Jerry Reynolds Leaves Lasting Legacy in Sacramento

With basketball smarts, country charm and self-deprecating wit, the former Kings coach, executive and broadcaster is one of the most beloved figures in franchise history.
by Alex Kramers
Writer, Kings.com

Amid the awards and honorary doctorates on the walls of his man cave, a neatly-furnished room as modest and understated as the man himself, hang keepsakes and framed photographs of some of Jerry Reynolds’ favorite moments from his 35 years in Sacramento.

Ask about any one of the mementos, and Reynolds will joyfully launch into a vintage anecdote, as only he can: in his Indiana drawl, with his trademark wit, folksy charm and most of all, humor — often at this own expense.

Two basketballs in acrylic cases, one from his first coaching victory and another signed by the gold-medal 2004 U.S. Women’s Olympics Team, a thank-you for his tenure on the selection committee, are mounted in one corner. “My goal wasn’t to get into coaching or the NBA,” he says. “I just didn’t want to stay in French Lick and work for a living.”

Adorning the back walls are several plaques with press clippings, among them a ‘Best of Sacramento’ accolade honoring his easy-going personality. “That’s back when I had a personality,” Reynolds quips. 

On a shelf inside an oak cabinet sit several wood-framed prints, including one of Larry Bird next to Reynolds, “the second-most famous person from French Lick,” on the set of his short-lived television program. “That famous show, I think, lasted one year,” he says. “I think we had probably 25 viewers, but I enjoyed it anyway.”

Over the years, Jerry, who’s lived in the same Roseville, Calif. house that he and his wife, Dodie, purchased in 1990, has accumulated enough Kings-themed trinkets to fill all four bedrooms. Some, including pictures of Reynolds with legends who’ve passed through Sacramento, such as Bill Russell and Willis Reed, once decorated the hallways, but most, including his two broadcasting Emmys, are packed in storage boxes.

“I’m not really a big picture, autograph, memorabilia type of guy,” Reynolds says. “We decided, ‘Let’s put them away, and someday, when we want to reminisce, we can.’ What’s more important are all the great memories.”

And boy, does he have a lot of those.

During his three and a half decades with the franchise, no one was more malleable or irreplaceable than Reynolds. Between 1985 and 1996, he saw and did it all in basketball operations, rising from second assistant coach to interim head coach to full-time head coach to director of player personnel to general manager.

Along the way, he saw the team’s original owner, Gregg Lukenbill, climb onto the catwalk to plug a leak in the roof of ARCO Arena in the fourth quarter of a game in 1989.

He experienced ARCO vibrating at its loudest in the spring of 1996, when the Kings hosted a postseason game for the first time since the team’s inaugural season in Sacramento.

Reynolds was on board the team’s commercial flight which, he swears, came within a few hundred feet of crashing into the Potomac River during a thunderstorm.

And there was an even more frightening incident that made national headlines, when Reynolds collapsed on the sideline and lay unconscious on the floor for several minutes. Fortunately, doctors ruled out serious ailments and deemed the fall was likely caused by a combination of a poor diet and poorer sleeping habits.

“I remember getting dizzy, trying to get to my seat, and the next thing I know, I’m looking up at the trainer who’s getting ready to give me mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” Reynolds recalls. “I remember telling him, ‘Don’t you put those lips on me!’”

The players he coached admire Reynolds’ genuine talent for building close relationships that transcend the confines of the whiteboard. He coated his wisdom with a layer of whimsy, but his sarcasm and cynicism never drowned out his sincerity and compassion.

For Reggie Theus, a two-time All-Star who played for Reynolds from 1985 through 1988, his former coach’s best quality is his ability to communicate, connect and inspire different people in different ways.

“I learned that everything is not on the pad with X’s and O’s,” Theus says. “I remember reading […] that a coach’s job is to create an atmosphere so players can play their best basketball, and that comes to mind when I think about Jerry. He’s somebody who can deal with adversity and speak the truth, but not hammer you over the head with it.

“When Jerry walks in a room, after a few minutes, everybody starts to gravitate toward him because they probably missed a few one-liners,” Theus adds. “The effect that he’s had on my life, personally, what he means to me as a person, as a coach, as a Sacramento Kings figure, I’m just genuinely happy for him. There are not a lot of guys you cheer for, but you cheer for Jerry.”

A younger generation of fans may not remember Reynolds as the exuberant coach or shrewd executive who executed one of the biggest trades in Kings history and built the core of the WNBA-champion Sacramento Monarchs.

