The retired basketball coach Paul Westhead was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA, on 21st February 1939. Nicknamed “The Professor” due to his former job as an English teacher and his love for quoting Shakespeare while coaching, Paul was the head coach for three NBA teams and has also coached in the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), and the Japan Basketball League (JBL) to name a few.
Famous for leading Magic Johnson and the Los Angeles Lakers to the 1980 NBA Finals in his first year as a head coach for the association, Paul’s lengthy career and unorthodox coaching style have made him an important and somewhat controversial figure in the sport.
Career: 1960s to 1990s
Paul’s coaching career began in the late 1960s, working at Philadelphia’s Cheltenham High School. Shortly after coaching the Panthers to a loss in the Pennsylvania state championship of 1968, he began coaching the La Salle University male basketball team, while also working as a professor in the English Department. From 1970 to 1979, the La Salle Explorers participated in two NCAA tournaments and one National Invitation Tournament under Paul’s guidance.
In 1980, Paul replaced Jack McKinney as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, having already worked as his assistant, and stepping in for Jack when the latter was hospitalized after a bicycle accident. As we mentioned, the Lakers won the 1980 NBA Finals, defeating Philadelphia in six games. Despite a promising start, the Lakers lost to the Houston Rockets the next year; at the same time, tensions were brewing between Paul and Magic Johnson due to their different styles of play.
During his third season with the team, Paul was fired and replaced by his assistant, Pat Riley; although there is no concrete evidence, many believe that Magic Johnson was responsible for Paul being fired. Nevertheless, the 1987 book “Winnin’ Times” insinuates that Jerry Buss, the owner of the Lakers, had already decided to fire him before news broke of the stormy relationship between Paul and Magic.
The 1982-83 season was a disastrous one for Paul. Now the head coach of the Chicago Bulls – who had recently traded away Artis Gilmore and had yet to debut Michael Jordan – Paul was fired after just one season due to disappointing results. Following a year-long hiatus, Paul went back to college coaching, and became head coach of the Loyola Marymount Lions.
From 1985 to 1990, Paul helped the Loyola Marymount team set NCAA records, despite the small school not being known for its basketball prowess. He also brought star players such as the USC transfers Bo Kimble and Hank Gathers to the fold, which helped Paul redeem himself and regain much of the respect he had lost from his peers.
Following the tragic on-court death of Hank in its conference tournament, LMU took the college basketball world by storm during the 1990 NCAA tournament, making it to the Regional Final round after defeating the Michigan Wolverines. Although LMU would eventually lose out to the Runnin’ Rebels by 30 points, its 122.4 point per game record remains unbroken over three decades later.
Career: 1990s to 2010s
After the 1989-1990 season, Paul left LMU and returned to the NBA with a head coach position for the Denver Nuggets. Despite trying to bring to the NBA the run-and-gun offense that had led LMU to victory so many times, Paul found himself out of his depth as his trusty college basketball tactics failed to work. During the 1990-91 season, the Nuggets broke records with an average 119.9 points per game – however, they also surrendered a staggering 130.8 points per game, proving Paul’s tactics unsuccessful.
After a combined two-year record of 44-120, Paul was fired from the Nuggets; the team had unfortunately earned itself the nickname of “Enver Nuggets”, with the “D” missing because they had no defense. Once again, Paul returned to college coaching, and became head coach of George Mason University, a job that lasted from 1993 to 1997 – once again, his signature run-and-gun style proved to be a failure.
A reminder that games coached by Paul Westhead were batshit crazy and a good time
— Eric Stephen (@ericstephen) October 24, 2022
From 1997 to 1999, Paul was demoted from head coach to assistant coach, joining the Golden State Warriors and working under P. J. Carlesimo. During the 2000-01 season, he was the head coach of the Los Angeles Stars in the inaugural season of the new ABA, before switching to the Panasonic Super Kangaroos of the Japan Basketball League, where he remained until 2003.
Paul then returned to the ABA and was head coach of Long Beach Jam, coaching them for just one game before returning to the NBA, as an assistant coach for Orlando Magic until 2005, when he was hired as head coach of the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury. Once again, he managed to redeem himself professionally by leading Mercury to a WNBA championship in 2007 – this made him the only coach to win a championship in the NBA and the WNBA.
After leaving Phoenix Mercury in 2007, Paul once again worked under his longtime friend P. J Carlesimo as an assistant coach for the Seattle SuperSonics, but was released in November 2008, when P. J was also relieved of his duties. Months later, Paul was introduced as the newest head coach of the University of Oregon’s women’s basketball team, the Oregon Ducks. This was his first time as the head coach of an NCAA women’s program, and the sixth head coach in the history of women’s basketball at the university.
Shortly before Paul’s contract expired in March 2014, the University of Oregon announced that they would not be renewing it. During his last season, the coach earned $675,000; his five-year contract was worth over $3 million in total.
After leaving the University of Oregon, Paul settled into a comfortable retirement with an estimated net worth of close to $5 million. In December 2022, he was nominated as part of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame class of 2023.