Westhead changes his address but never his breathtaking pace

January 02, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Staff Writer

FAIRFAX, Va. -- The six parachutes Paul Westhead, the madcap inventor, ordered when he introduced his breakneck style of basketball to George Mason University this fall, will serve two purposes:

"Plan A is that by using the parachutes in our running drills, it will make my kids faster and able to attain speeds no one else has reached," said Westhead, preparing his Patriots (3-4) for today's game against visiting Morgan State.

"Plan B is that if the system doesn't work here, the parachutes will help us get out of town as quickly as possible," he added, with a deep-throated laugh.

Westhead, 54, a Shakespearean scholar who can quote "King Lear" and "The Tempest" as readily as the intricacies of a full-court press, knows that he has been perceived as both a genius and clown by his peers for committing to a system that dictates shooting the ball within six seconds and forcing your opponent to shoot even faster.

"Whether you're a genius or the 'Nutty Professor' depends on winning and losing. But I know it works, because it's happened for me," he said, referring to his final three seasons (1987-88 through 1989-90) at Loyola Marymount, where he compiled a 74-21 record and stood the basketball world on its ear by averaging more than 122 points in the 1988-89 season.

"And when it works, I'm convinced it's better than any other way to play."

But his run-and-shoot style has drawn a number of skeptics. Former NBA coach Alex Hannum disparaged it when "Paul Ball" produced a 44-120 record in Westhead's two seasons with the Denver Nuggets.

When blessed with talent, West- head had more than his share of success. He sports a 1980 championship ring from his three seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. His record with the Lakers was 112-50 before he lost a power struggle with Magic Johnson, who, ironically, accused him of being too conservative in relying primarily on an aging Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

But Westhead said he bears no malice toward Johnson, who reportedly recommended him for the Denver job.

"Magic and I now have a fine relationship," he said. "But the year before I got fired, we lost in a mini-playoff series to Moses Malone and the Houston Rockets, who used a slowdown game. So we incorporated more of a half-court game in our next training camp. But no one could ever brand me conservative.

"The problem was Magic was coming off knee surgery in 1980, and players in that situation need to feel a sense of security. I think he had to establish the Lakers were his team now rather than Kareem's. The NBA is a players' league, and these things happen."

But West- head readily acknowledges that no system will work without the proper ingredients.

"What happened to me in Denver and earlier with the [1982-83] Chicago Bulls, only reminded me that you need good players to win," he said.

"In this system, especially, you've got to have a player totally committed to playing at this incredible pace. He doesn't have to be a 100-meter champion, but he has to be able to run fast and be able to score."

With little time to recruit his own talent this season, Westhead inherited a George Mason team that played a deliberate style in finishing 7-21 the past two seasons.

"I'm trying to retool with a team that wasn't even modestly successful," he said. "Right now, we're playing about as well as we can."

His two best prospects -- guards Nate Langley, an All-City selection from Dunbar of Washington, and Kevin Ward of St. John's in Prospect Hall -- are Proposition 48 players sitting out the year.

But Westhead saw reasons for hope in the team's most recent loss, 109-88 to Virginia Commonwealth.

"VCU had twice as many turnovers as we did, and that's a real positive sign," he said. "In 1990, when we [Loyola Marymount] went to the NCAA final eight, we forced our opponents into more than double [25-12] the turnovers we made. That's the key to success."

At Loyola, he molded an unusual group of players, led by the late vTC Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble from West- head's hometown of Philadelphia, and UCLA transfer Corey Gaines, who were committed to his system.

His final season at the Los Angeles school was marked by magical highs and the tragic death of Gathers, who died of congenital heart failure before the team began its NCAA title quest.

The Lions beat New Mexico State, stunned defending champion Michigan, 149-115, by scoring 84 second-half points, and edged Alabama, 62-60, in a slowdown game before losing to eventual champion Nevada-Las Vegas.

"We achieved victories against teams we shouldn't have been on the same floor with because the players' drive came out of tremendous respect and love for a lost friend," he said.

"The whole experience is crystallized in my mind. It was a true reflection of life -- the terrible tragedy, and the excitement of nearly going to the Final Four will never leave me."

But the offer to coach the Denver Nuggets followed, and Westhead decided it was time to test his new system in the pros.

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