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CROWE'S NEST

Paul Westhead's latest high-flying project: the Oregon Ducks women's team

He's the only head coach to have won titles in the NBA and WNBA and now takes on a struggling college program.

June 09, 2009|JERRY CROWE

FROM EUGENE, ORE. — While Phil Jackson and the Lakers chase another NBA championship, the coach who guided Magic Johnson's memorable rookie playoff run toils in virtual anonymity.

Paul Westhead's circuitous coaching journey has taken him to the University of Oregon, where in March the former Lakers and Loyola Marymount coach was hired to lead the struggling women's basketball program.

If this seems a curious choice for a veteran NBA coach who also once commanded the Chicago Bulls and Denver Nuggets, Westhead doesn't see it that way.

Given a five-year contract that reportedly will pay him about $3 million, he says he looks forward to the task of turning around a team that lost a school-record 21 games last season.

"This is what I do," he says.

Recently turned 70 and a grandfather 10 times over, the well-traveled Westhead coached in the NBA as recently as last November -- as an assistant to P.J. Carlesimo with the Oklahoma City Thunder until Carlesimo and his staff were fired.

This won't be Westhead's first time coaching women. Two summers ago, he guided Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury to the WNBA championship, making him the one person with NBA and WNBA titles on his head-coaching resume.

"The fact it was the women's team, I found that attractive because of my experience with the Mercury," Westhead says during an interview in his office near Autzen Stadium. "I liked the way they played. I liked the way they just went after it."

He also liked the fact that Oregon, scheduled to open a new arena late next year, pursued him, encouraging him to implement the unorthodox, run-and-gun "speed game" that was so successful for Westhead's Hank Gathers-Bo Kimble teams at Loyola but was less rewarding at some of the coach's other stops.

"They kind of gave me free rein and said, 'Come on in and do what you do,' " Westhead says. "You don't get many of those opportunities."

Westhead was given the career opportunity of a lifetime 30 years ago, when the Lakers asked him to take over as coach 14 games into the 1979-80 season. An assistant to Jack McKinney, his closest friend, he was promoted after McKinney suffered a near-fatal head injury in a bicycle crash.

Westhead deftly shepherded the Lakers' drive to the NBA championship, a run capped by Johnson's legendary performance in the Game 6 clincher against the Philadelphia 76ers when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was sidelined because of an ankle injury.

Only a year and a half later, however, Westhead was ousted as coach 11 games into the 1981-82 season. Undone by a player revolt given voice by Johnson, he was replaced by Pat Riley.

Westhead, who has maintained a home in Palos Verdes Estates all these years, retains "strong feelings" about that time.

"On the one hand, it ended disappointingly," he says, noting that he had never before been fired. "But in the time I was there I helped coach the best team in the world and I walked away with a ring. You don't get many rings in your life. I realize that because it took me [27] years to get another one in the WNBA."

In between rings, Westhead embraced a breakneck style of play while mostly winning at Loyola Marymount and Phoenix . . . and mostly losing at George Mason and with the Bulls and Nuggets.

"Every coach has a game in his mind that he wants to play, that he thinks he can win with, and Paul was smitten with this theory," says former NBA coach Jack Ramsay, a Hall of Famer who coached Westhead at St. Joseph's and is cited as a mentor by his former player. "I think he enjoys being a different coach and likes creating all kinds of problems and turmoil for his opposing brethren. Nobody likes to play him. He's a pain in the butt."

And when Westhead's style is clicking, as with the Gathers-Kimble teams at Loyola Marymount, the coach's up-tempo, beat-the-defense-to-the-other-end strategy can be engrossing.

"What I do is kind of a special way to play and when you can get it going and it works, it's really exciting and captivating and the players and fans really seem to get involved," Westhead says. "When it doesn't and you lose, you wind up out.

"It's kind of clear-cut. With my deal, you're either good or you're bad, no in between. It either works or it doesn't."

Oregon, of course, is hoping that it works and that Westhead's hiring will create a ticket-buying buzz while also enabling the Ducks to reach the NCAA tournament more often than once in eight seasons, as they did under former coach Bev Smith. Athletic Director Pat Kilkenny knew Westhead through Carlesimo, a mutual friend, but says he had no prior knowledge that the former Lakers coach would be interested in the job.

"But in terms of what we were looking for," Kilkenny says, "he was a perfect candidate. The culture of Oregon athletics is about innovation, entertainment, the student-athlete experience and winning, obviously, and you put a check mark next to Paul Westhead on all four of those characteristics."

Equally important, perhaps, the nonconformist coach with a need for speed was ready to take on another challenge.

--

jerome.crowe@latimes.com

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