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Paul Westphal: WEST SIDE STORY

The Paul Westphal Interview
By:  Michael D. McClellan | Thursday, September 11th, 2003

 

I knew that Paul Westphal was special long before I ever had the pleasure of speaking with him about his basketball successes, of which there are many.  The year was 1989, and I caught a television news report that the Phoenix Suns were going to retire Westphal’s jersey to their ‘Ring of Honor’.  Westphal, of course, played his first three NBA seasons with the Boston Celtics, winning a championship in 1974 while studiously preparing to crack Team Green’s starting lineup.  I’d always admired Westphal – or Westy, as he is affectionately known to legions of fans – so I decided to keep tabs on his special day, knowing full-well that his number 44 would have been raised to the Boston Garden rafters had he remained a Celtic.

At some point following the retirement ceremony, I learned that Jerry Colangelo, the Suns’ longtime owner, had offered to lavish Westphal with gifts befitting his newly-minted status of Official Phoenix Suns Legend.  Westphal graciously declined, asking Colangelo to instead donate money to start an education fund with the Christian Family Care Agency, in the name of Armin Westphal, his late father.  That stuck with me.  In a world run amok with athletes who’ve lost touch with reality, Westphal was a clean and refreshing breath of fresh air.

Flash-forward to September 11th, 2003.  I have a date to interview Westphal, but I’m not sure whether he’ll remember my name or that we’re supposed to talk.  He’s a busy man, the head basketball coach at Pepperdine University, and fresh off an extended recruiting trip in Europe.  And on top of that, the Malibu-based school for which he works is now back in session.

My fears are allayed moments later, as Westphal points out that he’s been expecting me.  He is kind, courteous, and unpretentious – all of the things that I’d imagined him to be – and I find myself enraptured as he recounts his brief-but-eventful tenure with the Celtics.  I listen to him and I get the sense that he is genuinely enthused to be doing this interview – even though he’s done countless others before.  Our conversation ranges from his childhood in Redondo Beach, California, to matching wits with Phil Jackson and Michael Jordan in the NBA Finals.  Through it all, Westphal remains both spontaneous and upbeat, and one gets the sense that, deep down, Westy is still a Celtic at heart.

CELTIC-NATION
You were born in 1950, the same year that J.D. Salinger penned his classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye”.  Please tell me a little about your childhood during the 1950s, and how you first became interested in playing basketball.

 PAUL WESTPHAL
I grew up playing basketball at a very early age, and I was fortunate to have an older brother who played ball with me in the backyard.  At the time I was a little guy who just wanted to join in the fun, and I would cry if I didn’t get to play [laughs].

 My brother and my father both taught me a great deal about the game.  I often found myself playing against older kids, which meant that they were usually bigger and stronger, and I benefited greatly from those experiences.  It certainly furthered my development as a basketball player, both from a fundamentals standpoint and a confidence standpoint.  My dribbling and ball handling skills improved tremendously.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You graduated from Redondo Beach's Aviation High in 1968, where you were named CIF “Player of the Year” as a senior after averaging 32.5 points a game.  What was the social and political climate like during this phase of your life, and did it affect your basketball in any way?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
Redondo Beach was pretty much a bubble, and in many respects we really weren’t affected by the turbulence of the times.  It was a great place to grow up.  There was no tension in our neighborhood, and you could go outside and play without fear.  It was a great childhood – I rode my bike everywhere, played baseball, you name it. 

My father was an aeronautical engineer, and very much devoted to his family.  We had a comfortable lifestyle.  We weren’t rich by any means, but we didn’t have to scratch, either.  It wasn’t a hard existence.  We had everything we needed, really.

Basketball allowed me to travel quite a bit, and somewhere during this period I gained a reputation for being a pretty good player.  I was just as comfortable going up against the inner-city kids from Compton as I was the competition in Redondo Beach.  I took great pride in my ability to excel in these environments.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The 1960s was known for many things – Vietnam, JFK, Martin Luther King, the Beatles.  It was also the decade of dominance for the Boston Celtics.  Did you follow the Celtics at all, and what were your impressions of those great battles with the Los Angeles Lakers?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
yes, I was very much aware of the Celtics’ accomplishments, as well as the intense rivalry that existed between the two teams.  For his part, Chick Hearn put Laker basketball on the map.  By listening to him I gained a true appreciation for those battles between the Lakers and Celtics.  I knew about the great Bill Russell and the legendary Red Auerbach and all of those great teams, and I’m proud to have been a part of that storied tradition.  Even though I played in Boston for just three seasons – and never started a game [laughs] – I still consider myself a Boston Celtic.  There are still people today – especially those who followed the game closely at that time – who still associate me with the Celtic organization.

