Seeing Theus Takes Me Back To My Youth
Personal confession: When I was about 7 years old growing up in Kansas City, my two favorite NBA players were Magic Johnson and Reggie Theus. Magic was an easy choice, since he was the leader of Showtime and the Los Angeles Lakers were winning championships or in contention almost every year in the 1980s. Theus never won anything, but the man could score. He was my guy because he played for my team, the Kings.
We couldn't afford to go to Kings games at Kemper Arena too often, but when we did, I got pretty excited. My father just wanted to get in a game; my mother wasn't much a sports fan, but she didn't need much convincing to see the Kings (she had a bit of a crush on the hazel-eyed pretty boy Theus). Me, I just wanted the Kings to score 100 points, because I remember a promotion where if they did, every person in attendance would get a free Big Mac.
My parents never let me eat Big Macs back then because they didn't think I was old enough to handle them, but they always gave me an allowance if the Kings came through. So, whenever the Kings scored 100, it meant that I could feel like a grown up.
Silly memories, but they're mine.
When the Kings broke my heart and skipped town for Sacramento in 1985 - I'm still quite bitter about that move - I didn't think about Theus or the Kings too much. He no longer represented my hometown. My team was practically stolen. I latched onto Magic and the Lakers even harder.
Until earlier this week, I had never met Theus. I walked up to him in Boston and I immediately flashed back to my childhood. Funny how that happens at the oddest times. I told Theus that I used to watch him growing up.
"Really?" Theus said, beaming.
Kings assistant Randy Brown turned to me and said, "Stop lying."
I told Brown that I had no reason to lie to the man.
"Kansas City," Theus said with a grin. "Gates Barbecue, huh?"
I laughed after Theus mentioned my favorite barbecue place in the world; a place that has contributed greatly to my sportswriter belly (I plan on getting some when I go home for the holiday, best believe that).
Anyway, Theus is back with the Kings as head coach this season and he will be going head-to-head against Eddie Jordan tonight at Verizon Center. Of the three rookie coaches in the league this season - Marc Iavaroni and Sam Vincent are the others - Theus doing the best job so far.
On the surface, the Kings record isn't very impressive (9-13), but when you consider that point guard Mike Bibby hasn't played a game this season with a torn ligament in his left thumb, Ron Artest missed the first seven games serving a suspension and leading scorer Kevin Martin will be out another three to five weeks with a strained groin, Theus has done a superb job. (Also, Shareef Abdur-Rahim was seldom used, but he is done for the year following season-ending knee surgery).
So far, Theus has been able to plug in John Salmons or Francisco Garcia or Beno Udrih and the Kings have managed to pull out wins against Detroit, San Antonio, Utah and Houston. They finally won their first road game of the season last night in Phiadelphia.
"The guys have responded to me," Theus said. "They respect the game. They respect each other. They've played hard. For the most part, they played hard every night. These guys have allowed me to coach them. If we can ever get them on the floor at the same time ... you know what I mean?
Celtics announcers Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn couldn't believe what they were watching on Wednesday as the Kings became the first team to hold a halftime lead in Boston this season. The Kings eventually lost the game, but left an impression. After Udrih drained a three-pointer near the end of the first half, Gorman said something like, "Tommy, can you believe this kid's game?"
Heinsohn shouted back, "I didn't know he had a game!"
Udrih, the 28th pick of the 2004 draft, won two championship rings in San Antonio but his time with the Spurs was marred by injuries and an inability to crack Gregg Popovich's rotation. His disappointing stint was summed up best during the 2005 NBA Finals when he struggled to simply get the ball over halfcourt against Detroit.
The Spurs finally gave up on him little over a month ago and traded Udrih to Minnesota, which waived him the same day. With Bibby out, the Kings swooped in. Udrih has been a bit of a revelation at point guard, as he is averaging a career-best 14.9 points per game, including a career-high 27 points in a win against his former team earlier this season.
"He's been a pleasant surprise in a sense," Theus said." But when we got him, we knew it was a good get."
The real key to Theus's success has been Ron Artest, who is looking to walk a straight line this season since he can opt out of his contract - which will pay him more than $8 million in 2008-09 - and become a free agent next summer.
Artest is dealing with a difficult situation involving his 4-year-old daughter, Diamond. She is fighting cancer in her only kidney and she lives with Artest's wife, Kimsha, in Indiana, where she is receiving treatment. Artest has had to leave the team once this season to be with his family. Still, he is averaging 19.9 points and providing lock down defense. It's no coincidence that the Kings are 2-6 without Artest and 7-7 with him.
"You can easily say we should have a better record," Artest said. "We're doing all right. We've had a chance to win every game. The difference maker is back. Everybody is going to have problems when they play us now. We're definitely one of the better teams in the league."
As Artest sat down to talk to reporters in Boston this week, forward Kenny Thomas walked up to him said, "Alright 'Franchise.' "
"I ain't 'Franchise' 'til we win a championship," Artest said.
Artest's expectations may exceed those of most league observers, including some on his own team. But Theus said coaching him hasn't been a problem. He added that he didn't have any preconceived notions about Artest, who has a reputation for being a troubled talent.
"I heard a lot of things about this team before I took over the job," Theus said. "I heard a lot of things about Mike Bibby also, that I haven't seen. Ron has been tremendous for us. My relationship with him has been very solid. I think that when he's said something or heading down that road, we've nipped it in the butt. He and I have talked on a couple of occasions if something was getting ready to happen or if something wasn't feeling right, we'd talk about it, very straight up, very honestly.
"With Ron, he wants the blunt truth. He does not want to be coddled. He wants you to tell him when he's not right and stand up to it. If you don't, he will walk on you."
Theus can always draw back on his experience as a bit of free spirit during his playing days. Before Martin went down with his injury, Theus focused heavily on making him a better player. Theus scored 19,015 career points - more than any coach in the NBA, including Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas - in his 13-year playing career, but he has little to show for it, except guady scoring totals. He made two all-star teams, but won zero titles.
"I've tried to stop him from falling into a couple of traps that I fell into," Theus said of Martin, "a lot of it personnel-driven, a lot of it my job description. But I think that had I had somebody telling me some of these things that I could've been a better player. That's where I'm trying to give him the same knowledge. He has the ability to be a great one. He's got some growing to do, some understanding.
"He has the ability to be a great one. He has some growing to do. Each year his job description has changed, he's jumped up a couple of notches. The thing that I keep trying to bear down on him is that he just can't become a scorer. You have to be more than just a scorer. You have to be a guy who gets your teammates' respect on the defensive end as much."
Funny hearing that from Theus. I don't recall him ever playing on that end of the floor. But I will always remember him playing in Kemper Arena, helping a little kid feel like a grown up from time to time.
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