Coach Theus Inspires at Inglewood Commencement

  • CSUN men's basketball coach Reggie Theus with a group of administrators at the conclusion of the 2014 Inglewood High School commencement services. Photo courtesy Hilberto Sandoval

  • Theus with Inglewood High School Vice Principal LaSonja Brown, a CSUN alumna who invited the coach to speak at the commencement. Photo courtesy Hilberto Sandoval

  • The commencement was held at the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood, and Theus shared that he would attend Laker games as a youth and dreamed of one day playing on that same legendary court. Photo courtesy Hilberto Sandoval

  • Theus' message of hard work leading to success resonated with all in attendance, including some parents who were inspired to return and complete their educations. Photo courtesy Hilberto Sandoval

Reggie Theus has fond memories of growing up in the shadows of the Fabulous Forum in Inglewood — walking by on his way to school and sometimes sneaking into Laker games to watch greats from the 1960s and ’70s such as Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich.

Theus dreamed of one day playing on that same hardwood, and he eventually did during his 13-year NBA career. Now the California State University, Northridge men’s basketball coach, Theus recently had the opportunity to share those memories — in that same building — with the Inglewood High School class of 2014.

A 1975 graduate of Inglewood, Theus kept in touch with his alma mater, continually offering help and support through the years. So, it was easy for him to accept the invitation to deliver the keynote address at the school’s commencement ceremony at the refurbished Forum.

The event proved to be a special occasion for the school and for Theus, who looked out into the crowd at the beginning of his address and reminded the students that he was once in their seats, though in a different venue.

“I laughed, and I let those kids know, ‘Boy, you’re really lucky to graduate at the Fabulous Forum. My graduation was at Sentinel Field in the heat,’’’ mused Theus about his high school’s football field. “So, this environment was phenomenal compared to that.”

That was one of the few moments of levity during his talk as Theus offered words of encouragement and inspiration to the graduates. He summed up his theme for the afternoon: “There’s no escaping hard work if you want to be successful.”

Theus touched on many memories from his own life, particularly about his father, one of his greatest heroes.

“Heroes come in different shapes and different capacities,” he said. “My dad was my hero. I had to go to work with my father when I was in high school: I mopped floors, ran the buffing machine and cleaned toilets. The idea is, I’m not afraid of hard work — there’s no amount of hard work that scares me away, because I have the desire to be successful.”

Theus noted that no one starts their career at the top, and the world is filled with success stories of people who had humble beginnings. He also gave a history lesson, talking about his time as part of the school’s first class to be integrated through busing.

The coach recounted how in the 1960s, Inglewood High School was predominantly white and then became primarily African-American in the 1970s. Today, its student population is mostly Latino.

“He gave them some history about their school that they didn’t even know,” said Inglewood vice principal LaSonja Brown, a CSUN alumna who just finished her first year at Inglewood. “I saw their faces, and I saw them turn and talk to each other in shock because that’s a part of the school’s history that has never been given to them.”

Brown hoped for an inspirational message to students at their commencement proceedings, and she said Theus more than delivered.

“He’s exactly what our students needed to see because he was one of them, and he wasn’t always successful,” Brown said. “It was very important that our students hear from someone who’s an alum from Inglewood and made it, overcoming many of the same obstacles or challenges that they have.

“It was incredibly impactful for them to see the Reggie Theus of today and know that when he was in high school, he was just one of them — with dreams and skills, but he was one of them.”

She noted that in past graduations, the students seemed more restless during the ceremony. It wasn’t the same this year as the graduates listened intently to Theus. His message also reached the older generation in the audience.

“At one point in his speech, he said, ‘Parents, it’s not too late for you either,’” Brown said. “I had two parents call later to tell me that they were going to go to college.”

Brown even quipped that after Theus delivered this year’s keynote, her task of finding a follow-up act for 2015 will be more difficult.

“Mr. Theus has forced me to try to get President Obama as my next speaker because he set the bar so high,” Brown said, laughing. “I may need to ask Mr. Theus for help getting the President!”

Inglewood High School will honor Theus during the upcoming basketball season by retiring his No. 24 jersey, giving the coach another opportunity to share his message about how hard work and determination can lead to success. And he just might connect with young people like he did at commencement.

“I was humbled,” Theus said. “People said, ‘Thank you for doing this.’ As I told them in my message, the true blessing I believe that we have as professional athletes is the ability to stand and tell our stories. I let them know I grew up a lot like most of them. You just never know who you’re going to connect with.”