Theus, New Mexico State hoping for Hollywood ending

SPOKANE, Wash. -- When former NBA star Reggie Theus was searching for a coaching job after retiring as a player and then broadcaster, his only experience was acting as a coach on Saturday morning TV.

For three years, Theus played the lead role of coach Bill Fuller on the children's show "Hang Time." Unable to find a job on a major college staff, Theus worked one year as a volunteer assistant at Division II Cal State-Los Angeles. He also coached the Southern California All-Stars, a 17-and-under AAU team, and summer league teams for the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets.

Only five years ago, Theus was driving a 15-passenger van and coaching the Las Vegas Slam of the American Basketball Association.

"A semipro league," Theus said. "That was the absolute chitlins circuit."

No matter where Theus worked or how many games his teams won, he couldn't persuade coaches that he was serious about joining their ranks.

"The long road and why it took so long, you know what, I'd like to know that myself," Theus said. "I think what happens is people have a very skewed idea or thoughts about former NBA players or former athletes. There's always a question. It's such a tight-knit fraternity. People don't like to see a guy come on the scene that hasn't paid his dues. Well, we pay dues differently. I was playing while you were coaching in that small school. There's a different kind of upbringing. All in a sense paying your dues, but just very different."

Finally, before the 2003-04 season, Louisville coach Rick Pitino called Theus and offered him a job on the Cardinals' staff. Immediately, Theus became an effective recruiter, helping the Cardinals land players from the West Coast, where Louisville had rarely recruited before.

When illness forced New Mexico State coach Lou Henson to retire after the 2004-05 season, Theus jumped at the opportunity. He inherited a team that had just finished 6-24, the Aggies' worst finish in nearly 40 seasons, and had little talent returning.

Still, it was a head coaching job, and one Theus wanted. He led the Aggies to a 16-14 record last season, tied for the fifth-best turnaround in college basketball.

On Friday, Theus takes the next step when he leads the No. 13 seed Aggies against No. 4 seed Texas in an East Regional first-round game at Spokane Arena. The Aggies earned the school's first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 1999 by beating Utah State 72-70 in the WAC tournament finals.

To survive another day in the NCAA Tournament, the Aggies will have to find a way to slow down Longhorns freshman Kevin Durant, who averaged 25.6 points and 11.3 rebounds. If Texas loses, it will probably be Durant's last college game. He is expected to the first or second pick in this summer's NBA draft, if he forgoes his remaining eligibility.

"When I went to play Michael Jordan, it was like, 'What's it like to get scored on by Michael Jordan?'" Theus said. "[Durant]'s a great player, but he's not the only one. He averages [26 points] a game, but you can't win a game with [26] points. … You don't stop a guy that averages [26] points a game against everyone. You just try to make it tough on him."

Theus' rebuilding job at New Mexico State couldn't have been tougher, but he transformed the Aggies into an NCAA Tournament team in only two seasons.

"This was once a very storied program in the sense that it has great history," Theus said. "It's been to the Final Four. It's been to the Sweet 16. Our fans were known around the country as one of the toughest places to play in all of basketball. Well, all that's back. The Panamaniacs are back. It's nice to see. When you start something completely from scratch, and you watch it develop into something special, that's why I was a little emotional."

Theus has rebuilt the New Mexico State program with a roster full of vagabonds. His leading scorer, guard Justin Hawkins, transferred from Utah. Senior guard Elijah Ingram transferred from St. John's, after he was forced to withdraw from school in February 2004 for visiting a strip bar after a game in Pittsburgh. In fact, each of the Aggies' top 10 players matriculated at a different school, either another Division I college or junior college. The team has only two freshmen, one of them Theus' cousin.

"People are always worried about transfers because they all have a certain amount of baggage that comes along with them," Theus said. "I just feel that every relationship is not the same. What I bring to the table, where they were coming from, I have an advantage because I know what they didn't like where they were. And the other side is they've got no place else to go. Once you transfer, that's it. So they have to be willing to adapt and settle themselves because this is their last stop."

The quick turnaround has helped Theus attract one of the country's top prospects for next season. Power forward Herb Pope of Aliquippa, Penn., signed with the Aggies last fall, after he reneged on a verbal commitment to Pittsburgh. Pope also considered heavyweights Maryland, Oklahoma, Memphis and Texas.

Aside from Ingram, who was a McDonald's All-American at fabled St. Anthony's High School in Jersey City, N.J., most of the Aggies' players aren't well-known players. Starting forward Tyrone Nelson started his career at Prairie View A&M. Guard Fred Peete transferred from Kansas State, and center Hatila Passos and forward David Fisher are from Arkansas-Fort Smith.

"It is rare to see a group of guys come from different schools and just immediately click," Ingram said. "But we've got a good group of guys and the chemistry was just there from the get-go."

Theus said he didn't have to search for the transfers. They called him.

"They were all fans of 'Hang Time,'" Theus joked. "They all knew Coach Fuller could help them out."

Theus is by far the most recognizable face on New Mexico State's bench. Known as a flamboyant and flashy player during 13 NBA seasons -- he retired as one of only seven players in NBA history with 19,000 points and 6,000 assists -- Theus still enjoys the spotlight. Before home games in Pan American Center, Theus walks down stairs through the student section, instead of running through a tunnel with his team.

"When the building was being renovated, that was the only way to go, and I'm very superstitious," Theus said.

Theus also is among the best-dressed coaches in the country. He said most of the wardrobe came from his days as an NBA analyst on TV.

"We all call him 'Hollywood,'" Ingram said. "He's a pretty boy. He's into himself."

"I think sometimes Coach still thinks he's on 'Hang Time' or something," Hawkins said. "He still thinks there's a camera always following him around, because he's always trying to look stylish or something."

Theus, whose good looks and night life earned him the moniker "Rush Street Reggie" during his playing days with the Chicago Bulls (he is now married with three children), admits he isn't ready to give up his Coach Fuller identity.

"Laugh if you want, but there's a lot of kids out there who watched 'Hang Time,'" Theus said. "So when I walked into the gym many times, kids weren't asking me about my career, they were talking about 'Hang Time.' Ironically enough, it's been a great recruiting tool."

Mark Schlabach covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at schlabachma@yahoo.com.