Redondo Beach’s Westphal passes, was South Bay’s greatest ever basketball player

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

It was the kind of informal gathering former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden loved: a bunch of aging ballers, some former Bruins and some not, gathered in his little condo in the San Fernando Valley sharing food and stories, camaraderie and conversation.

The conversation went the way it usually did: they would ask the living legend question after question, and he would quietly share his many memories, sprinkling in some wisdom on life and basketball and the cross-over lessons between the two.

Eventually they ran out of questions and the Obi-Wan Kenobi of LA hoops turned it around.

“He said he had a question he wanted to ask all of us,” recalled Keith Ericson, the former El Segundo High School star who went on to play at UCLA and later for the LA Lakers and Phoenix Suns. “This happened so rarely that we all snapped to attention and wanted to be the first to answer his question correctly.”

Wooden explained that during his 27 years as UCLA coach, he normally left player recruiting to his assistants. But there were a few exceptions where the player was so good and seemed such a natural fit for his program – ultra-talented, very unselfish and hard-working — that Wooden personally visited the player’s home and offered him a scholarship.

Wooden, then nearing his 100th and last birthday – he died in 2010 – explained that in all those 27 years there was only one player who turned him down and declined to play for him after being personally recruited. 

Did they know who it was? he asked.

“We threw all kinds of names at him, thinking back over the years about great players who didn’t play for UCLA and guessing who it might be,” Ericson said. “Finally we admitted we were stumped.’

Wooden smiled slyly and pointed to the guy sitting next to Ericson.

“That’s the guy, right there,” Wooden said. “Him.”

Wooden was pointing at Paul Westphal, who cracked up with laughter, as did Wooden.

“Paul loved it,” Ericson said. “So did Coach Wooden.”                                                

From driveway to Hall of Fame

The best basketball player ever to come out of the Beach Cities passed away Saturday at the way-too-early age of 70 due to complications of brain cancer.

Westphal grew up in North Redondo and was a mega-star at Aviation High School in Redondo, class of 1968. He went on to be a two-time All-American at USC and led the Trojans to their winningest season ever. He was a first-round draft pick of the Boston Celtics, 10 overall in 1972, and a five-time All-NBA selection while with the Phoenix Suns. 

After his playing career was over, he was a very successful coach with Phoenix, Seattle and Sacramento. He was inducted into the Naismith Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. in September 2019, approximately one year before his diagnosis with glioblastoma brain cancer – the most aggressive kind. 

Saturday afternoon, when the news of his death broke, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver called him “one of the great all-around players of his era.” He was honored with a minute of silence before Saturday night’s NBA games.

It was a Hall of Fame career that had a humble start in the driveway of his family’s modest home in North Redondo in the 1950s. His older brother Bill, who played at USC, set up a home-made hoop in the driveway where young Paul practiced hour after hour by himself – except when his brother’s friends came by.

Ericson, who was a few years older than Westphal, said he first heard Westphal’s name from some USC players he knew. They told him about a Saturday in the mid-‘60s when they were driving to a pick-up game at El Camino College and stopped by Bill Westphal’s house to give him a ride.

“Bill’s little brother was shooting hoops in the driveway, and he challenged some of the players to a game of H-O-R-S-E,” Ericson recalled. “Paul was ambidextrous even then, and he practiced shooting with both hands all the time. That basically made him unbeatable at Horse. He would figure out what the guy’s weaker hand was and exploit it by shooting his shots with that hand.”

After he beat the college players at HORSE, he challenged a guy who was a starting guard at USC to a game of one-on-one.

“This kid in junior high school beat the college guard,” Ericson recalled. “They were absolutely amazed.”

That was the beginning of the legend of Paul Westphal, which started to grow as he tagged along to the pick-up games at El Camino almost every weekend.

By the time he was a freshman at the now-closed Aviation High School in Redondo, he was the best prep player in the area and increased his scoring average every year.

By his senior year he had grown into a 6-foot-4 shooting guard with all kinds of spins, scoops and slinky drives that made him a flashy player without being a show-off. “He had a lot of shake in his game,” Ericson said. “He was doing stuff that players like Elgin Baylor and Connie Hawkins were doing, only they were a lot older and more experienced.”

Looking for a greater challenge

By the end of his senior year at Aviation High he had scholarship offers from every big-time basketball school in the country. Scouts described him as a “can’t miss” prospect and the expectation locally was that like most elite players in the LA area, he would end up going to UCLA.  It seemed like such a natural fit that Wooden recruited him personally.

But as Westphal explained to Easy Reader in 2013, ago after he spoke at the memorial service for his good friend Bill Sharman, he had a lot of respect for Wooden but UCLA didn’t present the kind of challenge he was looking for.

“I figured with Coach Wooden there, UCLA would be great with or without me,” he said. “I thought helping USC to beat UCLA would be more exciting, more of a challenge.” And of course his brother Bill’s years on the USC team were a factor too.

