As Jerry Tarkanian understood it, the Sacramento Kings' owners and general manager disagreed on the choice of the team's next head coach. The Maloofs wanted New Mexico State's Reggie Theus, and Geoff Petrie preferred Lakers assistant Brian Shaw.
"I think I got Reggie the job," Tarkanian said Wednesday afternoon.
Well, Joe Maloof wouldn't go that far, but he long has listened to Tark's counsel on issues of coaching. So Tarkanian pushed Maloof over the weekend and they prodded Petrie, and thus, there was Theus on a news conference dais saying of Shaw's failed candidacy, "You couldn't have picked a Laker."
Tark goes back a long way with the Maloofs on the Vegas strip and back longer with Theus, his first big recruit at UNLV in the 1970s. When it appeared that Shaw would be the Kings' choice over the weekend, Tark spent 45 minutes with Joe Maloof on the telephone Sunday night. Rick Pitino had long talks with Maloof and Petrie, too.
"Reggie called me Saturday after he had the second interview and thought he was right there," Tarkanian said. "But he was still the dark horse. Joe told me he, his brother and mother were really strong on Reggie, but Geoff still liked Shaw. I told Joe, 'This comes down to you and Gavin (Maloof) if you don't win. How come you aren't making the choice?' "
Because of how horribly the Eric Musselman hire turned out last season, the Maloofs wouldn't overrule Petrie on the coaching hire. Still, they stayed on Theus' side, and after another long talk with him Monday, Theus won Petrie over, too. "One of the points that Geoff really liked about Reggie was that he had been a head coach, and Brian Shaw and (Kings assistant) Scott Brooks hadn't," Joe Maloof said.
As much as a coach, the Kings need an ambassador to build a new arena, push season tickets and give the market a reason to fall back in love with a franchise that has lost a lot of standing in the community. Theus has worked hard to distance himself from the mold of the traditional used car salesman college coach doomed to NBA failure, insisting that his 13 years as a player separates him from the cautionary tales.
Of course, just because he recruited better players than the rest of the Western Athletic Conference at New Mexico State and clutched a clipboard for Rick Pitino at Louisville for two years, he's no a sure thing. The Kings aren't searching as much for an X's and O's star as a persona to take control of the franchise.
Theus talked a good game in his news conference, trashing Musselman's 33-victory season. It sure sounded cocky coming off a season of beating up on Boise State and San Jose State in the WAC, but the Maloofs don't seem to mind the arrogance. In fact, they kind of embrace it.
Through all of that, though, as much as people want to frame Theus as a Pitino protégé, he still is much more of a Tark guy. His UNLV roots probably prepare him best for the Kings job. Fifteen years ago, Tarkanian was hired to coach the Spurs. Management thought he could do something which was becoming increasingly hard for others to do – coach a petulant Rod Strickland. Except Strickland was traded in the preseason, and a 9-11 start got Tark fired in record time.
For Theus, the best chance he has of surviving this three-year, $6 million contract is winning over Ron Artest and finding a way to keep him a productive King. If Petrie has to trade Artest, the Kings won't come close to getting value. A Runnin' Rebel at heart, Theus needs to sharpen his Father Flanagan pedigree and reach Artest. Along the way, that means selling Artest and point guard Mike Bibby on coexistence on the court.
"I hope he brings that part of Tark with him," Joe Maloof said of Theus. "(Artest and Bibby) need to make sure they get along, or it's not going to work here. That's why you bring in a guy like Reggie to make that work. If we're going to be successful, those guys have to get along."
Whatever the issues on these dysfunctional Kings, Theus wanted the job badly. From New Mexico State, Sacramento was the one NBA destination that Theus ever had a chance in which to make this leap. His popularity as a past player and relationship with the Maloofs gave him a puncher's chance. What's more, the fact that Musselman was a non-former player who chafed the team also worked in Theus' favor. Musselman never won the respect of Artest, and without it, he lost the locker room. Except for Stan Van Gundy, a proven winner, most of this snaking two-month search centered on ball players.
Tark never has bought the idea that college coaches aren't capable of making a successful move to the pros, insisting, "Look at the (crap) teams most of us took over." He did warn Theus about that but understood that any resistance would be futile. Truth be told, Theus has nothing to lose. After he gets fired, he can go back to a better college job than he left at New Mexico State. For now, Reggie Theus is talking about the Western Conference playoffs next season.
"I love the Maloofs, but I don't think their team is very strong," Tarkanian said, "I told Reggie, 'The only way you can make this go is to get Artest, (Mike) Bibby and (Brad) Miller playing at an All-Star level again,' and I'm not sure they can be that anymore."
Theus didn't listen. He kept selling himself to Petrie, the way that Tark sold him to the Maloofs. This job is some leap from Las Cruces, but maybe not so far from Vegas.