By Rich Ruben
The player of the week award will carry Paul Westphal’s name based on votes posted on the WeAreSC site and several sent directly by email and text. The runner up was Harold Miner. Westphal is a great choice. If there was a Mt. Rushmore of Trojan greats, he would be among them.
Westphal built a very impressive basketball resume which led to his induction into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame and the College Basketball Hall of Fame. He was a USC basketball legend, an NBA star and champion, a college head coach and an NBA assistant and head coach. He passed away in early January, 2021 at the age of 70.
John Wooden once said that his biggest recruiting miss at UCLA was when Westphal chose the Trojans and Bob Boyd over the Bruins, Wooden and Sam Gilbert. He was a 6’4” guard who could play on or off the ball, had very good athleticism, and could finish at the rim with either hand. He was also very good on the defensive end. Westphal was ambidextrous and instead of pounding the court with both palms as some college players do to display defensive intensity, he clapped his hands behind his back.
When Westphal played at USC there was no three point line, only 26 regular season games, no shot clock, only one team in a conference could play in the post season, and the NCAA Tournament was limited to 18 teams. His jersey deservedly hangs in the rafters at Galen.
Westphal had the respect of his fellow players, serving as vice president of the NBA players’ association at one point in his career. He also had a small role in a TV drama while playing in the NBA. He explained that “I’ve never had any acting experience except for trying to draw fouls.”
Westphal Was One Of The Best Players In Trojan History
In his day freshmen could not play on the varsity team and colleges had freshman teams which played each other. Westphal was part of a talented freshman class that included USC’s career rebound leader Ron Riley and Joe Mackey, a very good scoring forward.
After Boyd’s 1969 team completed the upset of UCLA and Lew Alcindor in the famous slow down or “stall” game to hand the Bruins their first ever loss at Pauley Pavilion, Boyd said there would be no slow down games the next season when his freshman class played on the varsity. The 1970 Trojans led by Westphal finished 18-8 and beat UCLA 87-86 at Pauley for the Bruins second loss on that court. USC was ranked in the top 25 most of the season and were 20th in the final poll.
The Westphal led 1971 team is considered by many as the greatest Trojan team ever. They won 24 of 26 games, losing twice to UCLA. For a short time the Trojans were ranked number 1 and Westphal was a second team All American that season.
His Trojan career was cut short by injury in his senior season. He averaged 20.3 points and 5.1 assists in the 14 games he played that season. In his 66 career games Westphal scored 1085 points, was All Pac 8 each season, and averaged 16.4 points. He made 49.8% of his shots and 74% of his free throws.
Westphal Was An All NBA Player
Westphal was drafted by the Celtics with the 10th pick in 1972 and played for Boston for three seasons including on the 1974 NBA champions. In Boston he mostly played off the bench behind Celtic greats JoJo White and Don Chaney.
Boston traded him to the Phoenix Suns and it was in Phoenix where his career exploded. The Suns made the finals in 1976, losing to Boston in seven games. Westphal made four All Star teams in his six seasons with the Suns and averaged 20.6 points in Phoenix, and over 25 points in his best season. The Suns retired his #44 jersey number after he retired.
He played one season for the Seattle SuperSonics and made his fifth All Star team. He finished his playing career with the New York Knicks, and won the Comeback Player of the Year award after recovering from a stress fracture from the prior season.
Westphal was named First Team All NBA three times and second team once. He averaged 15.6 points and 4.4 assists over his 12 year NBA career.
After He Retired Westphal Had A Long Coaching Career
During his playing days Westphal often said he wanted to coach. He got his first opportunity at Southwestern Baptist College and after a successful season was lured to Grand Canyon University which was an NAIA school during his tenure. In his two seasons at Grand Canyon he won an NAIA national title.
After Grand Canyon he started his NBA coaching career as an assistant under Cotton Fitzsimmons. Westphal succeeded Fitzsimmons as head coach and had an overall 328-279 record in Phoenix. He led the Charles Barkley and Danny Ainge Suns into the NBA finals where they lost to Michael Jordan and the Bulls.
His Suns’ teams made the playoffs in his first three seasons before he was let go after a poor start in 1995-1996. After Phoenix Westphal later was the head man at Sacramento and Seattle, leading the Kings to the playoffs in 1999-2000. He as also Vice President for basketball operations for the Dallas Mavericks for one season.
He concluded his coaching career at Pepperdine where he spent five years and won a West Coast Conference title, completing his coaching career in 2006. His overall college coaching record was 161-99.
No Other Trojan Player Has A Comparable Basketball Resume
Paul Westphal was a basketball lifer. He played and coached on college and NBA teams for over 35 years. His career included many impressive milestones. For Trojan fans his greatest accomplishment was to say “no” to both John Wooden and to the car Sam Gilbert offered to play in Westwood. Naming the Player of the Week award after Paul Westphal has just the right feel. Now we need to wait until November to crown the first winner.