To them, he’s far more recognizable as the wisecracking, inimitable color commentator on game broadcasts for over 20 years.

His collection of colorful expressions and signature catchphrases, better known as “Jerry-isms,” made the Indiana native an original in a sports TV landscape overstocked with carbon copies. Each time he’d drop a “hippity-hop to the barbershop” after a slick drive to the basket, or declare he had a case of “Peja Vu” when Stojakovic would knock down consecutive shots, the telecast, no matter the score or circumstance, became more enjoyable.

At times, his stockpile of stories kept viewers engaged even during the dragging fourth quarters of blowouts.

“When he became the TV guy, that fit him so perfectly because he was such an easy conversationalist,” says former Kings forward LaSalle Thompson, who spent four of his 15 NBA seasons playing for Reynolds. “He would get on TV and be himself. That guy you saw on TV was the same guy you would get in person. You don’t get that a lot.”

As seriously as he took his job, Reynolds, by his own admission, never took himself too seriously. 

“I always thought, ‘Have a little fun with it. It is a game and it’s supposed to be entertainment,” he says. “With some of those teams, it was hard to find entertainment, so you had to do what you could to entertain the fans who were still watching.”

Reynolds, one of the most popular figures in Sacramento, stepped down from his full-time position as color analyst after the 2017-18 season, but appeared on pre- and post-game shows and resumed his familiar broadcasting duties on several homestands.

Last month, the 76-year-old announced his official retirement, making the final stop on a circuitous route that kept him onboard through four ownership groups, five general managers and 17 head coaches.

“(Being a) part-time employee with the Kings the last two years, that really helped me prepare myself for retirement,” he says. “Doing nothing for six months helps prepare you for doing nothing for 12 months.”

On Dec. 26, the night of the 2020-21 home opener at Golden 1 Center, Reynolds’ indelible contributions to the franchise will be commemorated in a unique way. The arena’s media entrance will be named in his honor as a tribute to the man who was a fixture with the organization, in one capacity or another, for its entire existence in California’s capital city.

Reynolds is rarely speechless, but admits he was caught off guard when Kings President of Business Operations John Rinehart called to share the team’s plan to celebrate his achievements. As the Indiana native so often does, he swiftly deflected the praise.

“Certainly, I’m very honored, but I don’t think that it was necessary, to be honest,” Reynolds says. “It’s very nice and very considerate. I really appreciate it. The Kings have always treated me better than I deserve, and this is another example.”

Since retiring, Reynolds has enjoyed walks around the neighborhood and free time to spend with his family. He still watches his fair share of sports on TV, but occasionally opts for a ‘Seinfeld’ rerun in lieu of sitting through a second-half blowout.

After working roughly 3,000 games —some good, some bad, some ugly —over the last 35 years, plus taking in countless others while growing up in the Midwest, he deserves the break.

A basketball junkie since the day he attended his first high school contest, inside an overcrowded gym that resembled a scene from “Hoosiers,” Reynolds showed enough promise as a player to earn a scholarship to Vincennes University, a two-year junior college 60 miles outside of his hometown.

Midway through his sophomore season, his playing career was cut short when he injured his back so badly in a car accident that he was hospitalized for months. Several other schools recruited him during his rehab, and Reynolds followed his brother to Oakland City College. He’d never suit up for another game, but in order to keep his scholarship, he served as the freshman basketball coach.

His former coach at Vincennes later hired him as an assistant, where Reynolds, a natural leader and teacher, helped lead the school to the 1970 junior college national championship. As head coach at West Georgia University, he brought home a Division II title in 1974. During that time, he began volunteering with the Atlanta Hawks in the offseason, hoping the extra experience would help him land a Division I gig.

“I knew Cotton Fitzsimmons, the Hawks coach at the time, who said they could use extra people,” Reynolds says. “I went there for veteran camps and summer leagues, but my goal wasn’t to get into the NBA.”

Fitzsimmons recommended Reynolds for the head coaching job at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, which, by luck or coincidence, doubled as the practice site for the Kings in the early 1980s. On top of winning 184 games in eight seasons in the NAIA, Reynolds helped run Kings training camps alongside head coach Phil Johnson.

When the team relocated to Sacramento in 1985, Johnson convinced Reynolds to join his coaching staff as the second assistant.

