Paul Westhead, the Ex-Laker Coach Who Once Flew With Eagles, Now Coaches, Oh Dear, Mainly Students

Times Sports Columnist

Paul Westhead picks up his telephone messages from a secretary in the Marymount Palos Verdes College office. The athletic director at Caltech has called.

"He heard we might have a team next year," Westhead says, laughing. "He wants to pick up a W."

Hey, those Caltech guys are no dummies.

If tiny Marymount (586 students, no jocks) does have a basketball team next school year, it would probably be a team that Caltech could beat.

The fact that Marymount's coach coached the Lakers to a world championship a few years ago apparently doesn't intimidate the Caltechers. They know a coach is only as good as his players, which is a theme upon which Paul Westhead could write a book.

And they probably realize the talent at Marymount is a little thin. You know how Al McGuire refers to big, dominating players as aircraft carriers? In the basketball phys-ed class Westhead teaches twice a week, he is admiral over a fleet of driftwood.

Nobody tops 6 feet. One kid is from the Middle East and never played the game until signing up for this class. During a running drill, the kid pulls up at halfcourt, wheezing and gasping.

He explains to Westhead that he smokes 2 1/2 packs a day, but promises he'll try to cut back. What more can a coach ask in terms of dedication and sacrifice?

Watch out, Caltech.

I am a part of all I have met, as Tennyson would say. --Paul Westhead

It's possible that in the history of basketball, no coach ever catapulted to fame and fortune, then crashed to earth, as quickly as Paul Westhead did.

The ride, in capsule form:

--1979. Westhead finishes his ninth season as basketball coach and professor of Shakespeare at LaSalle College in Philadelphia. A down season. Alums are grumbling. Westhead applies for the coaching job at Loyola in Los Angeles, but doesn't get it.

--Still 1979. Westhead's best friend, Jack McKinney, becomes coach of the Lakers and hires Paul as an assistant.

--Still 1979. Thirteen games into the season, McKinney falls off his bicycle and is seriously injured. Westhead assumes interim command, guides the team to the world title. Run 'n fun. Just maybe the NBA's all-time prettiest team.

--1980. McKinney, after recovering, is fired. Westhead is hired, with a four-year, $1-million contract.

--1981. The Lakers lose in the playoffs to the lightly regarded Houston Rockets. The next season, the grumbling begins in earnest. The famed fast break grinds to a near halt. Magic Johnson demands to be traded. Owner Jerry Buss fires Westhead, citing a disappearance of "showtime."

--1982. The lowly Chicago Bulls hire Westhead. No miracles are forthcoming. Stories circulate about team chaos, players near-mutiny and concern for the coach's sanity. At season's end, Westhead is fired.

--1985. Westhead resurfaces, sort of, coaching PE and teaching expository writing at a tiny college perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean.

Can Westhead sum it all up for us? Does he see himself as a tragic figure?

"I've tried to put some perspective in it," he says. "It's really hard to give a complete evaluation or opinion, because hopefully the final act hasn't been written.

"If I were totally out (of basketball) and the book was closed forever, I might evaluate it differently than if just a few scenes had taken place."

Such as . . .

Scene 1 / Laker Glory

I learned early that the Lakers ride best under a hand ride, not a whip. --Paul the jockey, on the eve of the Lakers' 1980 triumph over Philadelphia in the final playoff series. Going into the sixth game of the championship series, at Philly, here's what the Lakers featured:

A rookie coach who dressed preppie and quoted Shakespeare, an MVP-type center, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, sitting home with a sprained ankle, an all-star guard, Norm Nixon, with a mangled finger, and a rookie point guard, Magic, forced to play center this evening.

The Lakers struck a stunning psychological blow when Magic Johnson was announced as the starting center, walked to midcourt grinning, and actually jumped center on the opening tipoff.

The Sixers, perplexed and surprised, wilted and died.

Even the other Lakers were surprised.

"When we broke our pregame huddle," Westhead says, "Jim Chones (the 6-11 forward) said to me, 'I'm jumping center, right?' I said, 'No, Magic is.' I wanted to get all the awareness of the 76ers, and their fans, that Magic was the center.

"It was a little bit of guesswork on my part, and a little showmanship. Nevertheless, I think it was very effective."

Magic actually played part of the game in the post, dominating Darryl Dawkins.

