Hall of Fame hails Westphal

By Paul Coro

As he enters the Naismith Basketball Memorial Hall of Fame for his lifelong sport's highest honor, Paul Westphal is not savoring his success.

Westphal is joining the hallowed hoop hall in Springfield, Massachusetts, at Saturday night's enshrinement ceremony based on a mouthful of achievements – five NBA All-Star selections, three honors on the All-NBA first team, playing on the Boston Celtics' 1974 NBA championship team, making NBA Finals trips with the Phoenix Suns as a player (1976) and coach (1993) and coaching Grand Canyon to the 1988 NAIA national championship.

Instead, the honor is making Westphal chew on how fortunate he is to be at this point, considering all the people who helped guide him there and all the people in his life who could have been afforded a better basketball fate.

"It's almost amazing when I think about people who I grew up with and competed against that didn't get to continue their journey," Westphal said. "Their path could've led to getting an honor like this and it just didn't happen for one reason or another, whether it was injuries or not growing or picking the wrong school. There are just a lot of things that can happen that make me appreciate being here now and getting this award so much more than I probably would have several years ago."

Westphal, 68, knows the weight of the honor well. He was a teammate of seven Hall of Famers, was coached by four Hall of Famers and coached three Hall of Famers.

His career also was impacted greatly by Hall of Fame member and Hall of Fame chairman Jerry Colangelo, the former Suns executive and managing partner who traded for Westphal in 1975 to end a five-year playoff drought with the "Sunderella Suns" NBA Finals run of 1976 and brought Westphal back as head coach in 1988 after he delivered a national title to Phoenix as the Lopes' head coach.

"He is a stable, quality individual who will add leadership and experience to our club," Colangelo said of acquiring Westphal. "We are confident that this decision will prove to be a major step in developing a winner."

Colangelo was proved right by the 6-foot-4 guard's ambidextrous, creative shooting with an unselfish streak and a 15.6 scoring average during a 12-year career. Westphal made the All-Star team in four of his first five seasons in Phoenix, which became a second home when he returned for his final NBA playing season in 1984, volunteered to coach Southwestern Baptist Bible College to its winningest season in 1985-86 and had the winningest two-year run (63-18 in 1986-76 and 1987-88) at Grand Canyon by any coach.

"It was a fantastically pivotal time in my coaching journey," Westphal said. "We caught lightning in a bottle right when the Suns were at rock bottom. The timing was just perfect after we won the national championship to move on to the Suns. It seemed like a perfect fit to join Jerry and Cotton (Fitzsimmons) and help the Suns get back to prominence. Without the time at Grand Canyon, it wouldn't have had the timing to be the fit that it was. I had a lot of great friends and great experiences off the floor and on the floor at Grand Canyon."

Westphal said he found his calling at Grand Canyon as he established the running, pressing, wide-open style that he transferred to NBA coaching jobs with Phoenix, Seattle and Sacramento and a NCAA tournament berth with Pepperdine. The Lopes averaged 95.2 points in the program's third NAIA championship season and made the title run despite Westphal dismissing the team's top two scorers for rule violations during the regular season.

National championship team member Michael Ledbetter, now a fleet management crew supervisor for his alma mater, was ready to quit college basketball after two seasons in Texas when his father suggested he transfer to Grand Canyon because the guy pictured on his childhood bedroom wall's poster had become the head coach.

"He was headed there (to NBA coach) anyway," Ledbetter said. "We just sped it up a little bit.

"Nobody has ever spoken a negative word about him. It's awesome to be associated with him to the tiniest degree and I'm just super happy for him."

Westphal is entering the hall with Seattle teammate Jack Sikma and NBA contemporaries Bobby Jones and Sidney Moncrief. A group of 50 relatives and friends are traveling to Springfield to attend Saturday's enshrinement, which airs live at 4:30 p.m. (Phoenix time) on NBA TV.

Each inductee chooses two Hall of Fame members for presentation. Westphal selected Colangelo as one, but he is unable to attend because he is in China for the World Cup as the USA Basketball men's national team chairman. Instead, Westphal will be flanked by Barkley and Elgin Baylor, the player he emulated in his Torrance, California, driveway after begging his older brother and father to play the game he instantly loved.

"I just viewed myself who got to be part of the competition for a long time," Westphal said. "It's fantastic to enjoy this kind of honor because if it wasn't for Phoenix, none of it would've ever happened."