Paul Westphal, Basketball Hall of Famer from L.A., dies at 70

Dan Woike
Phoenix Suns' Paul Westphal (44) drives toward the basket as Chicago Bulls' Tom Kropp.
Phoenix Suns guard Paul Westphal, left, drives to the basket in front of Chicago Bulls guard Tom Kropp during a game on Jan. 12, 1976. Westphal has died at age 70. (Fred Jewell / Associated Press)

Paul Westphal, a Hall of Fame basketball player who starred at Aviation High in Redondo Beach before leading USC to its winningest season ever, died Saturday due to complications from brain cancer. He was 70.

Teams around the league honored Westphal with moments of silence before Saturday night’s games and NBA commissioner Adam Silver called him “one of the great all-around players of his era."

Sixteen months ago, Westphal’s greatness was also celebrated. That evening Westphal was enshrined into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as part of the 2019 class, a recognition for a career that spanned from South Bay high school legend to NCAA All-American to NBA All-Star to pro head coach.

He wore a tuxedo as he shared a stage with his first sports hero, Elgin Baylor, and the best player he ever coached, Charles Barkley, while he credited all the people who mattered most in his life.

During his speech, Westphal expressed regret that maybe he didn’t get to tell everyone who helped him reach basketball’s zenith how important they were to his success. The basketball life, he said, was a product of so many others.

“If there’s someone you need to call,” Westphal said, “make the call.”

Jim Hefner got to make that call earlier this week, speaking to Westphal days before his death.

Hefner recruited Westphal to USC, often watching him play in gymnasiums all over the South Bay, as well as star in pickup games every weekend at El Camino College, and even shooting baskets with Westphal, his father and older brother on the goal that hung from atop the family garage.

Born on Nov. 30, 1950, in Torrance, Calif., Westphal wowed evaluators such as Hefner with his ability to use both hands on the court, his tireless work ethic and his character.

“He was can’t-miss,” Hefner remembered. “Everyone in the country wanted him. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to find out who the great players are.”

The new staff at USC, like so many others, believed that Westphal would end up at UCLA and be the latest star to play for John Wooden. Instead, he committed to Hefner and head coach Bob Boyd.

“It was just a decision where I don’t think I could’ve made a wrong decision, but I still had to make one. And I guess the bottom line was that I felt if we could win at 'SC, it’d be a bigger deal than winning at UCLA — because UCLA was always winning,” Westphal told The Times in a 2019 interview. “It was just the challenge of it. … It was about building the team that could challenge a dynasty. It was the biggest challenge in college basketball — and it was invigorating.”

Paul Westphal speaks at the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in September 2019.
Paul Westphal speaks at the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremony in September 2019. (Elise Amendola / Associated Press)

Westphal quickly established himself as a leader within the Trojans program, joining the varsity as a sophomore and leading the Trojans to a 24-2 record and a No. 5 ranking as a junior. USC's two losses were to UCLA and only conference winners reached the NCAA tournament at the time. He earned All-American recognition as a junior and senior before he was selected 10th overall by the Boston Celtics in the 1972 NBA draft.

“He did everything he was supposed to do,” Hefner said.

He won a NBA championship in 1974 with Boston, scoring 12 points with six assists in Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks. After the 1975 season, “Westy” got traded to Phoenix, where he’d make his greatest marks professionally, first as a player, leading the Suns to the NBA Finals in 1976, and eventually as a coach.

Westphal scored 25 points in Game 5 of the NBA Finals that first season with Phoenix in what is called "The Greatest NBA Game Ever," which the Celtics won 128-126 in triple overtime.

In six seasons with the Suns, he averaged 20.6 points, making five consecutive All-Star teams. He later led the Suns to the NBA Finals as a coach in 1993, where they lost to the Chicago Bulls. He coached 279 games for the Suns and won 68.5%, still a franchise record. He also coached the Seattle SuperSonics and the Sacramento Kings.

Westphal was known as a player’s coach. His friend and Lakers assistant coach Lionel Hollins often joked with him that he gave his players so much rope, they’d eventually hang Westphal with it.

His first team in Phoenix was the top seed for the playoffs, but trailed the Lakers 2-0 in the first round when Westphal guaranteed a series victory. One game away from being swept out of the playoffs and only up seven, Westphal walked into the locker room at halftime and asked if any of his players had heard any good jokes.

“In the most stressful of moments, he was able to smile and relax everyone around him,” said Danny Ainge, then a Suns guard and now the general manager of the Celtics.

The Suns won that game and the next two on their way to the NBA Finals.

Ainge remembered a time when Barkley was late for a game, with Westphal, Ainge and the rest of the Suns staring at Barkley’s jersey hanging in his locker as the minutes counted down to the 7 p.m. tipoff.

“We could all see Charles’ uniform in the locker. Nobody said anything about it, but everyone knew what was going on,” Ainge said, chuckling as he got ready for the punchline. “We’re sitting and waiting and finally Paul gets up and says, ‘Well, if he’s not here by 7:10, he’s not starting.’ And then he just walked out.”

Westphal’s quips landed because his intentions were never really in doubt. He was a committed competitor — his games of one-on-one with Hollins after Phoenix practices while the two were assistants under coach Cotton Fitzsimmons drew crowds of players. Yet he also arried a powerful perspective.

He was committed to his Christianity as much as anything, fortifying the faith of his friends, like Hollins, without being preachy or alienating.

“There was a higher power [guiding him] and it was Jesus Christ. And he was going to live it,” Hollins said. “… He was always out there living the life he chose to live, that he wanted to live. It wasn’t just a Sunday churchgoer. He was living the life every day.”

Hollins, who competed with Westphal as a player, who traveled the world with him as a peer and who worked for and hired Westphal on coaching staffs, said he broke into tears when he heard the news Saturday.

In the months that followed Westphal’s cancer diagnosis in August, Hollins made the calls that Westphal spoke so passionately about in his Hall of Fame speech.

“We prayed together. We talked about his situation," Hollins said. "And I remember him saying, ‘What are you going to do? It is what it is.’ I told him how brave he was.”

Sixteen months ago, Westphal took the stage to celebrate his place among basketball’s legends, a legacy that couldn’t be erased now that he was a Hall of Famer.

“This Naismith Hall of Fame, it’s for the iconic figures — Wilt, Elgin, Russell, Jordan, Charles Barkley, people who often seem bigger than life,” Westphal said. “And now it’s for me too.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.