If ever a team looked loose, unrestrained by overcoaching, fast and free, yet disciplined and hustling--in short, inspired--this one did.

With a few minutes left in the game, Westhead turned to assistant coach Pat Riley and said: "We're going to win the world championship."

In the town where he was born, and had played his ball and then coached for nearly two decades, Paul Westhead had returned to ride a champion.

There are some who will tell you the Lakers didn't even need a coach, or a jockey, that season. The players were smart and extraordinarily talented and all they needed was someone to stand up and wave a green flag.

That, however, would be denying Westhead his due. He fell into a great situation and played it well. The instant fame, he handled with grace and modesty. He worked hard, studied, listened to the players, rode lightly, enjoyed himself and played it cool.

And for those who snorted that the Lakers were such a great team that nobody could have screwed them up, Paul Westhead himself shot down that argument a year later.

Which takes us to . . .

Scene 2 / Laker Fall

I'm not worried, but I'm beginning to get a little concerned. --Jamaal Wilkes

I'm disappointed, but not worried. --Jerry Buss

What, me worry? --Alfred E. Newman

What the heck. Camelot didn't last forever, either.

In Lakerland, problems arose. First there was the sensitive issue of Westhead's taking over his best friend's job. Even though Buss swore that McKinney would not have been rehired had Westhead rejected the job, McKinney was bitter at his old friend's stealing his job.

There was a major falling out.

(Today, McKinney says: "Everything's fine now. If I'm out there (in L.A.), I call him up and we have dinner or drinks. We're not as close as we were, but that's only because of distance (McKinney works for the Kansas City Kings), the fact we only see each other a couple times a year.

("It's still there (the friendship). The poor feeling, which was fostered on my part, and was unfair, has just dissolved through time and understanding.")

There were player injuries, and complaints about playing time and communication with the coach. Nothing unusual for the NBA. The Lakers still finished 54-28. Then they lost to the Rockets in the playoffs.

Panic set in early the following season. Eleven games in, with the Lakers on a five-game winning streak, Westhead was fired.

What happened?

The players say Westhead installed a complicated offense that killed the fast break and forced the ball inside to Kareem every time. They say Westhead insisted on calling every play from the bench, further slowing the action. They say Westhead grew tense and withdrawn, quick-tempered, that he rejected all input from the players.

Magic Johnson, in his autobiography "Magic," tells of Westhead calling a timeout for the sole purpose of screaming at a player for a bad shot.

"I stood back and looked at the man," Magic wrote. "His face was flushed and twisted, the bloodshot eyes bulged. Watching a coach fall, I thought, wasn't pretty."

Shortly after that scene, Westhead scolded Magic after a game. Johnson, one of several players who had been privately seething, went public, demanding to be traded.

Buss, who insisted he had already decided on the move, fired Westhead the next day.

Did Magic fire Westhead?

"I'm not so sure that's what happened," Westhead says. "The timing would seem to indicate that, but in all fairness, I find it incredible that that (Magic's demand) was the major problem. My experience with Magic up to that time had been very good.

"If I had to guess (why he was fired), I'd say it was one of those unbelievable things, where everything that could fall into place fell out of place.

"A significant factor was that this was perhaps one of those rare times when a guy like Jerry Buss was very touchy. We had just completed the Mitch Kupchak deal, and there was a great deal of money involved, and a great deal of antagonism throughout the league toward Buss (for inflating the salary structure).

"It was like, 'You're not following what the boys (other owners) want you do do.' To his credit, Jerry Buss didn't let the boys influence him. He went out and got the best players he could get, regardless of what the boys thought.

"But after it was done, he did care what the boys said. So there was an incredible pressure, at that moment, to look like the best team basketball has ever had.

"Also, Magic was under a great deal of personal pressure. I don't think that (the trade-me ultimatum) is indicative of the kind of person he was. He hadn't really proved he was back from his knee problems (of the previous season), and there was the unbelievably embarrassing ending vs. Houston (Magic took the final shot in the final game, a 10-foot airball).

"Put all the pieces together, you say you can't get fired unless five things go wrong at the same time. They couldn't, but they did."

Probably the key thing, though, was the death of the fast break.

"That (slowing the team down) was the same thing they were clamoring about me at the beginning of this season," said Pat Riley, who succeeded Westhead as coach. "I'd made some adjustments, and the players were complaining. A Pandora's Box always opens when a team loses a few games.