My  connection to the Celtics actually goes back further than my playing career.  I can say that I was there the night Bob Cousy played his last game.

 

CELTIC-NATION
How old were you?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
I was on an all-star team in junior high.  We would travel and play exhibitions, and one of our games happened to coincide with Cousy’s farewell.  We played at halftime, and I remember how special that occasion was…I have nothing but fond memories of that event.


 

CELTIC-NATION
You were a three-time All-Pacific 8 Conference performer and a two-time All-American at USC, which is the same school attended by former Celtic great Bill Sharman.  Were you aware of Mr. Sharman’s basketball accomplishments, and did you think you would follow him into the NBA?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
Sure I did.  I was very familiar with Bill’s career, both as a player and as a coach.  He was highly respected, and it was an honor to be follow in his footsteps at USC.  He enjoyed success on so many levels, winning championships as a player with the Celtics and later as coach of the Lakers.

 

CELTIC-NATION
As a junior, USC compiled a 24-2 record during the 1970-71 campaign, with the only two losses being to cross-town rival UCLA.  Please tell me a little about John Wooden.  Also, did he influence your coaching in any way?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
Yes, Coach Wooden has been a tremendous influence on me.  In my opinion he is the greatest collegiate basketball coach the game has ever known, and I also feel that Red Auerbach holds the same distinction at the professional level.  And although I didn’t play for either of them, I certainly feel that I’ve studied under both of these great men.  They are so different and yet so very much the same.  Both were obviously influenced by their environments, with Coach Wooden living out west and Red being born and raised in New York.  But at the core, both have so much in common, especially basketball-wise.  Both understand the importance of playing unselfish, team-oriented basketball, and both have that rare ability to cut directly to what matters most in a given situation.

CELTIC-NATION
You were selected in the first round of the 1972 NBA Draft (10th pick overall) by the Boston Celtics.  In today’s NBA that would have made you a lottery selection.  Please take me back to that draft.  Tell me where you were and what you were doing, and how the draft has changed since that special day in 1972.

 PAUL WESTPHAL
The NBA Draft has changed dramatically since 1972.  The most obvious and visible transformation is television; today’s draft is a feature event with extensive media coverage, whereas in’72 it might be covered by radio, the evening news, or page seven of the next day’s newspaper.  It just wasn’t such a big production back then.

Another difference is the immediacy of today’s draft.  I didn’t realize who drafted me until Mary Wayland, who was Red’s secretary at the time, called to tell me that I’d been chosen by the Celtics.  Back then, players received telegrams letting them know which team had chosen them.  My telegram was delivered to the wrong destination – Southern California College instead of USC – so I didn’t actually receive mine until two days later [laughs].

As for the draft itself, I had absolutely no idea where I’d end up being taken.  I’d injured my knee during my senior year at USC and missed the second half of the season, and that made it difficult to figure out where I’d go.  I felt that I could have been anywhere from the top two or three players selected to not being drafted at all.  Because of my knee, the Celtics took a big chance on me.  They had no idea whether it would be sound enough to withstand the rigors of NBA basketball, and that made their selection somewhat of a gamble.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You joined the Celtics in the fall of 1972.  please take me back to your first NBA training camp.

 PAUL WESTPHAL
Today it can take an NBA player up to three days just to pass a physical.  Why?  Because the monetary concerns dictate that teams be much more thorough when it comes to a player’s health.  When I played, I took my physical a full ten minutes before the first practice [laughs].  There was a doctor on a stool in the locker room, and his examination wasn’t much more than a simple turn-of-the-head-and-cough.

I remember playing outdoors, on asphalt – that stands out in my mind because of my knee.  We practiced at Camp Milbrook and at the Massachusetts Maritime Academy.  Red wasn’t the coach but he was always there.  We would practice defense for an hour in the mornings, and then follow that with an hour-long scrimmage.  The afternoon session was focused primarily on the offense, so we’d run through our offensive sets for an hour and then go straight into another scrimmage.  It was hard.  There were times when we’d practice to the point of exhaustion.

