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Tuesday, November 3, 1998 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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A Coach Without A Season -- Opening Of The Westphal Era Has Become A Waiting Game

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

Paul Westphal sat in George Karl's old office, overlooking the Sonic practice facility. Seattle's new coach heard the sweet sound of someone bouncing a basketball. Of course, it wasn't one of his players.

After being hired more than four months ago, Westphal hasn't met any of his players because of the NBA lockout.

Tonight should have been the start of a new era, with Seattle's season opener against the Golden State Warriors. But the excitement - and the season - is on hold.

"I guess it's the same for a coach as it is for anybody in a new situation," said Westphal, who coached the Phoenix Suns from 1992 to 1996. "The newness - there's an excitement to that. There's great anticipation knowing you wait so long for something. It finally gets there, and there's a different kind of feeling than when you're just in a routine."

Instead of the excitement of a new beginning, there is the drudgery of another day in basketball limbo. All Westphal can do is wait to chase his hoop dreams of an NBA championship. Wait and plan.

Yesterday wasn't much different from other days during the lockout. For about two hours, Westphal met with assistants Dwane Casey, Nate McMillan and Bob Weiss. They went over strategies Westphal intends to use and free agents Seattle intends to pursue. They talked about what CBA games to attend. Then Westphal had lunch with club Vice President Billy McKinney.

"I think it's been really important for him to spend some time with the staff," General Manager Wally Walker said.

The meetings are one of few things Westphal does that indicate he is a head coach again. Westphal's office remains mostly bare: His bulletin board had few bulletins and his in-box was empty.

The lockout has wiped out all games in November, which should have been Seattle's easiest month. Eleven of 14 opponents didn't make the playoffs. Games were scheduled against the Clippers, Nuggets, Kings, Grizzlies and Mavericks. That's the schedule a new coach desires in his first month.

Westphal has lost valuable time to install his man-to-man defense instead of the trapping that Karl made well known; play Gary Payton less and see how the team responds, and give rookies meaningful playing time.

"He's still getting a paycheck," Sonic center Jim McIlvaine said last night from his home in Racine, Wisc. "In that sense, I don't feel too sorry for him. But certainly a team with a lot of new faces or new coaches is going to be at a disadvantage. The ability of the players and the coaching staff to overcome that will say a lot about how that team will perform over the course of the year."

The Sonics have six players under contract: Payton, McIlvaine, Hersey Hawkins, Detlef Schrempf, Vin Baker and Aaron Williams. The most important player, Payton, played for Karl for 6 1/2 seasons.

Training camp would have been a critical time for Westphal to learn his players, and vice versa.

"When a team's been together for a long time, everything is reviewed rather than the first time through," Westphal said. "(Training camp) is always important as far as conditioning and gaining timing with the rest of your team. For younger players, it's a tryout. It's a time to develop them. It's all those things. Sometimes it's all those things at once."

Now, the one thing Westphal longs for is the season to start.

"He's one of the most competitive people you'll ever meet," Walker said. "So it's hard for him not to be in the fray. He's done a good job preparing and keeping the staff together. But it's difficult for him because of his competitiveness."

Westphal has used the lockout to ease the transition from Phoenix, where he lived for 21 years. He bought a house in Seattle, where he lives with his wife, Cindy, and 18-year-old son, Michael. Westphal has used the extra time to do chores like remodel his bathroom and to learn the neighborhood. "Just the normal stuff of everyday life," said Westphal, who played for the Sonics in 1980-81, when he averaged 16.7 points.

The ball had stopped bouncing. There was silence on the court. Westphal waits for his players, and plans for the new era to come. "It'll come soon enough," the coach said. "I just don't know when."

Copyright (c) 1998 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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