SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Reggie Theus scored the first basket in the history of the Sacramento Kings nearly 22 years ago — and the club has put the ball back in his hands.
Kings owners Joe and Gavin Maloof formally introduced Theus as the franchise’s 21st head coach at Arco Arena after signing him to a three-year deal on June 20. With a natty suit and a TV-star smile, Theus vowed to return excitement and wins to a once-successful team that fell apart last season.
“I’ve come full circle. This is an amazing dream to be sitting here,” said Theus, who played three high-scoring seasons in Sacramento after the club’s move from Kansas City to California’s capital.
“I remember flying in for the first time over the rice fields and the farms, and I was reflecting on that as I flew in today. The only time I can remember having this feeling is the day I got drafted.”
Theus replaces Eric Musselman, who won 33 games in his one tumultuous season. He succeeded Rick Adelman, who led the Kings to eight consecutive winning seasons and playoff appearances, including the 2002 Western Conference finals.
Most of the veterans who made up last season’s squad are under contract for next season and beyond, including Ron Artest and Mike Bibby. Sacramento, which has the 10th pick in next week’s draft, is expected to shake up a roster that stagnated last year.
Theus had some firm opinions about last year’s struggles.
“There’s no doubt in my mind this team could have and should have won more games last year,” he said. “We have to create an identity. Right now, there’s no identity to this team.”
The Kings dominate public discussion in this one-sport town, and fans are wondering what the club will become under Theus, whose short coaching resume gives few clues to his style. Will he emulate Adelman’s up-tempo style, or will he take another shot at fulfilling the Maloofs’ desire for a defensive powerhouse, as Musselman failed to do?
During 13 years in the NBA, Theus was a shooting guard with a reputation as a gunner, but he still played solid defense and frequently finished among the NBA leaders in assists.
“There’s really only one way to play the game, and that’s up and down,” said Theus, who already spoke to Artest and Bibby by phone in the 24 hours after getting the job. “Defense is an important aspect, because there was none here last year. ... The game is supposed to be fun, and I don’t think it was fun here last year.”
Theus will learn how to be an NBA coach on the job. He went 41-23 over the last two years at New Mexico State in his first significant head coaching job that didn’t take place on a Saturday-morning sitcom.
Theus made no secret of his desire to get back to the pro league while in the college ranks. But even after interviewing with the Charlotte Bobcats and then wowing the Maloof brothers and top Kings executive Geoff Petrie last week in Las Vegas, Theus didn’t expect to get his wish quite so quickly.
“I was very surprised,” Theus said, glancing down the dais at Petrie. “He’s got a great poker face. I don’t know where it turned, but I don’t think I was the main guy for a while.”
The Kings waited two months to name a successor to Musselman, who was fired April 20. Theus, Kings assistant coach Scott Brooks and Lakers assistant Brian Shaw were the unofficial finalists.
“He wants to be here,” Joe Maloof said of Theus. “Other people didn’t want to be here. We want a coach that’s proud of Sacramento and wants to coach this team, and he does.”
Petrie cited Theus’ relative youth and energy as decisive factors. His ties to Vegas — as a star at UNLV — and New Mexico, the Maloof brothers’ home state, also helped.
“He has a great charisma and energy,” Petrie said. “He has a love for this franchise and a real affection for this community.”
Before two seasons as Rick Pitino’s assistant at Louisville and his time at New Mexico State, Theus stayed close to the NBA as a television analyst for nine seasons — when he wasn’t playing coach Bill Fuller on “Hang Time,” that is.
Theus claims he always had a soft spot for the Kings and the powder-blue uniforms he wore proudly back when the well-traveled team wasn’t much to be proud of. Now that bad times have returned to Sacramento, Theus believes he can turn the tide.
“Most of my background is on the NBA level,” Theus said. “I’m going to be able to utilize what I’ve done and what I’ve learned. You’ve got to figure out what’s best for the guys you’ve got in uniform.”