The Celtics had a great system in place for bringing along young players.  The coaching staff didn’t yell at the young guys, so they weren’t scared or afraid to make a mistake.  It was a very educational experience, and one that was helpful in my development as a professional basketball player.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
The Celtics won 68 games during your rookie season, still a team record.  Was it a bittersweet accomplishment, given that the team lost in the conference finals to the Knicks?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
This was one of the times when I felt that the best team in the NBA didn’t win the championship.  We had a phenomenal year, but Havlicek was hurt and couldn’t raise his arm above his shoulder.  He just wasn’t himself.  It was a very disappointing series.

It was one of those series where nothing seemed to go right for us.  I remember the ref making a horrible call on a lob pass that I caught in midair.  When I caught the ball I was going to shoot it, but it just didn’t feel right in my hands.  I decided to come down with the ball and then go back up, but the referee called traveling on the play.  That call cost us possession of the basketball.  The whole series seemed to be like that.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Dave Cowens was named the league MVP following the 1972-73 season.  Please tell me what you remember most about Dave’s play that year.

 PAUL WESTPHAL
[Pause].  What can I say?  There is so much, but if I had to pick one thing it would be the intensity that Dave brought to the court.  The look in his eyes is something that I can’t find words to adequately describe.  You had to see that look for yourself to know what I’m talking about.  It was scary.  He was so focused on the game.  It didn’t matter whether it was ripping down a big rebound or diving for a loose ball.  Dave and Paul [Silas] were quite a combination on the boards.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Tom Heinsohn was your coach while with the Celtics.  Do you see any of Tom’s traits in your own coaching?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
I hope so.  Tommy is such a special person – not to mention my first professional coach.  He had more success and received more criticism than anyone I’ve ever known, and much of this had to do with him following in Red’s footsteps as the head coach of the Boston Celtics.  When Tommy was winning a lot of people assumed that Red was coaching behind the scenes.  It was unfair, and very much a sore spot with him.

Tommy was an intense competitor, both as a player and a coach, and at times he felt he could win by the sheer force of his will.  It was easy to see how much he cared about the Celtics.  He played as hard as anybody, and he coached the same way.

CELTIC-NATION
He was eventually replaced on the bench by another former Celtic great, Satch Sanders.  You were in Phoenix by then, but do you have any thoughts on what prompted the change?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
Tommy regarded the Boston Celtic organization as a part of his family, and as with any family there are going to be problems.  In Tommy’s case, several of his players were also former teammates.  This familiarity became a negative in terms of undermining his authority – you would see players roll there eyes when he was trying to make a point – and over time this may have taken its toll.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The legendary Red Auerbach – everyone has a story.  Do you have one in particular that stands out?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
One story?  Anyone who has ever played for Red has heard his stories at least three times, and the ones that have been around him for years, like John Havlicek and Nellie, have heard each one at least 50 times [laughs].

Seriously, there is no exaggerating how good Red was when it came to basketball.  The man was a true genius.  He built the Celtics into champions three different times and is responsible for all sixteen banners.  You don’t do that by accident.  A lot of his critics like to say that Bill Russell was the reason for Red’s success, but I don’t agree with that assessment.  Red understood that you had to be lucky – the trade that landed Russell is a perfect example – but he also made the most out of the opportunities that came his way.  So to say that Russell was the sole reason for his success isn’t a valid argument.  He had a gift.  He won before Russell, and he won after Russell was gone.

There is another misconception about Red – that he was hard to play for.  In fact it was quite the opposite.  When people think of Red they tend to think of him screaming his head off, but Red really didn’t scream at his players.  He saved all of that for the poor referees [laughs].  He was a great teacher, and he knew how to treat his players.  He supported them.

