Basketball is a game, an industry, a cultural brand, a means to an end.
The longer you stayed within that first parameter, the closer you were to Paul Westphal.
Westphal coached in the 1993 NBA Finals for the Phoenix Suns. He also coached Southwestern Baptist Bible College in Scottsdale, Ariz. Other than the fact that his son Michael approached him during one Southwestern game to get a dollar for a Coke and Paul gave it to him without taking his eyes off the court, the two arenas were all the same.
“I’m writing a book which I’m going to unleash on the public,” Westphal said in 1998, while he was waiting out an NBA lockout so he could coach the Seattle SuperSonics. “It’s called ‘Stories From The Big Time.’ Because the corollary is, there is no big time.”
So basketball is not as well-loved as it was before Saturday, when Westphal, at 70, passed away from brain cancer.
Westphal often stepped out of the lemming line. He was a great player at Aviation High but picked USC instead of UCLA. “I’d rather be unique by beating them,” he said.
With Michael on the roster, Westphal coached Pepperdine to upsets of UCLA and USC in 2002 and an NCAA Tournament spot. He also won an NAIA title at Grand Canyon.
He wound up in untenable coaching situations and ran afoul of Gary Payton and DeMarcus Cousins, who wanted the game on their terms.
He looked at the game the way a gearhead would look at the engine of a Pontiac GTO, eager to unscrew the parts and see everything inside. He also held onto his humanity throughout.
As wife Cindy once said, “He confuses people. He is highly competitive and genuinely humble.”
After a parade of timeouts near the end of Pepperdine’s victory over USC, Westphal finally held up his whiteboard with eight seconds left and showed USC coach Henry Bibby which play he was running. The Waves prevailed, 78-77, on a banked-in 3-pointer by Craig Lewis with 2.5 seconds left.
He almost stole Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals, when his Phoenix Suns took Boston into triple-overtime. John Havlicek put Boston ahead with one second left in the second overtime. Westphal called a timeout he knew Phoenix didn’t have, to draw a technical and thus allow the Suns to in-bound at midcourt, and Garfield Heard put the game into the third overtime, postponing the loss by five minutes.
As Phoenix’s coach, with less than a second left, Westphal told Oliver Miller to bounce the in-bounds pass off the backboard. He did, and Charles Barkley seized it and scored.
Westphal was Barkley’s favorite coach because he basically coached around Barkley’s stubbornness and disdain for defense.
“He had to make things interesting for Charles, so he had a lot of scrimmages and the losers ran,” said Jim Hefner, who assisted Bob Boyd at USC. “Charles’ team never lost.”
“Only one person gets to be Charles Barkley,” Westphal would say.
He had a grasp on what wasn’t important.
“I was at Pepperdine when he came,” Rob Turner said. “I thought, well, an NBA guy, he’ll probably be pretty distant. Instead, the door was always open and we talked about everything.
“He would draw up plays we’d never seen and they usually worked. And for a guy with a bad hip, he could outshoot any of us. We had foul-shooting contests and I don’t think I ever beat him.”
As a kid, Westphal’s reputation grew during Saturday morning games at El Camino College, against college players and 30-year-olds. Westphal had attended UCLA’s camps and was obviously a Bruin-in-waiting. Boyd took over at USC and Hefner began showing up at Westphal’s house in El Segundo, watching Paul and brother Bill and dad Arlen shoot hoops.
“Bill had gone to USC but he’d had a bad basketball experience,” Hefner said. “Paul visited and liked it because the classes were small. I’d say, hey, don’t forget us.”
Westphal and the Trojans defied the dynasty. When he was a sophomore in 1970, USC beat the Bruins, 87-86.
USC’s 1971 team continued to set records for what-ifs. It went 24-2. It beat Arizona State by 20, BYU by 36, Alabama by 47, Michigan State by 25 and Houston by 13. But it lost twice to the Bruins and didn’t win the league, and its season was over. Today USC might have met UCLA for the championship.
“He had an imagination about him,” Hefner said. “If his stuff worked he was the happiest guy in the world.
“But I never saw him on a downer, never saw him depressed.”
Sure. The basketball bounced away from Westphal at times but always came back, like a brother.