Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Influential Coaches #1: Paul Westphal

I'm starting out with undoubtedly the most recognizable name on my list. Coach Westphal was the head coach of the men's basketball team at Pepperdine from 2001 to 2006, a span which included all four years that I attended Pepperdine as well as the year before. In the last of these seasons I was a student manager for the team, although I did not sit on the bench for games because I was deemed more valuable as a rabble-rouser in the bleachers. In any case, I know that many of my classmates will express some displeasure at my inclusion of Coach Westphal, principally because our four years saw three incredibly talented teams underachieve in the standings before everything cratered with a 7-20 season in 2005-06. Sure, we were never as good as expected during my four years as a student, but that wasn't because Paul Westphal was a poor coach. He is, in fact, probably the smartest and most detail-oriented basketball mind that I have ever had a chance to be around.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with his work, Paul Westphal was a GREAT player, one of the very best to ever come out of the state of California. Rather than joining UCLA's juggernaut when he graduated from Torrance's Aviation High in 1968, he went to USC and starred there, becoming the 10th pick in the 1972 NBA draft (taken by the Celtics). Three years later he went to Phoenix, and played a key role in Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals (against the Celtics), which is generally considered the best game in NBA history. It was Westphal who ascertained the situation with two ticks left in the second overtime and called an illegal timeout, costing the Suns a technical foul but also giving them the ball at halfcourt, giving Phoenix a better shot at extending the game (which they did).

Westphal was ahead of his time as a player. He came along before the three-point shot and never fully utilized it (he went 55-for-200 in the last five years of his career after the NBA adopted it). But something tells me that a 6'4" guard who shot better than 50% on two-pointers over the entirety of his twelve-year career (.508, including four of his five 1500-point seasons) would have been just fine if he had grown up with the shot. There's also an excellent chance that a player supremely dedicated to his craft, who took great care of his body, would have lasted longer than twelve years had he been given the chance to wear half-decent footwear and play on today's courts and travel on nicer charter planes. Instead, he only played one healthy season after the age of 29, and even by that point his legs were pretty much shot.

I bring all this up mainly to highlight (especially to my Pepperdine classmates who might believe otherwise) that when it came to basketball, very few people knew what to do better than Paul Westphal. When he coached at Pepperdine, the first possession of any given game was routinely an elaborate set designed to get one of our high flyers (Terrance Johnson, Robert Turner, Willie Galick) an alley oop and give the team (and the crowd) an instant jolt (or subdue them on the road). He designed a sideline in-bounds play as coach of the Suns where the inbounder passed the ball off the backboard to a streaking Charles Barkley (or perhaps it was Cedric Ceballos - any of you guys want to clear this one up for me?) for a quick lay-in with one second left on the shot clock. Why off the backboard? Because Westphal knew that the other team would instinctively relax once the ball touched something, even though the clock wouldn't start until a player touched the ball.

So there is no question that Coach Westphal knows the game. He succeeded everywhere as a coach except in his final stop, in Sacramento with a poorly constructed and rudderless team. He took the Suns to the NBA Finals in his first season on the job (1993), won an NAIA national title at Grand Canyon College in his second year there (1988), got the Sonics to the playoffs in his only full season, and coached the Waves to a co-WCC championship and the NCAA tournament (our last time notching either of those milestones) in his first year (2002, regrettably the year BEFORE I entered). I don't know exactly why he always had his greatest successes in either the first or second year at any coaching stop, but perhaps his time in Sacramento is indicative. As a player, Westphal was incredibly self-motivated, and he made an effort to master the game and maximize his personal talents. Perhaps he expected more of that personal drive from his players than he received, or at least needed a team that had strong locker room leaders of its own.* It is worth noting that on those two Sacramento teams, his best players were a pair of exceptionally young players (Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins) whose talent greatly exceeded their maturity level, and the closest thing to a "veteran leader" was Andres Nocioni. You wouldn't have wanted to coach that team either. In any case, he preferred to focus on coaching basketball rather than micro-managing players' lives the way so many coaches do today (especially in the college ranks). Sometimes that works for you; it's been working for Jim Boeheim for damn near forty years. Sometimes it doesn't; you need strong team leaders to make that approach work, and Westphal didn't always have them.

*I can tell you that from my experience as a student manager during my senior year, I found it difficult to approach this guy who was the closest thing to a basketball deity that I had ever met, even though he was (and is!) a perfectly nice person.

Whatever the reasons for the decline of his coaching career, Coach Westphal certainly impressed upon me the need to know your sport, and the talents and tendencies of your players, and how to adapt to their strengths on the court. He may not have always implemented the strategy perfectly, but his playing and coaching career show that he was always one to try and make the most of what he had available.

Stay tuned for another item in this series in 2-3 weeks, and feel free to leave comments!