"We were eliminated by Houston in the playoffs in '81 by dissention and turmoil on the team more than anything. Paul was never trying to slow the team down. I think he got a bad rap from that.

"There was a media frenzy about it (the temporary slowdown), and that had a tremendous ripple effect throughout the team, the organization and the public. He wasn't allowed to coach. Sometimes, players have a tendency to subconsciously sabotage a situation, when they feel uncomfortable."

Westhead explains the Death of Showtime this way: "Subsequent to losing to Houston one of the things we found out was that we did have some vulnerability at the power-forward spot," Westhead says. "We covered that with Mitch.

"We also seemed to be weak when the other team forced us into a slowdown game, as Houston did. So I made the decision we'd get this taken care of, that we'd be a better set-up offensive team, so when the bell rang and the other teams started to throw left hooks at us, we would not get KOd.

"I was in the process of covering that, so that we could play that tune (the slowdown game), too. In the long run, if you're being treated fairly and there are snags like that, you get over the snags. When you slow down to fix the ship, you don't throw the captain overboard.

"(The absence of showtime) just seems to me kind of a made-up reason. . . . I think he (Buss) made a judgment decision that in my opinion wasn't based on enough of the facts.

" . . . My relationship with Buss had always been positive. I think he was a guy who did everything he could to get you the players. No one could fault him for that, and he was never a meddling kind of guy.

"I think he just kind of pushed the panic button. From where I sat, there wasn't an invasion, he didn't have to let the missiles go. But his advisers said, 'We're being invaded.' "

As Magic pointed out, the end wasn't pretty. The star players, with the exception of Kareem, grew confused and unhappy, and felt cut off from any creative input. Some say they lost respect for Westhead.

One halftime, with the Lakers playing poorly, Westhead delivered an allegorical-type speech having to do with being adrift on a lake. The speech ran long and the Lakers got back to the court too late to take their halftime warmups.

"Here we are, down by 18 and he's in some damn boat with no oars," Norm Nixon grumbled later.

Nixon was not a big Westhead fan from the beginning. Most of the other players started out backing the rookie coach, then gradually shifted to Nixon's point of view. When Westhead was fired, Kareem was the only player to phone and offer condolences.

Westhead, for his part, never criticized a player. In Los Angeles and Chicago, his players often took shots at him in the press and behind his back, but he never acknowledged or retaliated.

And he refuses to look upon his brief Laker career as bleak.

"I always felt and still feel my experience with the Lakers was clearly a very positive one," he says. "It was great for me. I worked very hard, and felt I was a significant part of winning a world championship."

Before hard times set in, Westhead had been generally charming, lighthearted, quotable, accessable.

Toward the end, however, he became almost a recluse.

Just after coaching what proved to be his final Laker game, Westhead was asked why he never responded to the frequent criticism of his lineup and offense.

"An almond tree bears its fruit in silence," he said.

"Who are you quoting?" he was asked.

"Me," Westhead said.

Scene 3 / Chicago Disaster

Can this man drive the Bulls to a championship? --Headline on cover of a Chicago magazine, featuring Westhead dressed in cowboy garb.

The only reason for recounting Westhead's season in Chicago is to demonstrate how low the spirit and morale of a coach and players can sink in the wacky world of the NBA.

For instance: If any Chicago player benefited from Westhead's coaching, it was Reggie Theus, who was given shoot-em-up carte blanche .

Yet, midway through the season, Theus evaluated the team's situation thusly: "We no longer have a monkey (the Bulls' losing tradition) on our backs. It's a gorilla."

Westhead was determined that the Bulls would run. Remember, he had left Los Angeles with the rap of being the guy who killed showtime, and he felt that rap was unfair.

"If there's anything I stand for in basketball, good or bad, it's fast break basketball," Westhead says. Even his PE class at Marymount runs the break.

"If anything, I pushed our Laker team too much to run, and there may have been some tacit disappointment because of the constant demand to push and keep running.

Certainly no one in Chicago said he disliked the coach. In the most crucial game of Westhead's coaching career, he let his point guard play center. When he had to choose an assistant coach at Los Angeles, management gave him a list of half-a-dozen prospects; Westhead threw away the list and hired a broadcaster--and whatever became of Pat Riley?

Those kinds of things went over great when teams were winning. They established Westhead's rep as basketball's Renaissance Man.

But now his team was losing, and the coach was breaking out energy bars.