At USC he led the Trojans to a 24-2 record in 1971, and was named an All-American in his senior season of 1972. But during his three varsity seasons USC, although it did beat UCLA once, never made it to the NCAA Tournament because back then only one team per conference was allowed and UCLA was that team every year.

Moving to the national stage

Westphal’s hoops journey continued in 1972 when he was drafted 10th overall by the Boston Celtics, the winningest franchise in NBA history. It seemed a perfect fit of player and franchise right from the start. The Celtics at the time were led by all-time greats John Havlicek and Dave Cowens, and they had two stellar guards in JoJo White and Don “Duck” Cheney playing ahead of Westphal. But he was the first guard off the bench, and in the dynastic system developed by coach-turned-general manager Red Auerbach, he was being groomed for a starting guard spot.

He played a key role off the bench in helping the Celtics win the 1974 NBA title in his second season. But in 1975, after his third season, the wily Auerbach, who usually out-smarted other GMs, made one of the worst trades of his long and colorful career. He traded Westphal to Phoenix in exchange for Charlie Scott, a good veteran player, but not nearly the player Westphal turned out to be once he was turned loose as the main man for the Suns.

In his first season in Phoenix, Westphal led the Suns to the NBA Finals, where they met, in true storybook fashion, who else but the Boston Celtics. This would be his opportunity to show the Celtics what a huge mistake they had made.

And although he had quickly become a star in Phoenix, this was his introduction to a national audience – and he delivered big-time.

The highlight of that Finals series – and in a certain sense of Westphal’s career – was game 5 in the old Boston Garden, which quickly became known as The Greatest Game Ever Played. It was a glib label tossed off as a gimmick by Boston sportswriters, but one that has stuck with the passing of time because of the sheer level of drama and the heroics by both teams.

The Celtics won it in triple overtime. But along the way Westphal played a key role that marked his arrival on the national stage. The most memorable moment came late in the second overtime with a move that foreshadowed Westphal’s later coaching success.

After a basket by Havlicek, the Suns were trailing by a point with one second left. Taking the ball out under their own basket, they had no chance to advance the ball and get a decent shot. But in a brain-storm that stunned his teammates, Westphal called a timeout he knew the Suns did not have. He realized he would get a technical foul leading to a Boston foul shot, but he also knew that after the shot the ball would be advanced to half court, giving the Suns one final chance to tie the game with a miracle shot.

Sure enough, Jo Jo White hit the foul shot to put Boston ahead by 2, the Suns put the ball in play at mid-court, and Garfield Heard launched a 22-foot moon-shot that nearly hit the ceiling and nestled softly into the net and tied the score at 112-112.

Ericson, who was on that Suns team with Westphal, had been injured earlier in the game and was in the locker room receiving treatment during the three overtimes.

“I’ll never forget the sounds pouring into the locker room from the fans going crazy in that drafty old Boston Garden,” he said. “Every time it looked like Boston had won the sound was like a tidal wave washing over the Garden. Then the place went completely silent when Heard hit that shot.”

A deflated Suns team lost game 6 and the series, but Westphal was now a bigger star than ever.

He had six great seasons in Phoenix, and a couple of late-career stops in Seattle and New York, and retired as the greatest player in Suns history.

His coaching career started in Phoenix, where in his first season he led the Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals. Charles Barkley, the leader of that team, said Westphal was the best coach he ever had because he had been through every possible circumstance that players face and could relate to their problems.

He also coached in Seattle and Sacramento.

“He knew his talent was God-given”

His strong Christian faith was a big part of Westphal’s personal life. Although he made a point of never preaching to other players or fans, he lived a life of quiet faith.

“That helped him to face his cancer diagnosis with courage and dignity,” said Ericson, who shared Westphal’s belief in God and God’s plan for everyone. 

Rob Yardley, son of NBA Hall of Famer George Yardley, said the cancer diagnosis was a shock to everyone who knew Westphal.

“It was a real gut punch for all of us,” Yardley said.  “He didn’t smoke or drink or chase women, and he never put on an excess pound, always playing golf and tennis and staying active. It was just one of those random things you can’t control.”

But Westphal and Cindy, his wife of 48 years, never engaged in a pity party during the six months between diagnosis and death. 

“They’re both very private, but they allowed a few of us to visit him when Paul was in the USC Hospital,” he said. “They were both profiles in courage.”

His conduct at his Hall of Fame Induction ceremony in 2019 was an example of the kind of low-key, outer-focused man Westphal was, Yardley said. 

“Paul invited some 30 of his closest friends to the Hall of Fame ceremony, and threw a special brunch for all of us,” he said. “Paul stands up at the head table and instead of talking about his career and what an honor it was to be voted into the hall of fame, he goes around the room and one by one points to each of us, identifies us, explains how he knows us and how we met. Paul was celebrating every one else. That’s the kind of Christian man that he was.”

Ericson said the epitaph on Westphal’s grave should be short and simple.

“He was a kind man, a moral man, a man that everyone loved. A man who loved his lord. He knew his talent was God-given.”

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

                

 

         

 

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