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Thursday, February 4, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Call Of Coaching -- Ever Since Grade School, Paul Westphal Has Been A Student Of The Game

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

The buzzer sounded.

The final class had ended at Lincoln Elementary in Redondo Beach, Calif. Time for Paul Westphal's favorite recreation: after-school hoops.

A supervisor tossed T-shirts to the sixth-grade students. He told the kids to play fair, and was off to monitor ping-pong.

"He was just a teacher," recalled Westphal, now 48. "He was out there after school. He didn't know anything about basketball. He was just passing out shirts: `Let's go play.'

"I said, `Hey, wait a minute! Let's do this.' "

Westphal pulled his teammates aside, then drew plays on his tiny palm. It was in the same manner his older brother, Bill, taught him in their back yard.

"How else was I going to get to shoot all the time?" Westphal said.

Hearty laughter filled George Karl's old office, which overlooks the practice court of the Seattle Sonics. Westphal's play-calling has become more complex, judging from the white chalkboard with black ink on it.

He has come far from his early days as a wannabe coach. He got his first job as an NBA head coach in 1992, with the Phoenix Suns. In three full seasons, Westphal's teams averaged 59 victories before he was fired in early 1996.

Last June, Paul Douglas Westphal was hired to coach the Sonics, winners of four of the past five Pacific Division titles under Karl.

During the lockout, though, Westphal remained in basketball limbo. Now, as coach of the Western Conference power led by Gary Payton, Westphal is back to doing what fits him like a glove.

"I hoped to be a player, but always planned on being a coach," said Westphal, a five-time NBA All-Star, who majored in physical education at USC. "I was able to play for 12 years and postpone my coaching career."

So it doesn't surprise those who knew Westphal early that he won 150 games faster than any NBA coach not named Phil Jackson.

"He always showed that he wanted to be a coach," said his brother, Bill, coach at Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego. "He was always studying things and always analyzing."

Bill Westphal and his father, Armin, would shoot hoops by their back-yard garage. Little Paul could barely reach the rim with a shot. So the 6-year-old was forced to watch.

"We didn't want the ball to hurt him," Bill remembered, chuckling.

Still, Paul pestered them to let him join in.

"I started him with a real ball," said Bill, 55, "and he tried so hard to shoot it up. And he finally made it, underhand with two hands - Granny-style!"

So Bill and his father taught Paul fundamentals, and made him shoot with both hands. Eventually, Westphal transformed himself into a prodigy who dunked with the greatest of ease.

Westphal developed a slashing ability by playing on his family's narrow driveway. And from 1966 to 1969, he starred at Aviation High in Redondo Beach.

On his way to becoming a blue-chip recruit Westphal picked the brains of his high-school coach, Ken Brown.

"He was absorbed with the game," recalled Brown, 76, speaking from his home in Marietta, Calif. "He always was around, and picked up on things and asked questions. He's probably way ahead of me right now."

Still, much of Westphal's basketball philosophy was derived from Brown, who coached at high schools for 20 years.

"He was as good as any coach I've ever been around," Westphal said. "He never aspired to anything more than coaching high school, so he's not famous, but he was a fantastic coach."

Later, Westphal was heavily influenced by two famous coaches: UCLA's John Wooden and Boston's Red Auerbach. Westphal played against, not for, Wooden; Auerbach drafted him out of USC in 1972.

Westphal's coaching sense was also shaped by his experiences as an NBA player. From 1972 to 1984, Westphal played for the Celtics, Sonics, Knicks and Suns.

"In training camp, he told us his greatest asset would be his ability to relate," said Kevin Johnson, a Phoenix Sun from 1988 to 1998. "He was a rookie, he was an All-Star, he was a free agent, he got waived, he was traded, he got old. He's been through every possible experience."

Westphal combined exceptional leaping ability with polished skill. He stood out partly because he was white and played with flair.

While in high school, Westphal went to Watts and Compton, black neighborhoods, for pickup games. "No big deal," Westphal said with a shrug. Except that he was the only white player. And Westphal emulated the moves.

"He was a white player that the blacks greatly admired," wrote David Halberstam in "The Breaks of the Game," regarded as one of the best books about the NBA. "In their view, he played black; that is, he could freelance, he could drive and he could dunk."

Westphal, an all-NBA selection three times, flourished in a wide-open style. He liked to think independently. And in Phoenix, Westphal clashed with Coach John MacLeod, a disciplinarian inflexible in his system.

Their differences led to Westphal's trade to Seattle for Dennis Johnson in 1980. One of Westphal's new teammates was a small forward named Wally Walker, now Seattle's general manager.

In Westphal's only season with the Sonics, he became a good friend of Walker's. Back then, Walker had no idea about Westphal's desire to coach. However, one coaching characteristic stood out.

"If he could find an edge in a game, he would use it," said Walker. "Maybe that was a tip-off, in hindsight, that he would be a good coach."

Westphal once read a team publication about Laker guard Brad Holland's opinion of the NBA's best five referees. Jake O'Donnell was omitted despite being widely considered a top official. Westphal kept this in mind during tip-off in a game between Seattle and Los Angeles.

"Paul walked over to Jake," Walker recalled, laughing. "He said, `Hey, Jake. Did you see Brad Holland's article? It didn't have you listed as one of the top five officials in the league.' That was Paul: always looking for an edge."

Cindy Westphal always knew her husband would become a coach. They have been married for 26 years, after meeting on a blind date set up by their brothers in Los Angeles.

"We fully expected that he would play maybe a few years," said Cindy, who with Westphal has two children, Victoria, 22, and Michael Paul, 18. "Then we would move back to California, and he would coach high school and I would teach graduate school. But that's not how it happened."

