John Wooden still thinks of Paul Westphal as the one that got away. In 1968 Westphal was an acclaimed senior at Aviation High in Redondo Beach, Calif., and Wooden was in his dynasty years at UCLA. Despite Wooden's best recruiting efforts, Westphal chose USC, for which he became a two-time All-America before playing for 12 years in the NBA " Coach Wooden told me, 'Never look back once you make a decision,' " Westphal says. "I never have."
After spending seven years as a small-college coach and as an assistant in the pros and five-plus seasons as head man of the Phoenix Suns and the Seattle SuperSonics, Westphal, 51, is back in Los Angeles as the first-year coach at Pepperdine, and he has again proved to be a thorn in UCLA's side. On Nov. 28 the Waves got their first win over the Bruins in 56 years with an 85-78 decision in Pauley Pavilion. Last Thursday they knocked off Westphal's alma mater 78-77 on a banked-in three-pointer by senior guard Craig Lewis with 2.5 seconds remaining. That win revealed both Westphal's feistiness and his sense of humor: When Trojans coach Henry Bibby called a fourth timeout before Pepperdine's final possession with eight seconds left, Westphal held up his clipboard toward the Southern Cal bench so Bibby could see the play he'd drawn up.
Having lost three starters from last season, including 6'4" junior Brandon Armstrong, the 23rd pick in the NBA draft by the Houston Rockets, wins over such powerhouses were as unexpected as the events that led to Westphal's hiring. In November 2000, after the Sonics fired him 15 games into the season following a highly publicized war of words with Gary Payton, Westphal planned to take a year off from basketball. On April 8, however, Pepperdine coach Jan van Breda Kolff quit to take a job closer to his wife's family, at St. Bonaventure. Waves athletic director John Watson approached Westphal's son, Mike, a junior walk-on guard, to see if his dad would be interested in the job. After Mike assured his father that he approved, Westphal signed on. His team was 4-3 at week's end.
Westphal's two earlier college stops were at Phoenix's Southwestern and Grand Canyon colleges, the second of which he guided to the 1988 NAIA title. "You can make more corrective decisions when you're coaching in college, because in the pros you're at the mercy of the players' goodwill," he says. "The basketball part is the same, though."
Indeed, when Lewis's shot was in the air last Thursday, Westphal went through the same sort of emotional swirl as he did in June 1993, when Chicago Bulls guard John Paxson fired the game-winning three-pointer to beat Westphal's Suns in Game 6 of the NBA Finals. "I'm thinking, Wow, this might go in, and at the same time I'm thinking, If it does go in, USC is going to hate us," says Westphal. "It's amazing how much goes through your mind in such a short period, but that's what makes basketball so much fun."