“The Speed Game:” A memoir by NBA Championship Coach Paul Westhead
Former Laker coach recalls the ups and downs of life as an NBA coach
by Paul Teetor
When Paul Westhead was interviewing for an assistant coaching job with the Orlando Magic back in 2003, head coach Johnny Davis asked him a tough question: “I hear from some people you’re a genius, and I hear from others you’re crazy. Which one is true?”
Westhead paused, realizing the wrong answer could kill his chances.
He looked Davis in the eye and answered: “I’m a crazy genius.”
Davis pondered the answer for a moment, smiled at him and posed a not-nearly-as-tough question:
“Can you start tomorrow?”
It was just another day at the office for a guy who has been hired for 20 coaching jobs in college and pro basketball – and has been fired from 14 of them.
Most of the time, he was hired and fired for the same reason: his unique style of basketball, which he calls “The System.” Boiled down to its basics, he teaches his players to fast-break every time they get the ball and shoot it at the first opportunity. On defense, he instructs them to press their opponents up and down the court every time the opponent gets the ball.
Critics call it run-and-gun, with the goal of out-scoring the other team without bothering to play much defense. Westhead, however, insists his full-court defensive pressing style is very much a part of The System.
Typically, The System gave his new team a much-needed injection of energy and excitement. Then, inevitably, the physical demands and mental stresses of the pedal-to-the-metal approach began to wear on the players, management would become impatient with his unorthodox style, and soon the word would come down from management: thanks for your time and good luck with your future endeavors.
Of the 14 firings, the most notorious by far was early in the 1981-82 NBA season, in which Lakers owner Dr. Jerry Buss fired him from the best, most high-profile job he ever had: head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
It all went down little more than a year after he had led the Lakers to the 1980 NBA title while serving as an interim replacement for the badly injured Jack McKinney, the close friend who brought him from his long-time home base of Philadelphia to the Lakers as an assistant coach.
The public and press perception at the time was that he was run out of town by Magic Johnson, who became unhappy with his system and demanded a trade — knowing of course that Buss would never trade him. Magic knew that firing the coach who had implemented the system would be a helluva lot easier for Buss.
Then, the media spin went, freed from Westhead’s onerous system the Lakers went on to dominate the league in the 1980s, winning four more NBA titles under Coach Pat Riley to go along with the one won under Westhead.
That is the narrative arc laid down in Jeff Pearlman’s New York Times best-seller “Showtime,” which came out eight years ago. It is regarded as the definitive account of the Showtime era, which ran from Magic’s rookie season of 1979-80 to the Lakers loss to the Chicago Bulls in the 1991 NBA Finals. It is currently being turned into an HBO scripted series. No word yet on who will play Westhead.
Now, nearly 40 years after his Lakers experience came to an abrupt end, the long-time Palos Verdes Estates resident – the only coach in history to win championships in both the NBA and the WNBA — is telling his side of the story in his new book “The Speed Game.”
And what a well-told story it is. He takes the reader on a wild ride starting with his childhood and instant love affair with basketball growing up in West Philly. He moves on to coaching college ball at LaSalle from 1970-79, in his hometown, then abruptly shifts coasts to his time in LA with the Lakers and later with Loyola Marymount University.
Woven in between his two most memorable jobs are all his other professional teams like the Panasonic Super Kangaroos in the Japanese Basketball League and the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA.
After coaching so many famous and not-so-famous ballers, he’s happy to answer the most frequent question that comes his way: who were the best players he ever coached?
“There’s no question that Diana Taurasi, who I had with the Phoenix Mercury, is the best female player of all time,” he says. “Like Kareem and Magic, they change you as a coach. They elevate you. With them, you’re doing things you always hoped you could do.”
The usual problem with these kinds of coaching memoirs is a lack of candor. The coaching community is tight-knit, and coaches are usually reluctant to burn bridges or directly insult colleagues, opponents or the players they coached.
