By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Oct 26 2009 8:16AM
It was among the saddest things you'd see, and it happened every spring in Chicago.
When the old NBA pre-Draft camp took place at Moody Bible Institute, a short walk from the Windy City's Magnificent Mile downtown, you could spend hours, days, drinking in the basketball talk. With most everyone done for the season (with the exception of the Bulls and whichever team was serving as Jordan fodder in the Finals that year), attendance was near capacity. Everyone came through -- and in those days, you might see a college kid playing that actually could impact a pro roster.
But amid the chat you'd inevitably see a coach, and you knew why he was there. Because he'd recently been fired. And he was in Chicago looking for his next gig.
The fired coaches and/or their fired assistants would congregate around the periphery of the gym, standing in the hallways, or sit up high in the stands, hoping to catch a moment with a general manager they knew from who knows when, a head coach that had an assistant's opening, chatting up national writers to see who might be hiring, "and if you're writing something, make sure to put my name in there." There was something off-putting about the whole thing. It was a little dehumanizing to proud men who fiercely believed they could make a difference on a team, if only someone would see it their way.
It always made me wonder about coaches.
Why did they do what they did? Why put up with a nomadic existence that had them -- many of them, anyway -- bouncing from bench to bench, not making a lot of dough, at least not then (it was Pat Riley who cracked the million-dollar per year mark with the Knicks in 1991), certain only that they would be fired sooner rather than later? You don't coach in the NBA to "teach," as that word is used by college coaches; most guys that get drafted in the NBA are the elite of the elite, and it's no guarantee that they'll listen to Phil Jackson, much less a guy that never played at the pro level. But coaches stay in it. They wait for that next chance. And wait. And wait.
"I know what you're saying," Paul Westphal is saying on the telephone. "Logically, it's very easy for me to say I thought it was possible I'd never get another chance. But I always thought I would. I wasn't obsessed about it ... but I always thought that things would fall into place. At the same time, I'm blessed by every second of it. It's a privilege to be involved in the league, to be involved in every decision that affects the direction of a franchise. I don't take that lightly."
The 58-year-old Westphal's coaching credentials are as good as anyone's. He's taken a team to the Finals, the Chuckster's Phoenix Suns of '93, and he's won 63 percent of the 419 games he's been on the bench. But after getting fired early in the 2000 season in Seattle (more on that later), Westphal ... went away. Not literally; he jumped at the vacant Pepperdine job in 2001 to have a shot at coaching his son, Mike, for his senior season. And things went well at Pepperdine for a while; the Waves made the NCAAs in the elder Westphal's first season.
But things went sour, and he was fired in 2006 after a 7-20 season.
Then came the inevitable TV jobs (studio work for the Lakers and Clippers), and Avery Johnson brought Westphal to his staff in Dallas in 2007. A year later he went upstairs, working with Donnie Nelson in the Mavs' front office. But you didn't hear Paul Westphal's name on many short lists for head coaching jobs. It had been 14 years since he'd made the Finals with the Suns, and then the thing in Seattle had gone south, way south, in a hurry.
The Kings, though, still came calling. For a couple of weeks, Westphal, Kurt Rambis and Boston assistant Tom Thibodeau waited for Sacramento to make a decision. Ultimately, having failed to make a deal with Rambis (who wound up in Minnesota) and in desperate need of a teacher (that word again!) for their very, very young team, the Maloof Brothers were impressed by Westphal's enthusiam and his promise to bring some fun times back to Arco Arena.
Westphal missed out on the biggest coaching paydays -- he'll get $1.5 million this year and next from Sacramento -- and the Kings are the dregs of the Pacific Division; it will be a victory to avoid a 50-loss season. But Westphal's in charge of an NBA team again.
"My plan is just to be as positive as I can be and be in a teaching mode, try to encourage them to see and have short-term goals of improvement," he says. "If we can see improvement consistently, we will be fine. The thing I like about this situation is that there are some good, young, eager guys on this team. I don't think anybody has any qualms about saying guys like Spencer Hawes and Jason Thompson, they're going to have good, long NBA careers. They're young and they have a lot to learn, but a lot of teams would like to have those guys."
Westphal knows that there isn't a Barkley on this roster, so he's not likely to recreate the high-octane style of those Suns teams. But he does believe in running. It was the way he played in the '70s and '80s with Phoenix and Boston, when he was one of the league's toughest covers night in and out.
|Paul Westphal's Coaching Career|
"He knows what he wants to do," says Portland coach Nate McMillan, who broke into coaching in 1998 on Westphal's Seattle staff. "He comes into practice with that mindset and he goes into games. He's been around for a long time, played for a lot of teams as a player and a coach. He's had some very successful teams ... he knows what he wants to do, as opposed to younger coaches, normally they come in and they have an idea of what they want to do, but they're open-minded to what their assistants have to offer. He's more of a guy like a Riley or a [Jeff] Van Gundy or an Adelman -- those guys that have had success, they've been around a long time and they run their stuff."
