Kevin Cody

All Ball Sports: Prayer call goes out for ailing Paul Westsphal

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Paul Westphal was the featured speaker at the Redondo Union High School end-of-season banquet in 2001, the year the Sea Hawks won the Southern California Interscholastic Federation Championship and advanced to the State Finals under coach Jim Nielsen (seated). The following year Nielsen joined Westphal at Pepperdine University, where Westphal was head coach. Photo by Paul Teetor

by Paul Teetor

The news that broke Sunday morning was as emotionally devastating as it was stunning: Hall-of-Famer Paul Westphal has been diagnosed with brain cancer.

The worst, most aggressive kind of brain cancer: glioblastoma.

The out-of-the-blue news hit the NBA world like a thunderous LeBron James throw-down. After all, Westphal is only 69 and still as whippet-thin and physically fit as he was in his prime not so long ago.

But for Beach City hoops fans, it was even more stunning because Westphal – a 1968 graduate of the now-closed Aviation High School in Redondo Beach — is undisputedly the best player ever to come out of the Beach Cities. In the entire South Bay, only another Boston Celtic great – Inglewood’s Paul Pierce — could be mentioned in the same conversation.

Westphal, a super-athletic 6-foot-5 guard with a classic jump shot and plenty of shake in his game, bucked tradition and chose USC over UCLA. The Bruins were smack dab in the middle of Coach John Wooden’s dynasty, but he passed up the chance to play for Wooden – and with Bill Walton — in favor of trying to help USC topple the UCLA juggernaut.

“I wanted a different kind of challenge,” he told Easy Reader in 2009. “Back then all the local stars went to UCLA because they were expected to. I wanted to try my luck at winning a title for USC.”

And he came close several times, but back then only one college per conference was allowed into the NCAA tournament, so every year it was UCLA over USC. But Westphal was so good he twice made All-American and was the 10th overall pick in the 1972 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics.

The beach city legend of Paul Westphal started when he was still in junior high school.

“His older brother Bill was in my grade and played for USC,” recalled former Laker Keith Erickson, who graduated from El Segundo High School in 1961 and was friends with Bill Westphal while both were in college. 

“One summer day some USC players were headed to a pick-up game at El Camino College and they stopped by Bill’s house in North Redondo to pick him up. While they were waiting for Bill to come out, they noticed his little brother shooting baskets in the driveway.”

Naturally Westphal, who never lacked for confidence, challenged the USC players to play him one on one.

“By the time Bill came out of his house, Paul had beaten every one of the USC players. They knew right then that Bill’s kid brother was a special talent,” Erickson said.    

When Westphal chose USC over UCLA, Wooden told his players he was baffled.

“He said he normally left the recruiting to his assistant coaches, but for a few special players he personally got involved in the recruiting,” Erickson said. “And Westphal was the only one who ever turned him down.”

Years later, when Westphal and Wooden had become friends and were having lunch together, Wooden asked him why he chose USC over UCLA. 

Westphal offered the same answer he gave Easy Reader many years later.

“He told coach that coach had it going pretty good there without him and he thought he could do something even greater if he could help USC win an NCAA title,” Erickson said. “Coach looked at him and smiled: ‘Well, that’s a good reason so I forgive you,’” he said.

Westphal was the top reserve guard for the Celtics from 1972-75, and helped them win the 1974 NBA title. But before the 1975-76 season Celtics GM Red Auerbach made the worst mistake of his career. He traded Westphal, who was ready to become a starter, to the Phoenix Suns for Charlie Scott, a good player but, as it turned out, not nearly as good as Westphal.

That became evident in Westphal’s first season with the Suns when he led them to the NBA Finals, where they played the Celtics.

After splitting the first four games, the Suns and Celtics squared off for what became known as the greatest game in NBA history – a triple overtime victory by the Celtics.

But Westphal nearly won it for the Suns when he hit two amazing shots – flying jumpers preceded each time by a full 360-degree spin move – near the end of the third overtime. 