When I was with the Celtics, Red would somehow always make his way over to me and share something he noticed during a game.  Maybe something was wrong with my shot, or the way I dribbled or defended.  Whatever the case, Red would always seem to join me at adjoining urinal as I waited for a shower, and he would tell me one thing that I needed to work on during the next practice.  I learned so much from him during my career with the Celtics.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You’ve said that Elgin Baylor is the player you most admired.  I grew up a short distance from Jerry West’s hometown – did you follow Jerry when he played for the Lakers?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
Absolutely.  I admired Jerry, and early on people often compared the two of us.  I guess part of it was because we were both white, but our games were quite dissimilar prior to my knee injury.  Jerry was a guard in the classic sense – he had that beautiful, pure jump shot – whereas I was more apt to drive to the basket.  So from a physical standpoint I had a resemblance to Jerry, but from an aesthetic standpoint I more closely resembled Elgin Baylor.  And to a large degree I modeled my game after Baylor.  He had that one-legged jumper, which became a part of my game, and he drove the basketball much more than Jerry did.  I emulated him.  I would go into the paint and create, sometimes throwing up those crazy shots like Baylor [laughs].  After the knee injury I altered my style of play somewhat, becoming more of the traditional perimeter player like Jerry.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Your second season with the Celtics brought with it an NBA Championship – the team’s first without the great Bill Russell.  Please tell me about that memorable Game 6 in the Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.

 PAUL WESTPHAL
Kareem hit the skyhook from the corner as time ran out.  I remember it well because it happened right in front of me; I was watching from the bench [laughs]!  The whole series was memorable, and for a number of reasons.  The home team clearly didn’t have an advantage, and I believe that was because of the incredible adjustments made by both coaches.  That series was one of the best examples of counter-punching I’ve ever seen.  To win it, to beat Oscar Robertson and Kareem for the title…that was just a special feeling.  Incredible.  And I was so young that I thought it would always be like that [laughs].

CELTIC-NATION
Game 7 was played in Milwaukee.  What was the mood of the team going into such a pressure-packed road game?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
We were confident going back to Milwaukee because homecourt advantage clearly didn’t apply in this series.  We knew that we were going to be fine.  We just went into that game and let it rip, and when it was over we were the world champions.

 

CELTIC-NATION
You were traded to the Phoenix Suns following the 1974-75 season, your third in the league, and not because the Celtics had given up on you.  That was the farthest from the truth – the Celtics, in fact,  felt you were on the verge of very big things in the league.  Please explain the mechanics behind the trade, and what it was like to change organizations so early in your career.

 PAUL WESTPHAL
The trade hit me by surprise, quite frankly.  The Celtics hadn’t dealt a player in nearly ten years, which was understandable given their success, so for them to trade anyone from their roster was something of a shock.  I just assumed that I was a part of the Celtics’ future plans.

Back then the NBA Players Association sponsored an annual offseason trip to Rio, and I was actually on my way there when I learned the news.  I found out during a layover in New York.  Red’s secretary got hold of me and told me that I’d been traded to Phoenix for Charlie Scott.  It took some time for it to sink in, but it didn’t take long to realized how much the Suns thought about me.  It was very flattering to be traded for an established NBA star like Charlie, who’d been a 25 point-per-game scorer with Phoenix, especially when I’d played three seasons with the Celtics and hadn’t started a game.  I assumed that I’d finally be starting for the Celtics in my fourth year, but it turned out that I was starting for the Suns instead.

The biggest adjustment was from going to a perennial championship contender to a team near the bottom of the standings.  This wasn’t something that I was accustomed to, but we were able to turn things around in a relatively short timeframe.

 

CELTIC-NATION
The trade with Phoenix took on additional significance when the Celtics and Suns squared off during the 1976 NBA Finals.  What did it feel like, facing your former teammates with a championship at stake?

 PAUL WESTPHAL
There was a great deal of familiarity there.  I’d been a Boston Celtic for three seasons, so there really wasn’t fear on my part in terms of playing against the Celtics or facing the Celtic mystique.  We knew how good we were, and that we could play on a championship level.  It was different being in the visitor’s locker room after spending so much time on the other side.

 

CELTIC-NATION
Game 5 is forever immortalized because of its triple-overtime drama, and has been dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever”.  You played a large role in that series.  Please take me back and share some of the memories that still stand out.

