During his noteworthy 11-year NBA playing career, Kevin Loughery was known for, among other things, his willingness to gamble on defense. And now, in his eighth season as a pro coach, and his first at the helm of the Chicago Bulls, Loughery's gambling again—and once more is on a roll. A 100-99 victory last Thursday night over the Portland Trail Blazers gave the Bulls seven consecutive wins, and even a 103-96 loss to the Detroit Pistons the next night left them only 4½ games behind the Central Division-leading Milwaukee Bucks. This all happened after Loughery, defying the wishes of the Bulls' most influential owner, benched All-Star guard Reggie Theus (along with veteran backcourt man Ronnie Lester) in favor of rookies Mitchell Wiggins and Ennis Whatley, with Quintin Dailey coming in as the No. 3 guard.
"I should have done it earlier," says Loughery, who joined Chicago after two seasons with the Atlanta Hawks. "But I was feeling my way around the situation. I didn't want to cause trouble."
That would have been nothing new to the Bulls, long one of the most troubled teams in the NBA. Chicago has also generally been one of the league's most talented teams—for example, this season's roster includes nine first-round draft picks—which has tended to make the Bulls one of the most puzzling NBA clubs. In 1980-81, Chicago had a 45-37 record and made the playoffs. But in 1981-82, the Bulls were 34-48 under Jerry Sloan, a hero from his playing days in Chicago, and general manager Rod Thorn, who replaced Sloan as coach with 30 games remaining in the season. Last year Paul Westhead took over as coach, and while the Bulls were very exciting offensively—they scored 111 points per game and had six men average in double figures—they finished 28-54.
Loughery hoped to reverse Chicago's dismal fortunes with the trapping, pressure defense that had taken Atlanta to the playoffs in both of his seasons there. But by early December the Bulls were 5-14 and riding an eight-game losing streak that had begun one game after Loughery had inserted the 26-year-old Theus into the starting lineup. Theus, a holdout during the first three weeks of training camp, had spent the first 10 games of the season coming off the bench. In that role he flashed some of the offensive form that had enabled him to score a career-high 23.8 points per game last season.
Then, before a Dec. 13 game against the Bucks, Loughery announced that not only was Theus being dropped from the starting lineup because of defensive inadequacies, but also that he had been forced to start Theus only under pressure from Jonathan Kovler, a minority owner of the Bulls who serves as their vice-president and operating officer.
That night, Theus didn't play in a win over Milwaukee; it was the first time in his 429-game NBA career that he hadn't appeared in a regular-season game. Since then, the only playing time Theus has received came on Dec. 13 in the final 6:42 of a 114-93 blowout of the Washington Bullets.
Thorn, who has backed Loughery during the conflict with Kovler, understands the situation in which Kovler has been placed. "In the entire time Reggie has been here, he has been like a favorite son," Thorn says of his first draft choice when he became the Bulls' general manager in 1978. "He's really a super guy, and he's also our most marketable player. I can see where Jonathan would be concerned about not embarrassing him."
The hiring of Westhead, which Thorn had opposed but Kovler had ordered, and the dispute over Theus' role are examples of what Thorn diplomatically calls "the unwieldiness" of the Bulls' operation. Unlike a Boston, where general manager Red Auerbach makes most of the decisions, or a Dallas, where a five-man committee including coach Dick Motta and his assistant, Bob Weiss, runs the show, any significant decisions must be approved by the Bulls' seven-man board of directors, for which Kovler serves as liaison to the team.
Most of the board members, including New York Yankee owner George Steinbrenner and Kansas City Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt, live outside Chicago, which doesn't help matters. "There are times when you need to make a decision today, but you may not get the O.K. for it for a week or two," Thorn says.
One of those decisions is making a trade for Theus, which would be best for all parties concerned. Even during the Bulls' win streak, five games of which were at home, the fans at Chicago Stadium were quick to break out in chants of "Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE! Reg-GIE!" which was embarrassing to Loughery. "I just play a different system than Reggie is accustomed to," Loughery says. "I wish I didn't like him, but I do."
"If it was something I did or could do—work harder, say—I'd be at practice right now," Theus says. "But I know that whatever's going on is out of my hands entirely."
Although Loughery says he would rather not rotate five guards, which he would have to do to give Theus playing time, the principal reason for Theus' inactivity may be Loughery's resentment of Kovler's interference. But Theus must take some of the blame for his demotion. Had it not been for Theus' preseason holdout, Wiggins, his replacement, probably wouldn't have gotten enough playing time to prove himself.
The 6'4" Wiggins, who attended Florida State, has been the league's second-highest rookie scorer, with 14.3 points a game, behind Houston's Ralph Sampson, and since becoming a starter he has played with a flair that reminds many of Milwaukee's All-NBA guard Sidney Moncrief. Thorn saw those similarities during the NBA's predraft camp for college players in Chicago last June, when Wiggins came up short in many other observers' eyes.
"Everyone got down on him then because he came in with a reputation as a scorer, and he didn't score," Thorn says. "I already knew that he could score and rebound, but when he played well on defense I thought he could be the total package, like a Moncrief."
One difference between the two, however, is that unlike the almost self-deprecating Moncrief, Wiggins has a confident, even cocky, demeanor on the court. "You can't tell me that Mitchell doesn't think he's a better player than anyone else on the team," says one Bull who requested anonymity. "But he knows he can't go around acting like it."
"Am I as confident as I look?" Wiggins asks rhetorically. "No doubt about it. I know I'm going against great players every night, but I fear nobody."
Whatley, who left Alabama after his sophomore season, is just as sure of his ability, but before the draft Thorn wasn't sure he wanted to take him. As it turned out. Thorn didn't have to. After drafting forward Sidney Green, the Bulls traded forward Mark Olberding to the Kansas City Kings for Whatley, that club's top pick. Minutes later Thorn would complete a triple coup by trading his second-round choice, guard Sidney Lowe, to the Indiana Pacers for Wiggins, the Pacers' first-round selection.
After a brief training camp holdout, the 6'3" Whatley almost immediately displaced Lester as the Bulls' starting point guard. "I really wasn't surprised at how well I did because I know my talents," says Whatley, at 21 the youngest player in the league.
Nor was he upset upon being benched when Theus was put in the starting lineup. "The coaches kept telling me that I'd get another chance," Whatley says. "We weren't winning, so I knew some changes had to be coming."
One change was in the players' attitude, which became: You'd better work hard because if an All-Star like Theus can be benched, you can be, too. "The new coach came in and said, 'You have to do this, this and this or else you wouldn't play,' but Reggie didn't comply, and he played anyway," says one Bull. "Now, with Reggie on the bench, everyone's busting their butts because they think Kevin must be crazy."
Either crazy or incredibly lucky—just like any good gambler.