Paul Westhead may be best known for his innovative style of basketball that earned both an NBA and WNBA championship, first with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980 and later with the Phoenix Mercury in 2007. Despite these successes, Westhead’s up-tempo “speed game” wasn’t always well-received.
“I had a rather unusual basketball system and style of play. Over 20 jobs, it got me fired 14 times,” Westhead said. “If I was just another fast break coach, I might be still coaching the Lakers or the Bulls or somebody. But because it was so different, I got fired.”
Paul and Andy discuss how the game of basketball has evolved, Whitehead’s dedication to his unconventional style, and his new book The Speed Game: My Fast Times in Basketball.
“I didn’t want it to just slip away and in the annals of basketball, because the style was so unique,” Westhead said when asked about his book. “I wanted to, once and for all, put in print what this style was and what it did to me. It got me some great teams like the Lakers, even though the fast break eventually got me fired, it got me the WNBA championship with Diana Taurasi in Phoenix and gave me five great years at Loyola Marymount running the fast break system to perfection.”
Westhead grew up in Philadelphia, studied and taught Shakespearean literature and began coaching the La Salle University Men’s Basketball team in 1970. He spent summers in San Juan, Puerto Rico coaching a summer league and credits this experience with helping him develop the fast break system.
“The genesis of [the fast break] wasn’t born in Philly because Philadelphia basketball was very ritualistic, you had to follow a formula that was crafted by Jack Ramsey and Rollie Massimino and Chuck Daly. Even though they weren’t Philly guys, Ramsey was the one. You had to follow a certain formula and you’d better not deviate because then you were singled out as being a radical,” Westhead said.
While gaining extra experience as a basketball coach in San Juan, Westhead began testing out the up-tempo style of play he first picked up from Old Dominion University Coach, Sonny Allen. Allen brought ODU their first championship and is credited with integrating Virginia college basketball.
“At the end of three or four years, my experience was doubling. The Puerto Rican players loved to play fast so I had this notion to run fast break. I picked it up from a coach named Sonny Allen from Virginia. He said, ‘Here’s my system is really simple, but you have to be a little crazy to do it.’”
Not one to back down from a challenge, Westhead soon became a fast break coach in the City of Brotherly Love.
When asked to describe the fast break style, Westhead said, “The offense is as simple as you could write it on your palm, all five players go to a designated spot as fast as they can shoot the ball as soon as somebody catches it from the point guard. They go rebound if it’s a miss. Do that 100 times a game and you will win. The problem is you can’t get players to do that over and over and over enough to break down the opposition. Your own team will back off before the opposition backs off.”
Westhead describes his coaching style as very player-oriented but that doesn’t mean he didn’t encounter opposition from within. He recounts working with Tracy McGrady of the Orlando Magic, Diana Turasi of the Phoenix Mercury, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar during the Showtime Lakers era.
During a Lakers training camp practice in Palm Springs, Westhead recalls ending the practice by running lines, or sprints back and forth across the court.
“The players all stumbled to the locker room and Kareem came over, put his arm around me and he said, ‘Paul. I don’t do lines,’ and he walked away. At that time, I was smart enough to realize that I wasn’t ever going to run lines again. He didn’t call me coach, he called me Paul.”
“Kareem was an interesting take because he wasn’t built to be a fast break player. He never fought me. He tried to blend in and I was smart enough to let him blend in because Kareem was the man. I mean we can talk about the evolution of Magic Johnson and how he became the leader of that team and legitimately so. But in the first year or two of Magic’s stay with the Lakers, Kareem was the guy. Everybody knew that. I knew that. And if we had a crucial play or time, you know, I was going to live and die with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. “
In 1980, Westhead won his first championship when the Lakers defeated the Philadelphia 76ers 4 games to 2.
“I won with the Lakers and we were flying high, I thought, ‘this is going to be fun. It’s going to be easier. How many more are we going to win?’ Well, little did I know I’m going to win any more with the Lakers and it would take me twenty seven years to win another championship,” said Westhead.
“It just speaks of you need to hang and you need to have a good system, but you really need players. I mean you can’t win without Magic and Kareem and Jamaal Wilkes. I mean you can’t win without Diana Taurasi and Penny Taylor and Cappie Pondexter.
I mean, no matter how good you think you are, you can’t win without LeBron James and Anthony Davis…I hope that team and I hope Frank Vogel realizes that I enjoy what you have because you never know how many more you’re going to get.”
After his tenure with the Lakers, Westhead experienced coaching at all levels – from the Chicago Bulls and Denver Nuggets to Japan, to George Mason University and the Phoenix Mercury.
At LMU, Westhead says he finally found a team that was ready for the fast break. He recalls taking the players to run sand dunes at Manhattan Beach and do practice drills in the pool and running the sand dunes on the beach. He also brought his up-tempo game to the Panasonic Super Kangaroos in Japan where he coached office workers who played in Friday night and weekend games.
Westhead, now retired from coaching, reflects on how his career as a teacher helped him on the court.
”There’s a great parallel between teaching and coaching. The one factor that jumps at me is in both cases, you need to be very prepared. You have to break it down. You got to be precise. The difference is that there’s going to be a game day. You’re going to have to deliver that plan during the game and in game time.”
Hear Westhead’s perspective on his firing from the Lakers, his reflections on the late Hank Gathers, who he coached at LMU, and more. Listen to the full Legends Of Sport podcast. Watch the video of the podcast on the @legendsofsport YouTube channel.