Westphal became a Phoenix assistant in 1988 before taking over the Suns four seasons later. When Westphal made the transition to coach, he maintained the belief that basketball should be more jazz improvisation than Mozart. That approach has been music to his players' ears.

"He allowed us to play with freedom," said Danny Ainge, then a Suns player and now Phoenix's coach. "He takes a lot of chances, like playing five guys who are 6-5 down the stretch."

Westphal coaches an entertaining brand of ball. In his first two seasons in Phoenix, the team led the league in scoring by playing organized street ball.

Yet Westphal was always a cerebral player.

"Basketball is like a game of chess," he once said, "but with soul."

A defining moment came in 1976 when the Suns faced Boston in Game 5 of the NBA Finals. Phoenix was down one point with one second left in overtime when Westphal called a timeout. The Suns had none.

The technical foul shot increased Boston's lead to two points. However, Westphal's gambit allowed the Suns to draw an inbounds play to begin at half court instead of under their basket. Gar Heard's last-second shot sent the game into double overtime before Phoenix lost in triple overtime.

Westphal's inventiveness could be traced to his youth. As a fan of USC football, Westphal saw Coach John McKay once call a timeout despite not having any. The Trojans were penalized 5 yards but the clock was stopped.

"It was worth it," Westphal said. "The punishment didn't fit the crime."

Westphal remains instinctive and flexible, especially late in games. In 1993, he once drew up a last-second play suited for a game of H-O-R-S-E.

Oliver Miller threw an inbounds pass off the backboard to Charles Barkley. "We had like six-tenths of a second left," Westphal explained.

Sir Charles scored. Phoenix wins! Phoenix wins!

While Westphal has a liberal outlook on the court, his views off the court are more conservative.

For instance, although heavily recruited by Wooden during the late 1960s, Westphal chose USC, a private school.

"Of all the players that I recruited and lost, he's the one I wanted more than any other," Wooden, 88, said from his home in Encino, Calif. "I saw him at summer basketball camps when he was growing up, and always liked him. . . . I thought for sure he was coming to UCLA. That was a tremendous disappointment."

Westphal told reporters he wanted to help make USC a powerhouse like UCLA, but according to his brother he also considered Westwood too liberal.

"He wanted to go to SC, where it was actually more conservative," said Bill Westphal, who played at USC before his brother.

That didn't keep Westphal from taking to Wooden's basketball philosophy.

Wooden "is the greatest college coach of all time," Westphal declared. "I studied what he did as much as I could, and learned an awful lot."

Wooden held regimented practices stressing fundamentals. But come game time, he was loose and flexible. "There's too much over-coaching in the game," Wooden said.

Westphal also took note of how Wooden dealt with players considered high-strung.

"No two players are identical," Wooden said. "You cannot treat them all alike. That doesn't mean you'll give them special treatment. They just have to be treated differently."

Westphal's way of treating players was solidified several years later. In 1972, Westphal was drafted 10th overall by Auerbach, general manager of the Celtics. Westphal played in Boston for three seasons, including a championship year in 1974. From Auerbach, he learned how to earn loyalty by giving players leeway.

"We didn't fine our players," said Auerbach, speaking from his home in Washington, D.C. "We'd talk things over like men. Paul saw that, and I think he did the same thing in Phoenix."

Westphal used Auerbach's approach in coaching Barkley. Sir Charles responded by winning the league MVP award in 1993. But three years later, Westphal was fired, officially for being too lenient.

Nonetheless, Westphal won't be a disciplinarian, particularly with Gary Payton. When Westphal was named coach on June 16, he wasted little time acknowledging that.

"Players are not all the same," Westphal said, sounding like Wooden, "and the players have to understand that you are treating them fairly, but not necessarily equally."

It shouldn't be much different from the way Karl treated Payton. The difference is that such an understanding took several years to develop. If that approach was acceptable to one of the winningest coaches in NBA history, surely it is fine with Westphal.

"It's not two sets of standards," said Auerbach, now vice chairman of the board for the Celtics. "It's common sense. You don't have strict rules. You take it day by day. If Gary Payton gives him a problem, Paul will probably call him in, and talk it out with him. He's not going to worry that Gary Payton is going to take advantage of a situation."

Although Westphal learned much from two legends, he was most influenced by his little-known high-school coach. Ken Brown played his best players regardless of height. Brown expected his guards to rebound, big men to pass well, and everyone to play more than one position.

"When (Westphal) was with Phoenix, he didn't have very offensive centers," said Brown. "And what he would do is bring his center out to the free-throw line or even farther out. Then he'd use the center as a passer to the forwards like Barkley. That's the way we practiced. Everybody had to do everything."

Westphal will not change the coaching style shaped by Ken Brown, John Wooden and Red Auerbach.

Not when Westphal won more games (62) than any rookie coach in NBA history. Not when Westphal won the NAIA championship in 1988 at Grand Canyon College in Arizona.

And he won after landing his first head-coaching job in 1985 at Southwestern, a small Bible college in Phoenix. Coaching for free, Westphal compiled 21 victories with a team that was 3-20 the previous season.

Now Westphal expects to be winning in Seattle.

The buzzer sounded. The sweet sound meant that practice had just ended.

Westphal is no longer at Lincoln Elementary, where he unwittingly started preparing to be Seattle's coach.

"Nobody that young is smart enough to realize that he's planning to be a coach," Westphal said as his players - Sonic players - shot free throws. "I just kept trying to take one step. And at Lincoln, really, I was trying to call plays to get off my shot."

Paul Douglas Westphal is no longer shooting.

But he's still calling the shots.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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