Tribune. "It's not really negative, though. He just understands the athlete-media relationship better than most."
"I guess most athletes get nervous when a pad and pencil are around, but I don't feel threatened by crowds or reporters," Theus says. "I remember when I was a rookie, other players told me to be careful with the press. I'm just being myself. I'd rather tell you something and elaborate the answer so it's clear than have you go away and try to guess what I was thinking when I said it.
"I just don't understand that adversarial relationship between the two. Sure, there's an amount of mutual trust involved—you know me, I know you and things will go easier. When that's established, if you want to know something, ask me, call me, here's my number. But I've also told people that if I'm misquoted or taken out of context, I'll cut them off and never speak to them again. And I've done it."
But when asked who in the media has burned him, Theus, ever the politician, demurs. "I would never tell," he says with a grin.
The key to Theus' relationship with the media is what he calls "manipulating my environment. I'm comfortable with myself because I understand me. Without that you really can't deal with others. If you haven't built that rapport with yourself, then you often have problems that you can't handle."
Theus is also comfortable with his three-bedroom town house in Highland Park. Tastefully decorated in rusts and earth tones, each of the rooms gives evidence of the good life. The house contains everything from the latest in stereo and video equipment to a 350-pound blue marlin he caught off Hawaii on a trip he took two summers ago with Norm Nixon of the Lakers.
"The shell could be anywhere, but the inside of this house is mine," Theus says. "I want it to reflect a first-class environment because that's how I feel I am. These are things that are conducive to the way I want to live my life.
"I really get excited by church," Theus goes on, "not only because of the message but also by the way the minister is in control. Whatever he wants—sing this song, clap your hands, get an amen—the people do."
Although spiritual sustenance wasn't lacking in Theus' boyhood, material comforts were way off in the future. His parents divorced when he was six. Theus remained close to both, sometimes living with his mother in Inglewood, sometimes staying with his father, who lived just a few blocks away. Until he was nine, whenever Reggie stayed with his father, Felix, the two slept in the same bed.
The elder Theus, who owned a custodial service, died of a heart attack before Reggie's senior year at Inglewood High ("He literally worked himself to death," Reggie says), but not before leaving his mark on the youngest of his four children. "He always told me to be as nice as you can to people whenever you can," Theus says, "but he also told me to speak my mind. We had more arguments than I can remember, but we didn't call them that. He was just encouraging me to speak up."
As his basketball career at Inglewood High flourished, Theus narrowed his college choices to institutions in the immediate area of Los Angeles. "I tried to get a trip to Hawaii, even though I didn't really want to go to school there," he says. "I just wanted to see the place, but they found out I had no intention of attending and they wouldn't let me come to visit."
Theus chose UNLV over the University of San Francisco and hometown UCLA. "It was only four hours away," he says. "It had the same atmosphere as L.A., and it had a good basketball program with a running style."
In three years playing for Jerry Tarkanian, Theus maintained a 12.9-pergame scoring average while starring on a team that had three 20-victory seasons.
The fast lane was the way of life on the basketball court for Theus and the Runnin' Rebels. "My high school coach always said that if you couldn't be creative on the basketball court, you should be a chess player," Theus says. Usually that creativity was found on the offensive end of the floor as UNLV set 14 NCAA scoring records en route to the Final Four in 1977.
But if Theus expected to be on the run in Chicago, he was in for a rude awakening. "I got to Chicago and the first thing they said was, 'We're walking the ball up-court,' " Theus says. "Then they wanted me to be the one to bring it up. I said, 'Not me, I push it.' "
And push it he did, much to the delight of fans and the consternation of his coaches, in succession Larry Costello, Scotty Robertson and Sloan, before Westhead took over. "Looking back, I guess that did make it extremely tough to coach me," Theus says. "There was a sense of the coach being a certain way, me being another way and the system a third way."
But the Chicago fans took to the fun-loving Californian, all the more so because of his conspicuous forays on the town that gave him the nickname "Rush Street Reggie." At the same time his high profile made Theus an easy scapegoat for the team's frequent failings. "There were times that I had to be made an example of in the locker room," he says. "Most of the negatives were brought out but never the positives. It's not that the coaches would take sides, but it worked that way because everybody else could say, 'Aw, hell, it's all his fault.' "
Well, at least somebody was getting some attention. In recent years the city's sports teams had generated mostly apathy. The Bulls, for their part, were guilty of uninspired, selfish play. "I don't know why these guys didn't want to be wrestlers or track stars, because they had no idea of a team concept," says one member of the Bulls' front office. "We haven't had a really serious injury in the time I've been here. Sometimes I think it's because they don't play hard enough."
Apart from the 1980-81 season, when the Bulls went 45-37 and made the playoffs, during most of Theus' career in Chicago the players cared so little for one another that former Bull Forward Scott May says there was a time when they would actually look to see who was on the receiving end before passing the ball.
Despite a promising performance in the '81 playoffs, in which they won a mini-series from New York before losing in four straight to eventual league champion Boston in the conference semis, the Bulls got off to a slow start last season, partly because of contract difficulties with Theus, Guard Ricky Sobers and first-round draft choice Orlando Wool-ridge, and they finished 34-48.
Another bone of contention was the incongruous mix of Theus and Center Artis Gilmore. In the Bulls' patterned offense, Gilmore set up in the low post, his presence demanding the ball while also effectively cutting off the lane for drives by Theus and others.
"The players never really disliked each other; it was a case of them not having enough respect for each other's games," says Bulls General Manager Rod Thorn, who coached the team to a 15-15 record after Sloan was fired last February. "One guy would say the other wasn't doing this, this and this, and things escalated."
During the off-season, Gilmore was traded to San Antonio for Center Dave Corzine and Forward Mark Olberding, but Westhead's new offense has also brought its share of gripes, notably from the team's big men, who have complained about the number of shots taken by guards on the break after their rebounds. Indeed, Theus has taken seven more shots per game than the next player, Dailey, another guard—who only recently took a six-game leave from the team because of emotional pressure caused by fan reaction to his having pleaded guilty last June to a charge of aggravated assault against a nursing student in a dormitory while he was at the University of San Francisco.
"I've yet to see a game in which everybody didn't have a chance to get theirs, but that's not the problem," Forward David Greenwood says. "I've seen Boston too many times, seen Larry Bird say, 'Ooh, Maxwell is just killing that guy tonight. I think I'll try to give him the ball 10 or 12 times down low this half—I can get mine later.' And they win. But would that happen here? Nah."
Fortunately for Theus, his shooting touch and personality have tended to lift him above and beyond the team's malaise.
Theus' 9-year-old nephew, Sean Keyes, recently told him that he wanted to play basketball just like Reggie when he grew up. "No you don't," said Theus, who then went into a big spiel about the fact that only so many players are good enough to make the NBA, and you'd better prepare for something else, just in case. Sean thought about that for a few moments and then said, "O.K. Then I'll be just like Doctor J. He's a lot better than you, anyway."
But not nearly as pretty.