Starting Over at the Bottom : Westphal Hoping He Can Build New Career as a Coach

Times Staff Writer

Paul Westphal was busy winning a basketball game Friday night. The court his team was playing on was only a few miles away from Veterans' Memorial Coliseum, but it seemed like light years away to Westphal.

Westphal, a five-time All-Pro guard, hasn't played in a National Basketball Assn. game for a couple of years. He has also given up playing the NBA arbitration game, trying to get the Phoenix Suns to pay him the year's salary he feels he is owed.

Friday night's game was in the tiny, cloth-domed gym behind the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf. There, Westphal coached Southwestern Baptist Bible College to a 79-58 victory over Pacific Coast Baptist Bible College.

Westphal is working with a microcosm of what he expects to find when he moves on to a higher level of coaching. And, truly, he has nowhere to go but up.

He is a volunteer coach at Southwestern, but that position comes with the honor of also being the athletic director at this school of almost 250 students. Southwestern plays its games at a nearby junior high school.

As athletic director, Westphal is trying to raise funds to build the school its own gym.

But, then, Southwestern's rival doesn't have its own gym, either. That's why the tournament last weekend was held at the Day School for the Deaf in one of those dinky, echoing places with bleachers on just one side--seven rows of bleachers.

Every person who walked into the gym jumped the attendance figure by a couple of percentage points. Westphal's wife, Cindy, was there, catching up on some letter-writing. And his daughter, who was studying. And his son, who was sitting on Daddy's lap, playing with a magnetic basketball board.

Very casual.

Isn't it quite a comedown for a guy who was a star in the NBA?

"I'm loving it," Westphal said. "This is the lowest level of college coaching that you can find. These guys aren't on scholarship, but they care just as much. The intensity is the same for every single game.

"Once you realize that, it's not a comedown at all.

"I have some very talented players. They just happen to be short."

That can be a challenge to a coach. Not everyone has had the opportunity to coach 15 short white guys.

Cindy laughed and said: "When Paul first took this position, we prayed for God to make some of the next young men who enrolled at the school black. And we got Marvin. Little Marvin. He was a soccer player.

"I guess we were not specific enough in our prayers."

OK, so the fast breaks aren't all that fast and there aren't any dunks. But Westphal's team is well coached and on the upswing. Southwestern was 3-20 last season and is off to a 14-6 start this season.

Westphal said that he's gaining as much from his volunteer coaching as the team is gaining from him.

It beats the way he spent last year. He was in limbo as far as he was concerned. He had expected to be playing basketball, but he found himself out of the NBA and taking golf lessons. His instructor, Paul Purtzer, was also giving lessons to Keith Province, the coach of Southwestern Baptist Bible.

Province suggested that maybe Westphal would make a better coach, and he offered to let Westphal take over while he moved down the bench to the assistant's spot.

"I needed the experience of coaching," Westphal said. "Obviously I know the game and I've been closely associated with some of the biggest names in basketball--Red Auerbach, Don Nelson, Red Holzman. I've played with Pat Riley and John Havlicek. Surely I've learned a lot from them.

"I've always assumed that eventually I would coach. But you know that when it comes to getting a coaching job, the question is going to be, 'But can he coach?'

"This has given me a chance to test my coaching theories. Some have been confirmed; some of been canceled. Most have been confirmed."

There were some other opportunities, but Westphal wanted to get started where he could be a head coach right away, not an assistant. He also wanted to stay in Phoenix for a while.

"The last years in the NBA were hard," he said. "We moved three times in less than five years, and I didn't want to do that to my family again for something that might not last."

Westphal's last years in the NBA were indeed pretty rough. And the first few weren't ideal, either. In between, though, it was great.

Westphal, a graduate of Aviation High School in Redondo Beach, was one of the best guards to play at USC, and he went from the Trojans to the Boston Celtics. But there he was the third guard, behind Don Chaney and Jo Jo White.

When Chaney jumped to the ABA, and it seemed to be Westphal's turn to start for an NBA championship team, he was traded to Phoenix--not a contender at the time.

Westphal became the key to the Suns' turn-around and had them in the final series the very next time around against, of all teams, the Celtics.

Westphal then had a series of super seasons for the Suns. But when he reached 29, he began getting concerned about the way the Suns seemed to handle outgoing players. He didn't think he wanted to grow old with the Suns.

So in October of 1980, Phoenix traded him to Seattle for Dennis Johnson. His first year at Seattle he suffered a stress fracture in his right foot and played in just 36 games. His troubles were just beginning.

The next August he broke his right foot in a practice game at San Diego. He made it clear that it was not another stress fracture, that it was a break where the stress fracture had been, and that the foot could be fixed. But from that point, he was considered a high risk.

In December of '81 the SuperSonics offered him $200,000 to continue to play for them, but Westphal considered that an insult and an indication that he was no longer wanted in Seattle. In March of 1982, he signed with the New York Knicks as a free agent.

At the end of the 1983 season, he was named the NBA's comeback player of the year. Then he was waived by the Knicks.

The next September he signed as a free agent with the Suns, who would guarantee his two-year contract only if he was able to play in at least 60 games. He played in 59, then was was cut before the next season.

He argued that he had been healthy enough to play in 60 games, but that the Suns had chosen not to use him to save the money from the second year of his contract.

Westphal didn't get the money.

Then it was a year of golf and on to this inauspicious start in coaching.

Trying to accentuate the positive, Westphal reasons that the ups and downs of his playing career will make him a better coach.

"I have had a lot of success at times in basketball, but I have also experienced what it was like to sit on the bench as a newcomer and what it was like to sit on the bench as a fading old-timer," he said.

"I've been traded and I've been cut and I've been injured.

"That will have to help me when I'm coaching players who are going through those things. I've been through it all."

From the bottom to the top and back, and starting all over again.

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