Other than a conference championship and NCAA Tournament appearance, Coach Paul Westhead's fondest wish for his Loyola Marymount University basketball team for 1986 might be an update of the Philadelphia Story, hoops style.
Westhead grew up, played and coached in Philadelphia where the Big 5 rival colleges were the talk of the town every winter and produced such great players as Wilt Chamberlain, Tom Gola, Howard Porter, Ken Durrett and Mike Bantom in the 1950s, '60s and early '70s.
The emergence of the Big East Conference has taken some of the steam out of the Big 5--an informal rivalry among Villanova, Temple, Pennsylvania, La Salle and St. Joseph's--and the success of the Big East, Atlantic Coast and Big 10 conferences since John Wooden's retirement from UCLA has seen many of the West Coast's top prospects head eastward.
Westhead says this Eastern domination could be stalled by a Los Angeles version of the Big 5. Call it the Fab 4--UCLA, USC, Loyola Marymount and Pepperdine, L. A. County's four Division I schools--playing for an annual city title and bragging rights. Not to mention recruiting points.
Harrick Likes Idea
It all makes sense to Westhead and to Pepperdine Coach Jim Harrick. But UCLA and USC apparently aren't interested in developing a rivalry with their county neighbors, let alone setting up an annual double-header to foment local excitement.
"It would keep local high school players more excited (about signing with Los Angeles colleges)," Westhead said at a recent media breakfast. "In Philly, even if (conference play) got you to the NCAA, the other (Big 5 games) got you prestige and recruits.
"A mythical (Los Angeles) championship would mean something. Now it's a championship of nothing. Probably the finest (high school) basketball in the country is being played here. The high school player is in gear to want to win with a strong sense of local pride. It sustained Philly teams for 25 years. I really think it would be better here."
Indeed, Westhead points out that top recruits, without a strong sense of basketball power on the West Coast, are going where they see the action--and television coverage. Los Angeles' top guards, Stevie Thompson of Crenshaw and Earl Duncan of St. Monica, have signed with Syracuse of the Big East, and the area's top big man, Scott Williams of Hacienda Heights, has signed with North Carolina of the ACC.
Eyes Switch Eastward
"When I moved here (as an assistant with the Lakers in 1979), UCLA represented the ultimate in basketball excellence," Westhead said. "The last two years the Big East has captivated the national audience. Somebody has to enter in to encourage (a local tournament)."
Loyola may have taken a step in the right direction last week when the Lions played a competitive game against UCLA, losing by five points. Westhead has scheduled USC for the 1987-88 season. But UCLA and USC don't go out of their way to schedule Loyola and Pepperdine.
"It could be a legitimate objection of UCLA and USC to say Loyola is not competitive enough," said Westhead, whose team is suffering through a three-game losing streak. "We're going to try to be more competitive in the next one, two, three, four years."
Westhead and Harrick picture an annual double-header--possibly two if financially successful--involving the four schools at a major arena like the Forum. Winning teams would get points for those victories, as well as their head-to-head meetings in conference play--Loyola and Pepperdine play each other twice in the West Coast Athletic Conference, UCLA and USC face off twice in the Pac-10. At the end of the season the team with the most wins in competition with the other three would be the Los Angeles champion.
Favorite Cage Memory
Westhead thinks there would be a palpable increase in local excitement--among high school prospects and the media.
Asked the highlight of his 10-year coaching career at La Salle, where he had several nationally ranked teams that advanced to the NCAA Tournament, Westhead immediately picked a Big 5 game in 1971 in which his team, a heavy underdog because All-American center Durrett was out with an injury, defeated highly ranked Villanova, a team led by All-American forward Howard Porter that would go on to meet UCLA in the NCAA title game.
Because both teams were strong that year, Westhead said the pregame buildup in Philadelphia and the atmosphere at game time was of national championship pitch. He has trouble recalling exact memories--or even the score--and remembers mostly the swirl of emotion.
It could be like that here, he says. But in this case it takes four to tango. And only two seem to hear the music.