"I never was afraid of trying things," Westhead says. "I don't think anyone who knows my coaching career would say I ever played my cards close to the vest."

At LaSalle, for instance, Westhead invented the box-and-none defense. If the other team tried to stall against LaSalle's greyhounds, he would order one or more of his players to desert their defensive posts and go back to the other end of the court. In effect, he was taunting the other team, shaming them into shooting the ball.

The Bulls under Westhead had another interesting defense--an invisible one. Players claimed that the first and last time Westhead drilled them on defense was at the opening of training camp.

"We had no concept of defense," David Greenwood says, "and no plays except, as soon as the ball came out of the net, push it down the other guy's throat."

Westhead says the main problem in Chicago was simply players. He didn't have enough good ones, and the front office wouldn't get him any more. He inherited a bad team, lost center Artis Gilmore in a preseason trade, and picked up a troubled rookie, Quintin Dailey.

Rod Thorn, Bulls' general manager, admits charitably: "I think maybe my expectation level was higher than it should have been. Our team wasn't good enough."

Westhead agrees.

"You're brought in to be the magic man, the standard bearer, but there's no standard," he says. "You begin to realize why the team has always failed, because nothing ever gets done to change it.

"It's amazing how 30, 40 games into the season, all those problems and inadequacies are you . Anybody who's 10 and 30 can't coach, right?

"The year after I left, they lost even more games. That's not an indictment of the man who followed me, it's simply a commentary, that in a program like that, so many things are out of sync, coaching is not your problem."

The players disagreed, of course. At one point, forward Dave Corzine confided that the club was close to mutiny.

Westhead and Thorn reportedly had frequent, strong clashes. Westhead snapped at trainers and bus drivers. The team finished 28-54. Westhead was fired with a year to go on his $175,000 contract.

Scene 4 / Out of Fast Lane

Anything that does not kill me makes me stronger. --Westhead, during a preseason talk to the Lakers, quoting Nazi camp survivor Victor Frankel

Westhead didn't die, he just faded away for a while and got stronger.

He went to Australia for a month to help coach that country's Olympic team. He did some coaching and clinics in Ireland, Italy and Puerto Rico.

He and his family--wife Cassie, daughters Monica (21), Patrice (19) and Julie (10), and son Paul Jr. (17) moved back into the Palos Verdes house they had bought when Paul was Laker coach.

He worked on an MBA at Pepperdine and took a graduate creative writing program at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

He has done some scouting for three NBA teams--Portland, Kansas City and the Los Angeles Clippers--and for at least one college.

He was eager to try teaching again, so he phoned Marymount and was signed on as a professor.

When caught up with, he was sitting on the school's cafeteria sundeck, overlooking the ocean and Catalina Island.

Is this his life now, or is he a coach-in-waiting?

"I don't think it would be accurate to say I'm someone just kind of hanging out waiting for the phone to ring," he says.

"I think I've really grown as a person, realized life isn't contingent upon a call from the NBA. It's doing things you like.

"I'm not saying Marymount is what I want to do the rest of my life, but I'm not waiting on pins and needles, hoping I haven't been mislabeled as a coach.

"I project that I, for sure, will be back involved in coaching, because I think it's a part of me, it's what I do."

Something else Westhead, 46, does is run a lot, at least an hour and a half every day. A year ago he became obsessed with qualifying for the Boston Marathon (3:18 needed for his age bracket).

He went for it at a save-the-panda charity marathon in Manhattan Beach. He ran to dehydration, then exhaustion, then delirium.

"My daughter was waiting for me at the finish line and I didn't even know who she was," he said. "I was vomiting, totally out of control, they took me to the hospital. I saved a panda, but almost lost myself."

He has cut back on the intensity of his training. He looks trim, and he seems to have regained the good nature that deserted him near the end of his stays in Los Angeles and Chicago.

There are rumors that he is among the candidates to fill head coaching vacancies here at Loyola, and Hawaii.

Would it be fair to say his NBA salaries have given him financial security and erased the urgency of finding a job?

"That would not be fair to say," he says. "The reality is, my NBA finances came to a screeching halt a few months ago. I'm right back into the blue-collar finance world. The mortgage is due in five days."

Still, he says, he won't jump at a bad job. If nothing else comes along, he'll be coaching the new team at Marymount next season.

He already has one game lined up. Be ready to run, Caltech.

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