The mad maestro: How Paul Westhead’s fastbreak offense continues to defy convention

Posted by David Lieberman on Thursday, Jan. 26 at 6:16 pm.

Here’s a riddle: What do Magic Johnson, the WNBA, Loyola Marymount University and Oregon women’s basketball have in common? The answer: an eccentric basketball philosophy, called “The System,” and the fascinating architect that brought it to life: Paul Westhead.

Oregon point guard Nia Jackson goes up for a lay-up during the first half of Oregon's 53-49 loss to the Arizona State Sundevils on Saturday afternoon. Jackson had nine points of the day. (Aaron Marineau/Oregon Daily Emerald)

In its four-decade lifespan, The System has left a trail of shattered record books, dropped jaws and depleted players. At its best, The System results in a beautiful blur of fastbreaks best described as controlled chaos. At its worst? Well, when the losses (and points from the opposition) pile up, let’s just say the coach can quickly fall under fire.

“(The critics) all come out,” says Westhead. “They all come out screaming.”

Westhead is familiar with the pitfalls of The System. After all, he’s nurtured his creation for generations in an increasingly hostile and ever-evolving basketball landscape. He’s imparted his patented fast-paced wisdom onto everyone from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Diana Taurasi. So where was the approach conceived? Strangely enough, The System first took root in the Caribbean.

“When I was a young college coach back in the early ’70s, I would coach in the summer in San Juan, Puerto Rico,” says Westhead. “It was kind of like an Olympic development league.”

Up to that point, Westhead — raised in Philadelphia — had been instilled with a conservative, pass-first perspective of the game. How did Puerto Rico compare?

“Basically, the team that I had (and) the league that I was in showed me another way to play,” says Westhead. “That was a revelation for me. I said, ‘Wow, so you can do it this way.’”

When he returned to the States, Westhead’s coaching style shifted accordingly. He blended the new up-and-down concept with the basics he learned from Sonny Allen, a friend who had recently coached Old Dominion University to the Division II NCAA championship. The result: a furious offensive attack that left fans speechless and the opposition breathless.

“I think it’s a way that you can beat teams that perhaps are bigger, stronger and have more talent and more depth and more of everything,” says Westhead. “Because speed will cut into or wear down anybody. So it’s a device that, when executed well, will put you into every game. You’ll be able to perform and perhaps win.”

And over time, the wins have piled up for Westhead. In fact, during his first big-time gig — with the Los Angeles Lakers, no less — success was far from elusive. Westhead began the 1979-80 season as an assistant but was promoted after only 14 games when then-head coach Jack McKinney suffered a near-fatal head injury in a bicycle accident. With Westhead as head orchestrator, the team won 60 games in the regular season and hit the playoffs on a tear. On the strength of a legendary performance by rookie point guard Magic Johnson, who started at center in Game 6 of the NBA Finals (42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists), Westhead did the unthinkable in his first season at the helm: claimed a world championship.

However, Westhead’s finish in L.A. was anything but a Hollywood ending. Rumors have it he was either run out of town by Magic or maligned by owner Jerry Buss. Either way, following a 54–28 regular season and a disappointing first-round playoff exit, Westhead was done as coach of the Lakers — only one season removed from winning the NBA title. Some critics felt his firing was a result of The System. Traditionalists contended it couldn’t hold up over the grind of the playoffs. To that notion, Westhead has a short response.

“I would probably say it is hogwash,” says Westhead. “It could actually work the other way for you. Playing a team in a seven-game series, you’re going to wear them down.”

No matter how you choose to view the end of Westhead’s stint with the Lakers, his departure foreshadowed a career that would make many brief and unexpected stops before landing up in Eugene.

Since then, The System has taken Westhead on a dizzying journey. He’s bounced from the NBA to the NCAA to the WNBA. His most famous stop was at a school completely unaccustomed to athletic notoriety: Loyola Marymount. There, Westhead transformed a team and community with his unique approach to basketball.

From 1988 to 1990, Westhead’s teams at LMU went 70–18, earning an NCAA tournament berth each season. Those squads led the nation in scoring in 1988 (110.3 points per game), 1989 (112.5), and 1990 (122.4). The Tigers’ 122.4 points per game in 1990 still stands as an all-time record at the collegiate level. As a direct result of The System, Loyola Marymount has participated in the five highest combined-score games in Division I history.

Westhead arrived in Eugene in 2009, almost two decades after leaving Southern California for good. And though basketball has varied greatly in the meantime, his teachings haven’t significantly altered. During his short tenure, the Ducks have finished in the country’s top 15 in scoring in back-to-back seasons, averaging 81.4 points (2010, 2nd) and 76.3 points per game (2011, 15th).

In short, The System still reigns supreme. As a consequence, any woman that suits up for the Ducks is indoctrinated with the gospel of the up-tempo philosophy. Despite the coaching staff’s best efforts, it’s no easy task for players to shed the traditional training they received in high school and AAU competition. Those fundamental years mold players to view basketball in the traditional sense that Westhead abandoned over forty years ago.

“It was definitely a process,” says senior point guard Nia Jackson, who was an All-Pac-10 performer under Westhead in 2010. “When I was in high school, I was used to running a high-paced system, but his system was completely different than that. You really have to go fast 24/7. What you think is fast is not what his fast is.”

True freshman Lexi Petersen also experienced an extended period of acclimation.

“At first it was really hard, doing all the running that we do,” says Peterson. “Because we play so up-and-down, there’s a lot of conditioning that goes along with that. But as far as the whole system, it’s not that hard to learn. It’s just hard to learn and actually do it.”

In Westhead’s experience, the learning curve can fluctuate greatly.

“People ask me all the time, ‘Well, how long does it take a player or a group of players to learn and do this?’” says Westhead. “And my answer is, ‘A week, a day, a month and a lifetime.’ You could learn it very fast, and if you embraced it, and you allow your mind and body to do it, you’d get it done. But if anywhere along the line, you don’t allow your mind or body — or both — to climb all the way in, you’re gonna be 47 years old saying, ‘No, I’m still working on this.’”

“It’s just something you have to commit to,” says Jackson. “I think the most thrilling thing about The System is being able to tire out opponents. To see them bending over and tired is the most rewarding thing of it all.”

One thing is for sure: No matter how hard you look, it’s unlikely you’ll find an offense that compares with Westhead’s brainchild.

“(It’s rare) to be committed to running fastbreak over and over, win lose or draw, start of the game, end of the game, game after game after game,” says Westhead. “I’m not bragging or complaining. I’m just saying — you don’t see that very much in basketball.”