“Being an assistant coach, I loved that,” Reynolds says. “You get to be the good guy. You really get to develop relationships with the players. The assistant jobs, I really did get a kick out of ... Reggie Theus, Mike Woodson, Larry Drew, Eddie Johnson, LaSalle Thompson — they were good players, but good people, absolute professionals. I think those players helped me grow up in this league. Seeing their professionalism helped me understand what was involved.”

Johnson was dismissed halfway through the 1986-87 season, and Reynolds was appointed interim head coach, his first of two stints in the position. In March of the following year, Reynolds, who’d reverted to assistant under Russell, was once again elevated to head coach, a role he’d hold for parts of the next three seasons.

“I think he was rushed into being a head coach, but he learned at the same time a lot of us were learning,” Thompson said. “He always had a game plan and he was prepared. He was an easy guy to get along with. He wasn’t a tyrant and he wasn’t too hard on people. I don’t know anybody who didn’t like him.”

Theus learned early that his new coach had an unusually direct way of getting his point across.

“I was playing (shooting) guard and they traded Larry Drew, so we were without a point guard,” he says with a chuckle. “Jerry became the coach and he says, ‘All right, Reggie, listen. I’m going to put the ball in your hands. Don’t [screw] it up.’ He said that in a joking way, but it was a great ice breaker to have a real conversation. Then he started to expound on what he was talking about; how I could be a better player, what I needed to do and where he thought I could improve.

“I’ll also never forget the time he told me, ‘Reggie, why do you always drive to the basket? You’re taking an awful beating when you get to the rim. When you shoot 85 percent from the free throw line, how come you don’t pull up and shoot your jumpshot right there?’ The light goes off in my head. That makes a lot of sense. That, in itself, gave me another element to my game — the pull-up jumper on the break.”

His coaching record stands at a modest 56-114, but his biggest victory came in 1991, when Reynolds, in his third of five seasons as general manager, traded the Draft rights to Billy Owens to the Warriors in exchange for future Hall of Famer Mitch Richmond.

In seven seasons with the Kings, Richmond was named to six All-Star teams, scored more points than any player in the Sacramento era and carried his eighth-seeded squad to a near-upset against Seattle in the 1996 Playoffs.

As the years went along, other franchises tried to entice Reynolds with lucrative contracts and upper-management roles, but, as tempting as some offers sounded, he never seriously considered departing The River City.

“I remember one job in particular, where I’d have to go back to the Midwest,” he says. “My wife asked, ‘Do you want to go?’ I said, ‘No, I really don’t!’ She made a great point. ‘So we make more money or we get a bigger house, but what does that amount to?’ I agreed. We like it here and we’re not moving.”

When Reynolds resigned as Kings general manager in 1993, he stayed on as director of basketball operations, a role he’d hold through 2013, to help ensure the club would hire the right person as his successor. 

“I had a relationship with Geoff Petrie, and I knew he was running his course in Portland,” Reynolds says. “I remember telling (Kings owner) Jim (Thomas), ‘Make sure you interview this guy. This will be your guy.’”

By the time Petrie traded Richmond to the Wizards in exchange for Chris Webber in 1998, the first of several pivotal transactions that reshaped the Kings into a perennial title contender, Reynolds was well-established as the consummate Kings TV commentator.

With less stress and more sleep, Reynolds says, he enjoyed the on-air gig more than any other he’s held throughout his illustrious career.

“You could really pull for the team, but you’re not responsible,” he says. “I might get upset when the team would lose, but by the time I drove home, I’d be over it. (In my other jobs), if things were going badly, I might not be as delightful as I should be with Mrs. Reynolds. Not that I’m that delightful anyway.” 

When Reynolds transitioned into television, he never imagined he’d occupy his courtside seat for as long as he did, or that 20 years later, he’d be one of the game’s longest-tenured broadcasters.

To become entrenched so deeply in Kings lore, considering how many bumps threatened to disrupt his wild ride, for Reynolds is a dream come true.

“I never anticipated being in the position I’m in and I don’t take that for granted,” he says. “I’ve tried to be cognizant of that. It’s one of those things, as you get older, means even more.”

Above all of his accolades and accomplishments, what matters to him most are the fans who made him feel welcome from his first day in Northern California; those who’ve stopped him outside the arena to take selfies or in a grocery store to converse at length about life and basketball.

“Even though I worked for four different ownership groups and a lot of different presidents, I’ve always felt that I worked for the fans,” Reynolds says. “It’s really been a neat experience and I’m so thankful for all of the opportunities I’ve had.”

His retirement leaves an irreplaceable void, but Reynolds’ legacy will forever live on in Sacramento.

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