Jay Hillock and Paul Westhead were preparing for basketball practice recently when an idle thought struck Hillock while he was stowing equipment.
"You think it's been a long way down for you, coming from the Forum," Hillock teased Westhead, who used to coach the Lakers. "I've gone from head coach to equipment manager."
Hillock tells the story with an impish grin, but there certainly have been some unexpected curves in the path followed by the 39-year-old assistant basketball coach at Loyola.
Hillock has gone from coach at Santa Barbara City College in his hometown to being one of the youngest Division I head coaches in the West at Gonzaga University, his alma mater, to being an assistant in the same conference.
Gonzaga, in Spokane, Wash., qualifies as a lonely outpost among major colleges. After a year as an assistant and four seasons as head coach there, Hillock felt that he had taken the program about as far as he could, and resigned in 1985. He wanted to return to Southern California.
Close friends thought he had enough of coaching, and that he would fall back on several business ventures including real estate. He didn't think he needed coaching anymore.
Three weeks later, Loyola hired former Clippers Coach Jim Lynam as their head man, and he invited Hillock to be his assistant. Hillock, who was friendly with Lynam, immediately accepted. The next month, Lynam left for another National Basketball Assn. job and Westhead was hired. Hillock, whose Gonzaga team had beaten Loyola seven out of 10 times, was suddenly an assistant there to a man he didn't know who ran a system that was foreign to most of Hillock's coaching philosophy.
"One reason I jumped at the job was I thought I might one day be a candidate for the (head coaching) job," Hillock said at his desk earlier this week. He shares an office with Loyola's other full-time assistants, Judas Prada and Bruce Woods.
"I didn't think (Lynam) would be here that long. I didn't think he would only be here six weeks."
Hillock, whose ideal game may have been when his Gonzaga team upset DePaul 49-48, was suddenly working for a guy who wanted to score 100 points a game.
"Because everybody (in the WCAC) but Paul plays a medium pace, close to the vest, Paul's kind of the six-shooter in this league," Hillock said. "It was hard to get used to at first. The toughest thing was the amount of turnovers. One of my goals (at Gonzaga) was to always be conscious to turnovers. Paul doesn't want to hinder the fast break."
Philosophically, they may have been at odds, but the pairing worked. The Lions finished 19-11 that season and made their first appearance in the National Invitation Tournament.
Hillock's major contributions are in scouting opponents and preparing game tactics. His reputation is for solid teaching skills, organization and pervasive knowledge of opponents in the conference.
One of his contributions this year was the idea of switching from a zone press to man-to-man coverage to make more deliberate opponents pick up the pace. "Paul asked me a way to speed up the league, because I know the league," Hillock said. "I suggested we man press instead of zone press after baskets. Paul has tinkered with it and refined it."
It worked. In Loyola's first conference game last week against the University of San Diego, the Lions made 14 steals, most of them clean, in the first half alone. They scored 98 points against St. Mary's, which had held 38 straight opponents to 70 points or less.
"To me that's the best thing we've done in years. . . . Now they just can't hold the ball," Hillock said.
Westhead kept Hillock and Prada on his staff, though he knew neither man. He likened it to a blind date. "I was leery, but not because I thought any negative things," Westhead said. "Both have been terrific from Day 1.
"Jay does a little bit of everything--he sets up our strategy, gives me input on changing tactics going into the game, or even during games. The interesting thing about our background is Jay was always a ball-control coach. But now he's showing me things about how to run better. If you've got a good basketball mind, even if it's a new system, you can apply it.
"We started from scratch. He was an extremely knowledgeable basketball person who I relied on. What I learned later was he's extremely reliable."
Hillock said the new coaching system will benefit him down the road. "I'll probably learn more from Paul (than Lynam). I've learned a lot more offensive technique and pressure technique from Paul because we're at opposite ends of the spectrum."
Hillock is somewhat small of stature, but he has a strong drive and an intensity that is more evident in practice, where he can run drills and scream at players. At Loyola he has learned to rein his emotions on the bench and let Westhead be the visible one.
He smiles easily, but there's no mistaking his intensity for the game.