Westhead Patience Finally Pays Off

By Mark Heller
Aug. 24, 2007

Los Angeles was a WNBA team going nowhere fast, but on July 20, the Sparks came into US Airways Center and put a whomping on the Mercury and their psyche.

Paul Westhead emerged from the coach’s office, his frown a little more defined and his chin a little closer to the ground than normal.

“I’m not a man with a lot of answers,” he said that night.

Ever since, he’s been the answer.

The brains and schemes behind the Mercury’s first Western Conference championship in a decade — and first playoff appearance since 2000 — is Westhead, a man who brought a radical running style to a plodding league, doesn’t believe in yelling and found a group of players patient and willing to slog through mediocrity and wait for another chance at glory.

That opportunity begins this weekend, as Phoenix and Seattle tangle in what is shaping up to be the most entertaining opening series of the playoffs, mostly because flooring the pedal is Westhead’s way.

“He’s the bomb,” All-Star guard Diana Taurasi said.

Westhead came out of Philadelphia’s west side and led Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to an NBA title in Los Angeles, then coached Loyola Marymount. Westhead took the run-and-gun back to the NBA, then Japan, back to college, back to the NBA again and now the WNBA.

But for how much longer? His name has already been linked to a possible NBA return, this time as an assistant in Seattle with close friend P.J. Carlesimo.

Those decisions will be made later. Today, he will direct a record-breaking, never-fast-enough offense into the postseason without screaming, chalkboard-banging or fiery speeches.

“You’d think he’s crazy,” forward Tangela Smith said.

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At first, it only seemed that way.

Westhead tried to implement a full-court press after each made basket, but after the Mercury were blown out the first two games of his tenure last year, he scrapped it permanently.

When the Mercury started 2006 at 0-4 and were 8-10 at the All-Star break, there were more questions. Westhead preached patience while his prized offseason acquisitions, No. 2 overall pick Cappie Pondexter and then-injured Kelly Miller, learned to play with Taurasi. In addition, Penny Taylor was just landing from Europe.

Privately, he wondered if a team that couldn’t sustain his version of full throttle halfway through the season would ever catch on. Though stoic, he pressed, cajoled, emphasized and enticed while the Mercury lost four consecutive games to conclude July.

All the while, players embraced their coach’s calmness as a sign of belief in them.

They won seven consecutive games to finish the season.

“He’s not one to freak out because he knows in the long run, it’ll work,” Taylor said.

Buoyed by their 2006 finish, and with the team’s nucleus healthy and accounted for, Westhead thought the team would simply “streak on.”

But it didn’t happen immediately. New veterans such as Smith, Kelly Schumacher, Kelly Mazzante and Olympia Scott tried to learn how to live in this controlled-yet-chaotic environment.

Faced with high expectations, the Mercury were inconsistent and hovered around .500 through the All-Star break, hanging on at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture.

They lost to the likes of Minnesota and Washington (twice), but Westhead didn’t flinch. Talent plus the memory of last year’s winning streak prevented him from making substantial changes.

Instead, he piled more and more freedom onto the players to run the offense and make decisions. He cracked more jokes with his dry-yet-engaging sense of humor.

“I don’t think enough coaches give players that kind of pull, but he’s been around for so long and had some of the greatest players, and that means a lot,” Taurasi said. “He’s as consistent a coach as I’ve ever had. No matter what happens, he’s always the same, and it trickles down to us.”

Following that spanking by the Sparks, the Mercury won 11 of their final 12 games and averaged 95 points per game the past month.

“It’s a delicate thing and when you get it like this team has, they’ve taken ownership,” Westhead said. “Suddenly it’s ‘We’re OK, we don’t need you to tell us.’ This team generates its own energy, so I don’t have to be the angry taskmaster who harps and says it’s not good enough.”

Never one to gush optimism, the coach himself acknowledged the Mercury are operating at a near-optimum level lately, which means he’s watched his team play opposite to what he preaches:


“We’re finally sold on it,” Taylor said. “You need to have the right group of players to do it and we do. You don’t need to convince us anymore.”

COPYRIGHT 2007, EAST VALLEY TRIBUNE. Used with permission.