In Paul Westhead’s 1993 interview for the job as George Mason University’s men’s head basketball coach, then-athletic director Jack Kvancz wanted to know what he should tell the school’s president.
Without hesitation, Westhead replied, “I’m going to knock your socks off, and I am going to play so fast — you and the fans are going to fall out of your seats in enjoyment.”
That was a typical Westhead interview response because he was confident his fast break style of basketball, often referred to as “The System,” would be entertaining, if not always successful.
Westhead has written a book called “The Speed Game: My Fast Times in Basketball,” and it not only describes the way he wanted his teams to play, but also his career. In 44 years of coaching at all levels, Westhead had 20 jobs, and his desire to play an up-tempo style of basketball kept him on the move.
“The fast break approach, if you’re coaching that style, is a very dangerous way to go,” Westhead said. “If it doesn’t work, you look bad. So, most coaches try and find an even keel and play very conservative. Ironically, even the players want to play slow. They will tell you they want to play fast, but after a few practices, they will have a team meeting and say, ‘What are we going to do about this crazy coach?’”
Westhead has been described both as crazy and a genius. He was a high school teacher in his native Philadelphia when in 1970 he became the head men’s coach at La Salle University. The NBA and the Los Angeles Lakers came calling in 1979 when Jack McKinney, who had coached at another Philadelphia school, St. Joseph’s, hired Westhead to be his assistant.
McKinney brought to Los Angeles an energetic and creative offense that was dubbed “Showtime” and was a perfect fit for Lakers rookie Magic Johnson.
But just 13 games into the season, McKinney suffered a near-fatal bicycle accident. Westhead was elevated to head coach and continued to use McKinney’s offense as he guided the Lakers to the 1980 NBA title.
Success did not lead to happiness in Los Angeles. Westhead and Johnson did not get along, and Westhead was fired in December 1981. It was on to Chicago in 1982, but that was before Michael Jordan and Westhead only lasted one season.
In 1985, it was back to Los Angeles and the college ranks for Westhead when he was named head coach at Loyola Marymount University. It was at LMU that Westhead took his system from the classroom to the court and with his Lions players created a frenetic brand of basketball where the goal was to take a shot in less than seven seconds.
“At Loyola, I found a group of young men who said, ‘We’re ready to do what you want,’ and they bought in,” Westhead said. “And not only bought in, but they enjoyed it and embraced it so much they loved it. Scoring was so easy for us.”
In five seasons at Loyola Marymount, Westhead’s teams electrified fans and won games.
With the Lions, Westhead had a record of 105-48, including an appearance in the NCAA Elite Eight, and several scoring records were shattered. In 1990, the Lions averaged 122.4 points per game, which is still an NCAA division one record.
To be sure, the focus on Westhead’s style of play is on offense, but as he tinkered with his system, he made sure that defense was more in the mix.
“You see, there’s two sides to this,” Westhead said. “You run it, and shoot and score, and the other team holds the ball, you never will generate enough fast breaks. But if you press them, you’re making them play as fast as you. And once I did that, the game was over. We were going to be in the hundreds, no matter what.”
While Westhead’s transition style of play worked to perfection at Loyola Marymount, it did not make the transition back to the NBA. In 1992, Westhead was hired to coach the Denver Nuggets, and his teams put up some crazy numbers, including a 186-184 triple-overtime loss to the Pistons. Exciting yes, but too many losses and Westhead was fired after two seasons.
George Mason University was Westhead’s next stop.
In 1993, Westhead’s hiring in Fairfax was greeted with excitement. After all, Westhead was once on the cover of Sports Illustrated with Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul Jabbar, and his system had worked in college before at Loyola Marymount.
“At George Mason they came up with the slogan, ‘This year, we are playing Paul Ball,’” Westhead said. “They sent around pictures of our players out on the track running with parachutes behind them trying to get extra strength. For me, there have been so many nice experiences even in the jobs that they say, ‘We’re tired of this running game.’”
Indeed Westhead’s running game did not work at George Mason, and after four seasons he was replaced in 1997 by Jim Larranaga. Westhead moved on to assistant coaching jobs in the NBA, but in 2006 he had an opportunity to try out his speed game in the WNBA when he was hired as head coach of the Phoenix Mercury.
Dubbed “the guru of go” by his star player Diana Taurasi, the Mercury struggled in Westhead’s first season and missed the playoffs. In 2007, Westhead held true to his belief of fast offense matched by fast defense, and the Mercury went on to win the WNBA title.
Westhead is the only coach to win championships in both the NBA and WNBA.
“I wanted to do this book to chronicle for the basketball world that you can play a very fast game,” Westhead said. “You can run and shoot in five seconds. And you can defend in a way that the opposition shoots in five seconds. Now you have created a style playing basketball that no one does.”
Westhead’s brand of basketball worked at the college level and in the WNBA, but could it ever work in the NBA?
“The irony is that if you could get an NBA team to run my style, they would explode off the paper,” said Westhead. “They would be better than anyone around. The opposition would be fearful they’re coming into their town because they’re going to score 160 points and make you look bad and tire you out. So, there is great benefit. But if you’re really asking me, ‘Can you get players to do this?’ — I would say, very questionable.”