Even more memorable, he came up with a brainstorm when the Suns were trailing by one point at the end of the second overtime with one second left. They were going to get the ball under their own basket and would have to go the length of the court and hit a shot to win it – all in one second.

Figuring that was an impossible task, Westphal urged Coach John McLeod to call a timeout they didn’t have. His reasoning: the refs would call a technical foul on Phoenix, but even if the Celtics hit the foul shot the Suns would get the ball back at mid-court for a last-second chance to tie the game.

“He was so cool and composed in the huddle as he explained his plan,” said Erickson, who was on the Suns roster that year after a long run with the Lakers.  “And Coach McLeod bought it.”

The Celtics hit the foul shot, the Suns got the ball at mid-court, and Westphal threw a perfect pass that found Garfield Heard. He spun around, launched a 20-foot rainbow shot that nearly hit the ceiling and nestled down into the basket to force a third overtime.

That brainstorm was a foreshadowing of the high-IQ approach that would later make Westphal a very successful NBA coach with Phoenix, Seattle and Sacramento. He led the Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals, where they lost to the Michael Jordan Bulls.

“Charles Barkley, the star of that team, later said Paul was the best coach he ever had,” Erickson said.

Over the following years, Westphal and Erickson became close friends.

“We both came from the Beach Cities, we loved volleyball as well as basketball, and we bonded over our faith in God,” Erickson said. “I’ve been praying for him ever since I got the news. And I know a lot of other people are sending their prayers for him up to heaven.”

Lakers Losses Pile Up

It’s official now: Lakers fans can start seriously worrying.

It’s not just that the Lakers have lost three straight and four out of six of their restart games in the Orlando bubble as of Sunday night.

It’s the way they’ve lost them that is so ominous. 

Much of the time during three consecutive losses to the Thunder, Rockets and Pacers they’ve looked disorganized, uninspired and ineffective. They can’t seem to find a set rotation where players know their roles and when they will be getting their minutes.

Even worse, a troubling new pattern has emerged: when LeBron James plays well, Anthony Davis doesn’t, and vice-versa. And when the Lakers don’t have both their stars playing at max capacity at the same time, they are in big trouble.

Davis, as great as he is as a rebounder, defender and shot-maker, is not a shot creator or a playmaker for his teammates. He needs to be fed the ball in his preferred shooting spots. That leaves it all up to LeBron almost every time down the floor to bust a move and make something good happen.

After a five-year Lakers playoff drought, LeBron said way back in September that he – and his team — were dialed in on winning a championship. Anything less would be a failure. That focus has led them to the best regular season record in the NBA and the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs, which begin next Monday.

But just when they should be hitting their stride as the playoffs approach, they are going through the worst patch of their season.

And their prospects could get worse. By virtue of being top-seeded, they will play the 8th seeded team in the Western Conference. Right now, that team projects to be the Portland Trail Blazers, who are uniquely suited to upset the Lakers.

They have two high-scoring guards – unstoppable super-star Damian Lillard and 20-points-per game scorer C.J. McCollum. With a full Lakers roster that duo would be a manageable problem. But Lakers guard Avery Bradley – one of the 5 best on-ball defenders in the league – is sitting out the restart because of Covid-19 concerns for his family. And their second best back-court defender, Rajon Rondo, is out with a fractured thumb and not expected back till late in the second round of the playoffs.

That defensive void has led to talented offensive players like James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Victor Oladipo and Chris Paul running wild and slicing up the Lakers defense at will. It’s easy to visualize Lillard and McCollum doing the same.

Even worse, the Blazers have a center – Jusuf Nurkic – who has the size, athleticism and skill to shut down or at least to contain Davis. That leaves most of the Lakers hopes riding on the 35-year old James, who will be guarded by his old friend Carmelo Anthony – never known as a defensive stopper – and any other large body the Blazers can find on their bench willing to take a turn guarding James.

Strap on your seatbelts, Lakers fan. It’s going to be a bumpy playoff run.

Contact: teetor.paul@gmail.com. Follow: @paulteetor. ER     

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