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

March 25, 1985|SCOTT OSTLER | 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.

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