But coaches find that more than their records follow them to the next job. There's X and O talk, and discussions about coachng philosophy, to be sure. But prospective bosses in basketball are the same as bosses in other jobs. They don't want to know what went right; they want to know why you were cashiered. Westphal still had to explain a few things when he interviewed with Sacramento GM Geoff Petrie, notwithstanding the fact that he had already agreed to what the Kings told everyone they'd be willing to pay for their next coach.
"It's always nice to just be able to talk for yourself, find out how you're perceived, explain your side of the situation if there's something that needs to be talked about," he said. "I wanted them to know how involved I'd been in the game, even though I hadn't technically been a coach for a while, how excited I was to be around it."
Westphal came to Seattle in the lockout season of 1998, to a team quite different from the Finals squad of just two years earlier. The Sonics had already traded Shawn Kemp, who was eating himself out of the league, in a multi-team deal that brought Vin Baker from Milwaukee. But Baker was in the midst of dealing with his own demons that made him a shell of the All-Star he'd been with the Bucks.
And Westphal had his hands full with Gary Payton, who was at the height of his powers, both as a point guard and as the face of the team after Kemp's departure. It is safe to say you won't find two people with more disparate backgrounds than the Torrance, Calif., born Westphal (the L.A. suburb's motto is "a balanced city"), a devout Christian who never cursed, and the Oakland-reared Payton, who can take a four-letter word and make it three syllables long by the time he's done with it.
"Paul was very laid back," said Hersey Hawkins, the veteran guard who played in Seattle for Westphal that first season. "He was a player's coach. He was the kind of coach that believed that as men, you should be able to police yourselves and be professional and do your job and do what was expected of you. When you have a veteran team that works wonders."
Lord knows you couldn't police Payton. The two quickly clashed, and when the Sonics put Baker on the trading block in the summer of 2000, Payton went into near-mutiny mode. He refused to hear Westphal's entreaties when Westphal went to Hawaii that summer, where Payton and Baker were having Olympic team practices, to try to clear the air. The end came early in the 2000 season when Westphal and Payton got into a shouting match on the sideline during a game in Dallas. A few days later, Westphal was fired and McMillan took his place.
"The situation in Seattle is good to talk about that, what kind of obstacles I encountered there," Westphal said. "It was good information to talk about a lot of things that go on behind closed doors. Coaches take a lot of heat about things that they're not really at liberty to talk about. Some of it wasn't appropriate to come out at the time. Everyone knows now that Vin Baker had a huge alcohol problem. It wasn't common knowledge at the time. People would ask, 'What's wrong with Vin Baker? He used to be good. Did the coach mess him up?' When you're asked about that, what are you supposed to say?"
Paul Westphal and Gary Payton had an up-and-down relationship in Seattle, which ended when Westphal was let go in 2000.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
By contrast, Pepperdine was relatively simple: once his son graduated, the job didn't hold much sway over Westphal, and while the school did send the likes of Dennis Johnson, Doug Christie and Alex Acker to the pros, trying to gain a foothold on the college landscape was a daunting task.
"It probably helped me realize that I belong in the NBA," Westphal said.
Westphal's overall success as a coach was more than enough to make an impression on the Kings. Sacramento has fallen hard and fast from the Chris Webber-Vlade Divac-Mike Bibby heyday at the start of the decade, and the Kings have gone through three coaches (Eric Musselman, Reggie Theus and Kenny Natt) in the last three seasons.
"We looked at his past," Kings co-owner Joe Maloof said. "He was with the Mavs, and [Mark] Cuban had really nice things to say about him."
Westphal knows that things are much different now than they were when he last patrolled an NBA sideline. There are bloggers and Tweeters and omnipresent cameras, and local and national scrutiny. Gone also are the days of one or two assistant coaches, which is why Westphal's bench will be crowded. He brought Mario Elie with him from Dallas and hired veteran assistant Jim Eyen. From Westphal's playing days in Phoenix comes big man Truck Robinson, one of the game's premier rebounders in his day, a longtime friend and, in Westphal's words, one of the brightest guys about basketball he's ever met.
Westphal also pleaded with legendary coach Pete Carill, now 79, to stick around at least one more year in Sacramento as an assistant.
"He was going to retire," Westphal said. "I talked him back. It would have been criminally negligent to let that guy go. I wanted him. I've always been a guy that wants the strongest possible staff . Might not be the smartest thing, because a lot of guys get more longevity if there's no one there to replace him. I just tried to get the smartest guys I could to fill the niches that are required in the NBA these days."
He's still going straight into a headwind. The Kings will give the ball to rookie point guard Tyreke Evans, try to get shots for Kevin Martin and hope for the best. It would be progress if Westphal's still around three years from now. In the NBA, it's among the longest of long shots. But Westphal didn't hesitate for a moment for one more -- one last? -- grab at the brass ring. There are only 30 of these jobs on earth, and he has one of them.
"I've talked with Joe Torre," he says of the Hall of Fame manager. "When he first got to New York, they had all those headlines, you know, 'Clueless Joe.' He said when things don't work, you're going to get the blame. But you know why they didn't work. If they didn't work because of things that were beyond your control, if you get another chance, do what you believe in, and maybe this time, the things beyond your control will go your way. And if you screwed up, change."
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