Still Crazy After All These Years A New Professional League Has Given Paul Westhead, That Mad Professor Of Up-tempo Basketball, Yet Another Laboratory In Which To Experiment.

Posted: February 04, 2001

LOS ANGELES — What stronger breastplate than a heart untainted?

- William Shakespeare

In those interims when the basketball world had cast him out yet again, shaking its hoary head at his unsettling leaps from the cliffs of convention, Paul Westhead would merely return to the classroom.

A locker room full of basketball players listening gape-jawed to his philosophy of the game for the first time or rows of university students hearing a new twist on Iago's true motivation - it is nearly all the same to Westhead. The former St. Joseph's player and La Salle coach, now 61 and still sprinting through life, is either the best authority on English literature among hoops coaches or the worst judge of fastbreak offense among Shakespearean scholars. Maybe both.

"My style does lend itself to some experimentation and doing the bizarre," Westhead said.

After all his searching, however, Westhead and his ideas may have finally found a home, although it's not certain yet how long a lease they have. Westhead is the head coach of the Los Angeles Stars of ABA 2000, a new professional minor league trying to establish a handhold with a run-and-gun philosophy and a red-white-and-blue basketball. Both of those harken back to the original American Basketball Association, a free-spirited league that gave the world both Julius Erving and the three-point field goal before folding in 1976 with four of its teams - and some of its joie de vivre - being absorbed into the dusty old NBA.

Now, with interest in the NBA flagging and ticket prices in the big league soaring, a small group of investors, including one of the original ABA's founders, have decided that it's time to try again. Their eight-team league began play in December and is touring through its inaugural season with mixed results.

"You never know," Westhead said. "We haven't been in it long enough to get a sense of how things will turn out.

"Our team is doing things very well, taking care of the players and giving good contracts. It's not a ragtag kind of organization. And there are other teams out there like ours.

"We're hoping that, by the end of the season, they're talking about expansion rather than 'Well, this didn't work.' But probably it could go either way."

On Thursday, when the Stars hosted the Memphis Houn'Dawgs at the Forum in Inglewood, Calif., the former home of the NBA's Los Angeles Lakers, a place that has gone a bit tatty in its dotage, the attendance was listed generously at 2,769. The game was intense, but sloppy, as the Stars, the highest-scoring team in the league, averaging 117 points, held off the Houn'Dawgs for a 112-104 win.

The smallish crowd - maybe 1,000 fans were actually there - drained some of the energy from the night. The acres of unoccupied seats screamed like empty tables at a failing restaurant. But Westhead, whose team tried hard to follow his orders, saw only the promise of what might be.

"The level of play was pretty good," he said after the game. "I mean, it's not the NBA, but for what we're putting out there and how affordable the tickets are, there should be more people."

Perhaps there will be. At the moment, however, Westhead can take solace in the fact that he is at last coaching in a league that seems designed for his helter-skelter approach to the game.

"I like the concept of the rule changes," he said. "For me, I still think it means the opportunity to score high numbers - maybe higher than I've ever gone."

For most coaches, that would be an interesting statement. For Westhead, it is the equivalent of Keith Richards saying: "I've only dabbled with drugs up until now."

A little over a decade ago, Westhead coached Loyola Marymount University to a 181-150 win over U.S. International University in the highest-scoring NCAA Division I game in history. That came during a heady run for Westhead at the campus near Los Angeles International Airport, on a flight grounded only by the death of Hank Gathers, a former Philadelphia schoolboy star.

His reputation temporarily reclaimed by that success - Loyola Marymount made a regional final in the NCAA tournament with its pants-on-fire style of play - Westhead then pushed the scoring envelope with the Denver Nuggets in his third head coaching stint in the NBA.

The Nuggets and the Golden State Warriors hooked up one night during Westhead's tenure to score a total of 320 points - still a league record. On another night, a game ended with the winning team scoring 173 points, tying a record. And on another, a triple-overtime game ended with someone having hung 186 on the scoreboard - another record.

In all three of those games, however, the Denver Nuggets lost. Alex Hannum, a member of the NBA's old guard of coaching, called Westhead's style "crapadoodle," which was not thought to be complimentary.

"They called me 'The Nutty Professor' when I went to Denver," Westhead said with a smile. "And a lot worse than that after I was there for a while."

Still, he believes that his system of play can work and continues to send a team onto the floor searching for the elusive white whale of the 200-point game. Often, he has ended up harpooning himself in the quest, but his resolve, if not his resume, remains unbloodied.

"I made my normal outlandish prediction - that we'd score 200 points in a game," Westhead said. "I made it before I even knew who was on the team. But it will happen someday.

"It's like the four-minute mile. That was the goal for a thousand years. Nobody could do it. But once it was done, then everybody did it.

"The problem is always to get the players to commit to playing that fast. It's not like it's not humanly possible."

Westhead's system is simple, but very risky: Get the ball, get it downcourt on a fastbreak every time, and get a shot off as quickly as possible, within five or six seconds if you can. Force the other team to play your tempo by pressing them to get the ball upcourt, then funnel them into taking a quick shot that is good, but not too good. Do this for the entire game. Every possession. First one to 150 wins.

That's a little too simplified, but it's close.

"He has a unique way of doing it," said former Sixer Earl Cureton, one of Westhead's assistant coaches. "I'm surprised every day with Paul.

"Guys are always talking about wanting a coach who gives you the freedom to play. Well, this guy gives you all the freedom you want. He's the only coach I've ever seen who will pull a guy out for not shooting enough.

