Paul Westhead’s up and down coaching career is best remembered for the lots of shots and lots of points with fast-paced offenses.
“The speed game can help you do better than your team should expect to do, like Loyola Marymount,” he told NY Sports Day.
The irony is many players won’t buy into the system of constant sprinting and it eventually gets Westhead fired.
The coach who led the Lakers to the 1980 NBA title and Loyola Marymount to the Elite Eight in 1990 recently wrote
“The Speed Game: My Fast Times in Basketball.”
He had been head coach at La Salle when Jack McKinney brought him to the Lakers as an assistant in 1979. Early in the season, McKinney nearly died in a bicycling accident and Westhead was suddenly the head coach.
Fortunately, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar provided veteran experience in what turned out to be his sixth MVP season.
“There’s no question when I was with the Lakers one of the things I recognized early on was that he was the team leader,” Westhead said. “Not so much with the words. He didn’t like to mix it up with fans and media but on the court he was the go-to guy over and over and over again.”
Abdul-Jabbar led the way and rookie Magic Johnson burst on the scene though Westhead had to lead a team with a few unhappy players, including Jim Chones and Spencer Haywood. Haywood later admitted to putting a hit out on Westhead before being talked out of it.
The rookie head coach was also given the cold shoulder by some other coaches in the league.
“Back then in the NBA it was only the head coach and the assistant coach so there wasn’t great interaction among the coaches,” Westhead said.
Teams only had one assistant and Lakers owner Jerry Buss wanted Westhead to bring in former great Elgin Baylor. Instead, Westhead chose Pat Riley, who was announcing games with Chick Hearn. Riley would go on to lead LA to seven NBA Finals, winning four.
“It was a great legacy I gave the Lakers and the NBA,” Westhead said.
Westhead spent the 1979-80 season not knowing if Buss would sign him to an extension, all the while wondering if McKinney would return to replace him.
Westhead said the games helped him concentrate on the task at hand.
“The game engulfs you,” he said. “If you’re in the playoffs in Philadelphia versus Dr. J, your mind for the most part stays focused on the game.”
The Lakers won the title with Johnson playing at center with Abdul-Jabbar injured in the deciding Game 6 of the NBA Finals and scoring 42 points.
The good times wouldn’t last for Westhead. The Lakers were upset by the 40-42 Rockets in the 1981 playoffs and he was fired early in the 1981-82 season following critical comments from Johnson.
Westhead says he didn’t see the firing coming, assuming from his college experience that the coach could go to the administration with an issue.
“What I misunderstood, what I was naive about, in the NBA when there’s a conflict between a player and coach, most of the time a player wins,” he said.
Johnson would later coach the Lakers himself, going 5-11 in a forgettable stint.
“I always have empathy for coaches who get fired,” Westhead said. “I think he briefly understood the coaching world is not as easy as the playing world for him.”
For anyone who believes is the life of a championship winning coach is charmed, Westhead said, “You should talk to my wife about that.”
A nomadic career saw him coach men and women in the pros and college, in Japan and in the G League. His season with the Chicago Bulls takes up less than a full page in the book.
“That’s about how long some of my jobs were,” Westhead said.
His other memorable coaching stop was at Loyola Marymount, where Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble ran the team to national attention.
“LMU was the one time everything came together,” Westhead said.
Not only did the offense run, the defense pressed the opponent as well.
“The defense made it an explosion,” he said.
Gathers led the nation in scoring and rebounding in 1989. The team kept rolling in 1990 but Gathers, who had been dealing with a heart condition, collapsed on the court during a game and was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.
Without Gathers, LMU went on an unlikely run to the Elite Eight, defeating defending champion Michigan 149-115 along the way.
But the season was the end for Westhead at LMU as he left for the Denver Nuggets.
“The draw to go back to the NBA and, I guess, redeem myself, I don’t how many offers I’m going to get,” he said. “This was one more shot.”
Westhead won 44 games in two seasons and was fired. Highlights (or lowlights) included losing 162-158 to the Warriors on opening night, giving up 107 points in the first half of a game to the Suns and Magic guard Scott Skiles dish out a record 30 assists in a 155-116 drubbing.
Westhead said college teams prepare for a full court press with multiple schemes while NBA teams don’t.
“What I didn’t count on is you wind up with the ball in the hands of a very good player and they just take it on their own,” he said.
Over the next two decades, Westhead bounced around and led the Phoenix Mercury to the 2007 WNBA title. He last coached Oregon’s women’s team in 2014.
Westhead also joked about often being mistaken for Paul Westphal, the five-time All-Star who also coached in the NBA in the 1990s. Occasionally fans send Westhead a Westphal card for him to sign.
“I keep getting your mail but I never get any checks,” Westhead told Westphal.
Photo: Bill Shettle / Icon Sportswire