Monday, January 15, 2024

Review: The Speed Game (2020)

By Paul Westhead

Paul Westhead had quite a long career in basketball. He held a number of jobs in the college and professional versions, reaching some admirable heights and hitting a few stunning lows. 

That makes him a good candidate to tell his life story when it comes it comes to roundball. He's done exactly that in his book, "The Speed Game," which suffers from its relatively small size. 

I followed Westhead for quite a bit of his ride. He was a college coach at LaSalle in the late 1970s, and his team used to come to Buffalo every so often when I was a radio reporter. Westhead had some decent players and teams, and seemed quite sharp in interviews, so he turned out to be memorable. I even saw him at a small Catholic high school one night, watching a potential recruit while chatting with then St. Bonaventure coach Jim Satalin. Neither landed Mark Rzemek, who went to Canisius. I kept an eye on him from a distance after that when I could.

Then Westhead received a couple of unexpected breaks. He left LaSalle to take a job as an assistant coach with the Los Angeles Lakers. When the head coach, Jack McKinney, was in a bad bicycle accident in the fall of 1979, the Lakers needed a coach, and fast. Westhead was about the only logical choice, even if  he had very limited experience in matters of the NBA. 

That Laker team had plenty of star power - and plenty of egos, but somehow he guided Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Company to an NBA title. Life was pretty good for a while, but sooner rather than latter Westhead got caught up in some of the egos involved with that organization, and unexpectedly (to him) exited a bit more than a year after winning the title.

Part of the problem in Los Angeles was that Westhead had an idea for a brand-new approach to basketball. To put it in ancient terms, he wanted to speed the game up to something like 78 revolutions per minute on the record player, while the rest of the world literally was playing at 45 or 33 rpm. Innovators always have it difficult, but Westhead was crazy enough to think it could work. 

It did work, more or less, but it took a few more stops for him to make his point. It came about 10 years after the title when he was coach at Loyola Marymount. The idea was to have a fast break on every offensive play, taking the first available shot after a few seconds. If the other team didn't want to play that fast on offense - and it usually didn't - Westhead's team would put on a full-court press to increase the tempo. The scores were usually in the 100s, and frequently the other team would run out of gas along the way. The comparison that comes to mind is with "Mouse" Davis, a football coach who used the so-called "Run and Shoot" offense that was very wide open and high-scoring.

By the 1989-90 season, the Lions had accumulated such players as Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble, who were perfect for that system. LMU won a lot more than it lost, and accumulated some honors and records along the way. By the arrival of the postseason, no one wanted to play the Lions. But then Gathers collapsed during the conference tournament, and died that night. Loyola Marymount still almost made the Final Four, but fell short against UNLV. 

I count 12 jobs that Westhead had after leaving the Lakers. He even won a WNBA championship with the Phoenix Mercury in 2007. The veteran coach never lost faith in his system, even if it didn't always work out for him.

As you'd expect, Westhead is an interesting man who has had quite a career. He has some good stories to tell, particularly about the two-plus years with the Lakers. But the book has a couple of flaws to it. The first is that the hard cover version came out in 2020. That was 40 years after the Lakers' championship and six years after his last job (women's basketball coach at Oregon). It probably should have been written sooner so that more people could relate to the stories. 

Second, a lot of his coaching experiences go unreported. This checks in at under 200 pages, and several years and jobs are simply ignored. The uptempo system is the star of half of the book, not Westhead. So it feels incomplete. There was room for more. 

"The Speed Game" is a pleasant enough if brief read, and basketball scholars certainly will enjoy one man's attempt at a revolution. Just don't expect much more than that. 

Three stars

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