 PAUL WESTPHAL

There are so many memories from that game, which makes it very hard to pick one thing.  When I look back I think about all of the little things that we could have done differently to win that game.  I suppose that’s the coach in me.  There’s nothing you can do to change the outcome – that’s basketball – but it still hurt to lose that game and the series as well.  As time has passed, I’ve come to realize what a privilege and an honor it was to be a part of something that special, regardless of which side you were on.  That’s the thing that stands out most now, and the losing pales in comparison to the bigger picture of what we accomplished in that series.


 

CELTIC-NATION
In many ways you bring to mind another famous Celtic – Don Nelson.  Both of you have excelled as players and coaches.  Please tell me about your former teammate.

 PAUL WESTPHAL

Don Nelson taught me a great deal – to me, the man is the personification of genius.  He’s one of the most innovative, successful coaches the league has ever known.  He has taken his share of hits over the years, in large part because he is so innovative and unafraid to take chances, but in my mind he is one of the greatest coaches in the league.

As a player he wasn’t the most talented, but he made up for any lack of talent with great desire.  He was a true competitor.  He worked and developed that mid-range shot, which was his primary weapon, and used it to great advantage.

Another thing about Don Nelson; when I joined the Celtics he used to butter me up, pay me a lot of compliments.  He’d tell me he was going to throw me the ball during games, but I didn’t realize that he was working me, that he was really making sure that I’d pass him the ball so that he could shoot [laughs]!

Don was a smart player, and he kept things simple on the court.  You loved having him as a teammate, because everything he did was done within the context of helping the team to win.

 CELTIC-NATION
Which did you enjoy the most – playing or coaching in the NBA Finals?

 PAUL WESTPHAL

Playing.  There is no substitute for playing for a world championship.  Coaching, of course, was the next-best thing.

 

 


CELTIC-NATION

Paul Silas and Charles Barkley – you played with one and coached the other.  Please compare these two great rebounders.

 PAUL WESTPHAL

Paul Silas was completely dedicated and very single-minded in terms of what he was on the court to do; rebound and play defense.  He did both with a zeal that made him one of the great power forwards in the league.  He was such a hard worker.  He never took a night off.

Charles was a much more gifted player, and because of that his focus wasn’t as narrow.  He could rebound and play defense as well as anyone in the league, but he was also a scorer and a pretty good passer.  He didn’t live to play defense the way that Paul did, either.  I think that was just part of being Charles Barkley.  He was so good that at times the game seemed too easy for him.  That’s where the humorous side of his personality would take over.  There were times when he’d clown on the court, and I think that was partly because he was so much better than most of the players on the court.  I have as much affection for Charles Barkley as I do for anyone I’ve ever been associated with.
 

 

CELTIC-NATION
In your first season as an NBA coach, your Phoenix Suns won a franchise-record 62 games.  In the process you broke Bill Russell’s NBA record for victories by a rookie coach.  Where does this accomplishment rank?

 PAUL WESTPHAL

I don’t really look at coaching records as a personal accomplishment, so I really don’t pay much attention to these types of things.  Coaching records are the result of the players you have and not really anything that you bring to the table.  And to me, looking at a record isn’t the best and most effective way to judge the success of a coach.  There have been years when I haven’t had success in terms of wins and losses, and yet I feel that I’ve done some of my best coaching.

 

CELTIC-NATION
During the 1994-95 season, you became the second-fastest NBA head coach to win 150 games, accomplishing the feat in 208 games, just five games shy of the all-time mark held by Phil Jackson.  What was it like to match wits with Phil on basketball’s biggest stage?

 PAUL WESTPHAL

It was a magical year.  We played the Chicago Bulls for the NBA Championship, we had two NBA Most Valuable Players on the court in Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley, and the spotlight was so big for that series.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Final Question, one that I’ve been asking your former players:  You’ve achieved great success in your life.  You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA.  If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?

 PAUL WESTPHAL

Bill Russell was once asked about winning, and how hard it was to keep coming back year-after-year to do it again when the entire league was gunning to take you down.  Bill responded by saying that there is no ultimate victory.  You win, and you have to come back and try to do it again. 

Basketball has been a huge part of my life, and it has given me so much in this world.  It is a large part of who I am.  The important thing for me is to keep it all in perspective.  I would trade it all away rather than lose touch with what matters most – God and family.

So my advice would be to remember that there is no ultimate victory in this life, and that you have to find out what really matters most – and that true success occurs only after you establish a solid relationship with God.

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