Paul Westphal, the Basketball Hall of Famer who played for USC and coached the Pepperdine Waves, died Saturday at age 70 from brain cancer.
“My dear friend, NBA Hall of Famer Paul Westphal, passed away today,” New York-based sports columnist Mike Lupica tweeted. “He was 70, and had been diagnosed with brain cancer last year. He was a splendid husband, father, grandfather, player, coach, friend, and man of faith. God now receives into His arms a most honored guest.”
Westphal played 12 seasons in the NBA, winning a championship with the Boston Celtics in 1974 and reaching the NBA Finals with the Phoenix Suns in 1976. He averaged 15.6 points per game during his playing career, and later coached in the NBA for 10 seasons.
“Westy will not be immortalized for just playing basketball. He will be remembered for how he lived his life, and how he treated others. Rest In Peace, Westy,” tweeted the Suns, for whom Westphal played and coached.
Westphal was a key member of the 1971 USC Trojans team that posted a 24-2 record, a then-school record for wins and a still-standing USC mark for winning percentage (92.3%). The next year, he was an All-American first team guard and team captain. He averaged 16.9 points a game in his USC career, he led the Trojans in scoring in 1972 with a 20.3 average.
“Paul was admired by his family, friends and the entire Trojan community,” USC men’s basketball coach Andy Enfield said Saturday. “He had a huge impact on the game of basketball as a player and coach at both the collegiate and professional levels. Paul was as nice a person and as caring an individual as you will ever meet. The Trojan family sends condolences to Paul’s family.”
Former Trojans assistant coach Jim Hefner, who recruited Westphal to USC from Aviation High in Redondo Beach, also paid tribute to Westphal.
“Paul had it all,” Hefner said. “He was one of the best basketball players to ever play at USC. His leadership qualities and work ethic were second to none. He was the best player and the leader on the best team in USC basketball history. He was a fabulous father and loving husband to Cindy. As a player and person, USC lost one of the very best.”
Westphal coached Pepperdine from the 2001-02 season through the 2005-06 season, finishing with a record of 75-71. The Waves made the NCAA Tournament in his first season as coach, but lost to Wake Forest in the first round. It is the last time the team has made the NCAA Tournament.
He was enshrined in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2019.
“As a member of the Phoenix Suns, Paul Westphal had as much impact on the organization as any individual in history,” said Jerry Colangelo, former Suns owner and chairman of the Hall of Fame. “A dynamic player, he was a smart as they come and led the team like a coach on the floor. He was a key player in the 1976 NBA Finals and received many honors for his outstanding play. As an assistant and then head coach, Paul was known as a `players’ coach’ who garnered respect and results, leading the Suns to the 1993 NBA Finals. Nonetheless, greater than all the basketball accolades is the man Paul Westphal was — a great father, husband and friend, who was respected by so many.”
Westphal’s most famous moment as a player was not even a “play” at all, but came during a break in the action of Game 5 of the 1976 NBA Finals — often called the greatest game in NBA history. John Havlicek had just made a shot to give the Boston Celtics a one-point lead over Westphal’s Suns with 2 seconds left. Westphal called a timeout, even though he knew the Suns had no timeouts left and would be assessed a technical foul.
The Celtics made the resulting free-throw for a two-point lead, but the Suns then were permitted to inbound the ball at half-court instead of under the far basket. Garfield Heard then hit a long jumper to tie the game and send it into overtime.
Westphal explained later that with only 2 seconds left, he figured Phoenix had a better chance of tying the game from half-court than winning it from 94 feet away.
The Suns lost the game anyway in triple overtime, but Westphal drew widespread praise for his remarkable presence of mind.