The no-name who's making his name with the Lakers
After all these years you must be familiar with how it is when they hire somebody to coach a pro sports team in Los Angeles. He's got to have a name at least as recognizable as George Washington or Archie Bunker.
Well, meet Paul Westhead, a virtual unknown, who didn't become interim head coach of the National Basketball Association's Los Angeles Lakers until 14 games had been played in the regular season. It wasn't until recently that Paul began getting his mail without having to read the word "resident" on the envelope.
Westhead accepted his role without fanfare, without the usual hostility toward referees, and with only one piece of turbulence -- a disagreement with Spencer Haywood over Haywood's playing time. It was quickly settled.
Westhead has done a tremendous job -- as a teacher, as a motivator, and as a coach who got close to his players without ever letting them take advantage of him. In fact, that is probably his secret -- his ability to get along with people. Anyway, the Lakers, under Paul, went 50-18, with only one slump, near the end of November.
Westhead, who started the season as assistant LA coach to Jack McKinney, got the No. 1 job when McKinney was laid up after falling off a bicycle. There is speculation that Jack will not return as coach next season, remaining on the Laker staff in a special executive's capacity instead.
The point is that McKinney and Westhead have been close friends for years. Paul had been Jack's assistant at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia, and they had also coached together for four summers in Puerto Rico. They were socially close, frequent tennis adversaries, and basketball disciples of Jack Ramsay, the present head coach of the Portland Trail Blazers.
The Lakers this year were McKinney's first head-coaching assignment in the NBA, although he had previously been an assistant at both Milwaukee and Portland.
With McKinney and Westhead thinking so much alike, the Lakers' training camp last September at College of the Desert (near Palm Springs) was a united front that the players could hardly fail to appreciate. For most of them it was a growing experience -- a return to fundamentals.
That foundation was McKinney's doing, with help from Westhead, of course. It was also Jack's decision to start Earvin (Magic) Johnson, a 6 ft. 8 in. rookie not yet 20, in the back court.
When McKinney's mishap occurred, the Lakers already had most of the pieces in place; had a 10-4 record; were playing good defense; and were getting the help they needed from their bench.
But if you think Westhead went the rest of the way on McKinney's coattails, you're wrong. No two coaches are exactly alike, even if their philosophies are basically the same. And Paul's decisions have been his own, with input from assistant coach Pat Riley, a former Laker player.
What you have to remember is that Westhead knew enough to stay with the original master plan, which got everybody involved in the offense. This meant that center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wasn't double-teamed nearly as much this season. The result was that Kareem was able to redirect more of his energy to defense and rebounding.
Whether it was Westhead or the rookie enthusiasm of Magic Johnson, or both, Abdul-Jabbar once again became the NBA's dominating force. Johnson also improved steadily, learned to work well with Norman Nixon (the guard who really runs the Lakers on the floor), and turned out better than expected (18 points per game) on offense.
Getting Westhead to talk strictly about himself is practically impossible. The loyalty to McKinney is still there, and he's careful not to take credit for something he really didn't do.
But Paul will discuss the team and the way it has listened to a man who only a year ago was a college coach at La Salle and sometimes still gets ribbed about being a Shakespearean scholar.
"Basically I'm still building on the same things Jack and I talked about in training camp, which are the running game and playing four strong periods of defense," Westhead explained."Most of this season the Lakers have been steady, not an up-and-down team at all. But on those few occasions when we have been down, we've usually been able to come back."
Asked before the team's playoff series with the Phoenix Suns to sum up LA's regular season the way Shakespeare might have, Westhead replied: "All's well that ends well!"