The other, less common problem with this kind of athletic memoir is the opposite: some former coaches are so embittered at not being sufficiently recognized for their brilliance that they are focused on settling scores and assigning blame anywhere but on themselves.
Fortunately, The Speed Game does not suffer from either of these flaws. Westhead tells his story in a candid, even-handed way and is quick to take blame when it seems appropriate. But he also does not shy away from criticizing someone like Dr. Buss, who has absurdly been transformed by the mainstream media into some kind of saint, the so-called best owner ever, following his death in 2013. He was far from a saint, both in his personal life and business dealings.
“I tried hard to be honest, but also to be fair in my overall appraisal of people and events,” Westhead told Easy Reader. “I hope I succeeded.”
An example of Westhead’s candor and ability to self-criticize: One of the hardest jobs he had as Lakers coach was assigning the offense’s lead role to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who had been the Lakers best player since arriving in LA in 1975, while keeping happy Magic Johnson, who was eager to take over that role. Only belatedly did Westhead realize his close relationship with Abdul-Jabbar at Magic’s expense was hurting his standing with Buss.
“Magic wanted to be that man. He wanted that position of importance and respect,” he writes. “I had, from the start, made the decision that Kareem was the man to go to for all the crucial plays, and Magic was going to tear away at that position. I saw all the conflict around me building up but failed to see that I would be lined up on the side of Kareem and not on the side of the entire team.”
Westhead, who will turn 82 on Feb. 21, said he has a good relationship with Magic today despite the conflicts between them so long ago.
“He invited me to go on a team trip to Hawaii last year,” he says. “But then the pandemic canceled it.”
While Westhead turned into a hoops vagabond after his too-short Lakers stint, he did rise to national coaching prominence once again in a much more unlikely spot: Loyola Marymount University. He was the head coach there from 1985 to 1990 and soon had The System firing on all cylinders.
In his last three years at LMU his teams went 27-3, 20-10 and 23-5. More important, they became a national sensation working The System to perfection. In the era before the 3-point shot became the dominant weapon at all levels of basketball, Westhead’s teams astounded fans with their long-range, volume-shooting, high-scoring style.
LMU led the nation in scoring in 1988 with 110 points per game, in 1989 with 112 ppg, and in 1990 with 122 ppg. That 1990 team still holds the Division 1 scoring record.
“LMU was probably the one time in my career where everything came together just the way it was supposed to,” Westhead said. “The fast break system, the defense that put constant pressure on the other team. Wherever we went we knew how the game was going to go, on our terms.”
The best example was when they played defending champion Michigan in the 1990 NCAA tournament.
“Michigan didn’t want to run with us and we won 149-116,” he said.
His incredible 5-year stretch at LMU was built around two stars, Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers, who grew up in Philly and went to USC before transferring to LMU. But it ended in tragedy as Gathers, who led the nation in both scoring and rebounding his junior year, collapsed on the court with a heart issue and died late in his senior season.
He admits that Gathers’ death was so searing, so shocking, that he still thinks about him every day.
“A great young man, and an even greater loss,” he says. “Not just to basketball, but to the world.”
Still, he turns philosophical when trying to put that five-year run into perspective in terms of The System he spent his entire career teaching and promoting.
“I think we showed that when you finally got it, it was something out of this world,” he says. “Someone like Bruce Springsteen does thousands of musical gigs and they’re all pretty good. But once in a while everyone in the group hits just the right chord and one plus one is three.”
Bruce Springsteen and Paul Westhead: Both crazy geniuses. Both born to Run.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow: @paulteetor ER
Be an Easy Reader Free Press supporter!
Yes, we know Easy Reader and EasyReaderNews.com are free. But they are not free to produce. The advertiser model that traditionally supported newspapers is fading away. This is our way of transitioning to a future where newspapers are supported by their readers. Which is as it should be. We hope you’ll support us. — Kevin Cody, Publisher