By Bob Vazquez, Assistant Athletic Director, Strategic Communications
Springfield, Ma – Back in the mid-1970's, CSUN head basketball coach Reggie Theus was one of the top high school basketball players in the nation.
Recruiters from all the major colleges in the country descended upon Inglewood High School to watch a talented player destined to become an All-American in college, and a future success in the NBA.
The intense recruiting effort boiled down to two schools … UNLV and UCLA. At the time, UCLA was the kingpin of college basketball; NCAA championships, the lure of Westwood, legendary head coach John Wooden and the vivid atmosphere of UCLA attracted the best high school players in the country.
But there was something special about UNLV head coach Jerry Tarkanian and a basketball program that was growing and trying to become one of the top basketball schools on the NCAA Division I level. At the time, UNLV was an independent school trying to establish a foothold in college basketball.
"One of the things that sold me about UNLV was that the University was trying to become part of the growth of the city of Las Vegas, and how important it would be for the basketball team to be successful," said Theus, who will be entering his first season as head basketball coach at Cal State Northridge in 2013-14. "Coach Tarkanian said success in basketball could give the city of Las Vegas a national appeal beside the strip. So this was a big deal for the university to be successful on the court."
During the recruiting process, Theus remembers having "great conversations" with coach Tarkanian about family, the future, and the style of play that would become popular in the nation and at UNLV.
"Coach Tarkanian had great one-liners and a million stories," said Theus. "Back in those days, the NCAA rules were a little different. You could recruit non-stop. Coach Tarkanian or assistant coach Lynn Archibald were at every one of my games. I could have gone to any school in the country, but Tark always had an edge. He had a prior relationship with my high school coaches (Leon Henry & Mike Spalding) and their style of play."
The intense recruiting efforts between UNLV and UCLA ended when Theus announced he would help cement the foundation to make UNLV one of the top basketball schools in the country.
"Tark had a connection with California and Los Angeles," said Theus. "He coached at Pasadena High School, Riverside City College and at Long Beach State. He knew a lot of the same people that I knew. For me, it was like talking to someone from the neighborhood (Inglewood).
Theus said "one of my claims-to-fame was that I was one of the only players in Tark's coaching career that UCLA and UNLV wanted, and Tark won the player from UCLA. It was a great opportunity to play for him."
On Sunday, Reggie Theus will join a large gathering of coaches, former UNLV players, family and friends who will be at Jerry Tarkanian's induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Tarkanian will join eleven other highly successful coaches, athletes, and administrators who have contributed to the great game of basketball. The induction list includes University of Louisville head basketball coach Rick Pitino. Theus served as an assistant coach under Pitino during the 2003-04 and 2004-05 campaign. In 2004-05, Louisville advanced to the NCAA Final Four.
"I wouldn't miss coach Tarkanian's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame for the world," said Theus. "I still keep in close contact with many of my teammates at UNLV. We had a great connection that can't be topped. Those connections, the battles we went through, and the growth of Las Vegas had a lot do with the success of Runnin' Rebel basketball. All of those things make Las Vegas and Coach Tarkanian very special. I am also extremely honored to be at the induction ceremonies for Louisville head coach Rick Pitino. I served as an assistant coach for two seasons at Louisville. Both coaches have had a tremendous influence in my basketball coaching career."
Tarkanian recently turned 83-years-old. His poor health has been an issue in recent months. A pacemaker was recently installed, among other medical issues. However, Tarkanian will make the cross country trip from Las Vegas to Massachusetts. Tarkanian wouldn't have it any other way.
"Coach Tarkanian is one of the greatest basketball coaches of all-time" said Theus without reservation. "Coach was super intense, a phenomenal motivator, and a person who was Vegas for a long time. He was one of the more approachable coaches you would ever want to be around."
According to Theus, the door to Tarkanian's office was always open especially if you wanted to talk about basketball.
"But Tark also talked about other issues if you needed help," remembers Theus. "These issues were very important to a young person. That was one of the things that made him very special."
Theus played three seasons (1975-76, 1976-77, 1977-78) at UNLV and helped the Runnin' Rebels chalk up an eye-popping 78-13 record. That included a trip to the NCAA Final Four during the 1976-77 campaign.
"Tark was one of those coaches who could sit atop any of Las Vegas' major hotels … a celebrity among celebrities. But the very next day, coach Tarkanian would be walking the neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles or any city in the country talking to a family about a player. He could relate to everybody and that was very important to him."
Theus flourished under Tarkanian's style of play. In three seasons, Theus became one of the best players to ever don a UNLV uniform. As a junior in 1977-78, Theus was an All-American who averaged 18.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.
In 1989, Theus was inducted into the UNLV Athletic Hall of Fame. In 1997, Theus became one of only six players in school history to have his jersey retired by the University.
"What a great time for UNLV basketball to play in the old Las Vegas Convention Center," Theus said. "There were always 6,500 people screaming for UNLV. We were the first school to use spotlights to introduce the players before the game. Coach Tarkanian always chewed on a towel during a game. We had a great show going. The experiences were a great part of Tark's life and his legacy."
Theus said much of UNLV's success revolved around how the team played DEFENSE. It is a style that Theus hopes to employ as the new head basketball coach at CSUN. "Coach Tarkanian started the up tempo style of basketball that became very popular. But what people don't understand was that our opponents averaged around 25 turnovers a game. We played 40 minutes of non-stop pressure basketball. We took pride in our defense. The coaches and the players really got excited when we took a charge as well as scoring a basket."
