"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.' "