Saturday, April 3, 2010

When Paul Westhead ran a boring offense, and Magic Johnson was a bad guy

Boy, how about that offense in the Michigan State-Butler game? And I thought the 19-18 game between Ft. Wayne and Minneapolis was tough to watch in 1950...

Earlier today, ABC aired the latest in ESPN's 30 for 30 series of films. It told the story of basketball coach Paul Westhead's meandering journey, focusing on his time at Loyola Marymount, a school he led to national prominence thanks to his nonstop fastbreaking offense. In 1990, star Hank Gathers collapsed and died on the court in a conference tournament game. His devastated teammates rallied and made it to the Elite 8, before losing to eventual champion UNLV. Along the way they crushed defending champion Michigan by the absurd score of 149-115.

Westhead eventually left Marymount for the NBA and Denver. He has since taken his unique offense to various stops around the world. He won a WNBA title in Phoenix, and is now the women's coach at the University of Oregon. Along the way he always preaches the virtues of his offensive system, which exhausts opponents and scoreboard operators. Even if he hasn't always been a winning coach, he's always been regarded as an innovative one.

But nearly 30 years ago, he lost his job with the most talented team in the NBA because he apparently wasn't creative enough on the offensive end. Westhead led the Lakers to the 1980 title after taking over for Jack McKinney, who was severely injured in a bicycling accident. Houston upset the Lakers in the first round the following year, although the Lakers had struggled a bit throughout the season after Magic Johnson suffered a knee injury. At the start of the 1982 season, Magic grew frustrated with his role in the offense and with Westhead. He eventually spoke out after a game in Utah. Owner Jerry Buss fired Westhead.

In revisiting this story, the bizarre thing is reading how Westhead and Magic were perceived during the winter of discontent in 1981, compared to the reputations carried by each man today. Sports Illustrated's story after the firing was titled, "Don't Blame Me! I just want to have fun." It includes the following line:
"So, for the misdemeanor of making Johnson and his buddy, Laker owner Jerry Buss, unhappy by creating an unimaginative offense - one in which, according to Magic, the team wasn't getting enough shots - Coach Paul Westhead was fired and replaced by his assistant, Pat Riley, with former Laker Coach Jerry West coming on to coach the offense. Certainly there were no sound basketball reasons for the change."

The team wasn't getting enough shots. That was said about a team coached by the man who eventually directed the 1991 Denver Nuggets, a team that averaged 119 points and allowed a staggering 130 per game. 130! Take a look at their game scores. Denver opened the season by scoring 158 points...and losing by four to Golden State. Three games later they scored 153 and lost by eight. They were held below 100 points five times. They certainly weren't a good team, finishing a Timberwolvesesque 20-62. Critics blamed his system for some of the failures, but the guy in charge of acquiring the players deserved more. The top eight scorers: Michael Adams, Orlando Woolridge, Walter Davis, Reggie Williams, Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf, Todd Lichti, Blair Rasmussen and Jim Farmer. What system would have led that team to a better record?

But a decade earlier, Westhead's offense led to his firing - not because it offended defensive purists who go to bed each night dreaming about 2-3 zones and hand-checking, but because his stars felt stifled. He'd made an effort to install more plays for Kareem, which makes sense considering the Captain's body of work. The Lakers still had a great break. Westhead, though, wanted the halfcourt to be more efficient. Magic struggled while the owner seethed. Buss - who was dating twentysomethings in 1981 and still is today - said, "There was a lack of excitement on offense that I missed. I enjoyed Showtime and I want to see it again...I'm speaking as much as a fan as anything else."

Buss, of course, eventually got his wish, as Riley (West didn't last long as...whatever it was he was on the bench, co/assistant coach/offensive coordinator) guided the team to four more titles in the decade while helping make the Lakers the most exciting team in the league. Magic helped just a bit with that, too.

It's bizarre reading quotes criticizing Westhead for lack of excitement in the offense, a charge that surely hasn't been leveled in three decades since his firing. It'd be like reading old quotes ridiculing Bill Walsh for being unimaginative on offense.

But that Sports Illustrated article also has some surprising lines about Magic, who eventually attained NBA sainthood. Today Magic is - correctly - held up as the perfect point guard and ideal teammate, one of the most unselfish players to ever play, a guy who'd do anything for the team. However, it's worth remembering he wasn't always regarded in those terms. When pundits complain about the selfishness of a superstar today or talk about how guys like Magic or Bird or Jordan or Russell would never have done *that* (whatever that might be), remember this line from Sports Illustrated:

"The 20-year-old who had the ability to make everyone smile just by walking into a room, onto a court or into a 7-Up commercial has turned into a greedy, petulant and obnoxious 22-year-old."

The story ends with, "But, alas, the curtain is down on the old Magic. Johnson, who had been criticized from coast to coast, was clearly still a great player. Just as clearly, he's no longer such a great guy."

Magic won the NBA Finals MVP at the end of that tumultuous season, sealing his on-court reputation and ensuring words like greedy, petulant and obnoxious wouldn't appear in future profiles.

Westhead's career took a different, bumpier road than his superstar's. He never won another NBA title. The Shakespeare-quoting coach bounced around different countries and leagues. But those past complaints about his coaching eventually became as outdated as the criticisms leveled at Magic.

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