Theus remembers "three-fourths of our practices everyday would be about defense. We scored points off our defense. As much as we loved playing offense, we took great pride in our defense. It made the games exciting."
Theus enjoyed an outstanding 13-year career in the NBA. Theus is one of only seven players in NBA history to score more than 19,000 points (19,015 points) and dish out more than 6,000 assists (6,543 assists). The others are Hall of Famers Oscar Robertson, Jerry West, John Havlicek, John Stockton, Clyde Drexler and Gary Payton. Payton also will be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Saturday night.
Theus was the ninth overall selection in the 1978 NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls, not because of his offensive skills, but his defensive talents. Theus remembers the long, enduring defensive practices that paid off under Jerry Tarkanian.
"We coined the phrase 'amoeba defense.' In 1975, there were not a lot of teams that played a relentless style of defense that also included a fast break style of offense. Our goal was to never let an opponent get past half court."
Matador Memo …
Reggie Theus called his coaching experience under head coach Rick Pitino "tremendous" … Theus always keeps in contact with Pitino … Theus attend this year's NCAA Final Four at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, an arena that housed more than 74,000 seats … Theus had tickets far above the court, but Pitino helped CSUN's new head coach move to a prime location near courtside … Theus appreciated Pitino's gesture of friendship … "Reggie, I got you covered," Pitino told Theus … According to Theus, "They were great seats. I didn't realize they were going to be that great a seat."
Biographical information on the 12 inductees into the 2013 Class of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame are below …
Jerry Tarkanian – Known as one of the most passionate coaches in the game of basketball … Recorded 900 wins during his coaching career with an 81 percent winning percentage that included leading UNLV to four NCAA Final Four appearances (1977, 1987, 1990, 1991) … Tarkanian coached the Runnin' Rebels to the 1990 NCAA championship … His career included 21 post-season appearances, 14 NCAA tournaments, 13 Sweet Sixteen appearances, seven Elite Eights, 17 conference championships and four 30-plus seasons … Coached 44 future NBA prospects including CSUN head coach Reggie Theus, a first round pick of the Chicago Bulls in 1978.
Roger Brown – One of the greatest players in the history of the American Basketball Association (ABA) … Played eight seasons in the ABA which included four All-Star selections and a member of three ABA championship teams with the Indiana Pacers … Set an ABA record with 21 consecutive field goals.
Richie Guerin – Widely known as one of the best all-around players ever in the NBA … Scored 14,676 points during his 13-year professional career … A six-time NBA All-Star who played with the New York Knicks from 1956-63 … Guerin later finished his pro career as a player/coach for the St. Louis/Atlanta Hawks.
Russ Granik – One of the most influential contributors to the game of basketball … Spent 30 years in the NBA league office starting as a staff attorney in 1976 and finishing his NBA career as the Deputy Commissioner and Chief Operating Officer … Granik was involved in every major negotiation in the NBA from 1980-to-2005 including television contracts, collective bargaining and league expansion.
Sylvia Hatchell – Recently became just the third Division I women's coach to win 900 career games, and the only coach in NCAA history to win national championships at three different levels (AIAW, NAIA, NCAA) … Since taking over at the University of North Carolina, she has led the Tar Heels to three NCAA Final Fours, eight ACC championships and the 1994 national championship … A three-time NCAA Coach of the Year (1994, 2006, 2008) … Has coached her teams to seven 30-win seasons and twenty-eight 20-win seasons.
Dr. E.B. Henderson – Known as the "Grandfather of Black Basketball" … A true pioneer of the game … Dr. Henderson first learned basketball in 1904 at Harvard University while attending a summer physical training class for gym teachers … Upon his return to Harvard, he introduced the game of basketball to black students … That was the first time African Americans had played organized basketball on a wide scale.
Bernard King – A four-time NBA All-Star who played with the New York Knicks, New Jersey Nets, Utah Jazz, Golden State Warriors and the Washington Bullets … Averaged 22 points per game during his 15-year NBA career.
Guy Lewis – Coached the University of Houston to five NCAA Final Four appearances (1967, 1968, 1982, 1983 and 1984) … Coached Houston to 14 NCAA tournament appearances, ten Sweet Sixteen appearances and registered three 30-win seasons … During his coaching career, Lewis coached 29 future NBA players including Elvin Hayes, Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, all current Hall of Famers.
Gary Payton – A nine-time NBA All-Star and a two-time Olympic gold medalist (1996, 2000) … Ended his NBA career ranked fourth all-time in steals (2,445) and eighth in assists (8,996) … Helped the Miami Heat win the NBA championship in 2006 … Oregon State's all-time leader in scoring, assists and steals.
Rick Pitino – The only coach in men's history to lead three different schools to NCAA Final Four appearances with Providence College, the University of Kentucky and the University of Louisville … Has won more than 600 games in his collegiate career … Has coached teams that reached the Final Four seven different times (1987, 1993, 1996, 1997, 2005, 2011, 2013) … Also coached in the NBA with the New York Knicks and the Boston Celtics.
Oscar Schmidt – One of the great players to come out of his native country of Brazil … Named one of FIBA's 50 greatest players … Played in five Summer Olympics with the Brazilian national team … At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, Schmidt averaged 42.3 points per game.
Dawn Staley – One of the most decorated players in women's basketball history … A three-time Olympic gold medalist (1996, 2000, 2004), and five-time WNBA All-Star and two-time National College Player of the Year (1991, 1992) … A three-time All-American at the University of Virginia … Led Virginia to three NCAA Final Four appearances … Still holds the NCAA career record for steals (454).