"But it's hard to find guys willing to make that commitment to working the whole game, not just on offense, but on defense, too."

If it's difficult to get the idea across in ABA 2000, where all the players are on unguaranteed contracts and hungrily hoping for a friendly look from an NBA scout, try putting the drag-race philosophy into play at the higher level of major college ball or in the NBA. Probably it can't be done, and probably - although, with Westhead, never is a dangerous word - this could be the last working experiment for The System.

"You can use the word goofy if you want, but the thing I like about Coach Westhead is his energy," said Scott Brooks, another former Sixer, who is both an assistant coach and a player for the Stars.

"He's no dummy. He knows sound basketball principles. But he wants you to run. Then, after you run 10 times, run the next 10 times faster.

"What's amazing is his enthusiasm after being in the game 40 years. It's something you have to love when you see it."

* Westhead played for Jack Ramsay at St. Joseph's, that incubator of passion and ideas that also produced coaches Jack McKinney, Jim Lynam, Matt Guokas and Jim Boyle. He became an assistant at Dayton University, then the head coach at Cheltenham High and an assistant at St. Joe's before landing his first major job. That was as head coach at La Salle. It turned into a nine-year stint in a golden era that stretched from Kenny Durrett to Michael Brooks.

Westhead always did things a little differently. Frustrated by a stall employed by one of Don Casey's pre-shot-clock Temple teams, he sent one of his players to the other end of the court, daring the Owls to run their offense five-on-four. When that didn't work, he sent another player to the other end and then another, until there were only two Explorers standing in the lane, guarding the basket.

"Now if Kid Lynam is telling the story, he says that this is the point where Case called time out," Westhead said. "The truth is that they tried to score, but I don't remember what happened."

It was always interesting basketball, but it wasn't always for purists.

When McKinney went to the Lakers in the late 1970s and implemented the running precepts of the "Showtime" offense, he hired Westhead as his assistant. McKinney nearly died in a bicycle accident and was replaced by Westhead at the start of the 1979-80 season.

Westhead kept the team running - although that offense was tame by his current standards - and the Lakers won the NBA title. They beat the 76ers in the NBA Finals, with rookie Magic Johnson, normally a point guard, playing center in place of an injured Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the clinching game at the Spectrum. Johnson scored 42 points and grabbed 15 rebounds, and in the champagne-soaked aftermath, Lakers owner Jerry Buss declared Westhead "the best coach in the world."

But time, as professors of Shakespeare know quite well, has cab fare to oblivion in its wallet. The Lakers were bounced from the first round of the playoffs the next year, and in 1981-82, with Johnson carping that Westhead's deference to Abdul-Jabbar was cramping his style, Buss fired the best coach in the world just 11 games into the season.

(Fans of ironic reversal will note that Westhead was replaced by the assistant coach he had picked out of the broadcast booth, a lightly regarded former player chosen by Westhead just so that he would "have someone to hang out with." But Pat Riley would become more than that, most notably the architect of a modern, defensive NBA style that can be as crushingly boring as Westhead's vision is chaotically unpredictable.)

Westhead followed with a one-season stint with the Chicago Bulls, then was eventually resurrected by the success at Loyola Marymount. He drove people crazy during his two years with the Nuggets and coached briefly at George Mason University. For the last three years, he was an assistant with the Golden State Warriors.

Then along came ABA 2000.

* "It's an interesting twist to be here. My office is literally 10 feet from the office I had with the Lakers 20 years ago," Westhead said of his work space at the Forum. "I embellished a little bit and told my daughter I had the exact same office, and she said, 'Yeah, but not the same players.' "

That part isn't what matters to Westhead, though. He is beyond the celebrity of the thing, genuinely fascinated by the results that will emerge from the basketball laboratory he constructs.

"The dilemma, at any level, is the human body and psyche," Westhead said. "They realize what I want and say, 'You want me to play this fast how many times in a row?' And I say, 'Fill in the number. If there are 111 offensive possessions in a game, do it 111 times.' It's a learning process. It might take 10 or 15 games to pick up. It might take a lifetime."

It has taken a lifetime - and an interesting one - to bring Paul Westhead to this place where everything is possible, where the boundaries of basketball can stretch like Einstein's hours at the speed of sound. There are limits out there, but those are always imposed by players who don't have faith, by owners and alumni who like to win now and again, and by fans who turn their backs on something new.

Westhead doesn't recognize limits. In everything else, however, he still believes.

Bob Ford's e-mail address is bford@phillynews.com

ABA 2000 AT A GLANCE

THE TEAMS

Los Angeles Stars

Detroit Dogs

Chicago Skyliners

Kansas City Knights

San Diego WildFire

Indiana Legends

Memphis

Houn'Dawgs

Tampa Bay

Thunderdawgs

THE MONEY

Players earn an average salary of $65,000 for a 56-game schedule.

THE ATTENDANCE

Los Angeles averages 3,766 a game. Tampa Bay averages 332.

THE RULES

A steal in the opposition's backcourt that leads to a basket gives the scoring team an extra point. A layup counts three points if it comes after a steal. "Three-pointers" are worth four.

THE NAMES

Playing or coaching in the ABA:

George Gervin

Benoit Benjamin

Joey Meyer

Dallas Comegys

Ed O'Bannon

Toby Bailey

Dontae Jones

Stanley Roberts

Malik Allen

LaSalle Thompson

Rex Walters

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