Sunday, March 29, 2009

The Memories of Paul Westhead

Prior to Paul Westhead's arrival at Loyola Marymount, the most interesting fact that could be said about the school was that during the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s Loyola University shared its mascot with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM). The MGM Lion was brought to campus on the days of athletic events and university ceremonies to serve as the official school mascot (Leo the Lion was the first in the 1930s).

After Westhead's arrival the greatest college basketball story ever made was that of Loyola Marymount's dramatic run to the Elite 8 in 1990. It was not enough the the Lions were an 11 seed from a small conference, what made the run so dramatic was of course the death of one of their two star players the week before the tournament.

I was fortunate to have seen Loyola Marymount play in person on three ocassions. The first time was in 1988, when the Lions beat my home state team, and would be alma mater -- the Wyoming Cowboys - in the first round of the NCAA tournament in Salt Lake City, Utah. The crushing blow of seeing the bracket have Loyola Marymount play Wyoming was surreal, it was the last thing I wanted to see, in the game itself, Wyoming simply couldn't keep up and the Lions won 119-115. The game was an introduction to the rest of the country of what I'd spent several late nights watching -- the Loyola Marymount offense. Fennis Dembo simply got worked by Bo and Hank. That next year I lived in California and I saw Kimble and Gathers on two occasions once at Gersten Pavillion and another time at Firestone Fieldhouse, the home of the Pepperdine Waves.

At that time and for the most memorable basketball seasons LMU has ever had, the Lions were coached by Paul Westhead who had previously won an NBA Championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1980. After originally, attending USC for a year, Gathers and Kimble transferred when USC's coach Morrison was fired. A former LaSalle coach, Westhead brought the Philly duo aboard. Kimble and Gathers alternated leading the country in scoring under Westhead's offense. The offense was unlike anything anybody runs now or has ever run and was arguably the most entertaining basketball team ever. In 1989, Gathers became the first player to lead the nation in both scoring (32 ppg) and rebounding (13 rpg). LMU averaged an astonishing 122 points per game in 1990. In 1989 the Lions put up 112 points per game. These are the two highest scoring teams in the history of college basketball.

In December of 1989, Gathers first collapsed against UC Santa Barbara, he recoverd and returned to somewhat similar form. However, in 1990, in the West Coast Conference semifinals, against the University of Portland, Gathers collapsed on the court. This time there was no return. Gathers died on the court that night.

Afterward, the Lions had a service for Gathers. From that day forward Gersten has also been known as "Hank's House." The team decided to play in the NCAA tournament and Westhead warned that how they played in the tournament was not a reflection of how they felt about Hank. Hank's friend and long time teammate, Kimble marked his shoes with "44 Forever". Then in dramatic fashion, as tribute to Gathers who had struggled with foul shooting throughout his career, Kimble vowed to shoot his first free throw of each game in the tournament left handed.

His first attempt against New Mexico State in the opening round found nothing but the net. Then in the second round against the defending National Champion Michigan Wolverines, the Lions roared their loudest and it was as if the entire Nation were behind this school. They defined Cinderella. Jeff Fryer made a still standing tournament record 11 three point shots and the Lions scored 149 points en route to victory in one of the most memorable games in NCAA tournament history.

To a college basketball afficionado, the names of the players rings through -- Bo Kimble, Jeff Fryer, Terrell Lowery, Hank Gathers, Per Stumer, Corey Gaines, and Tom Peabody. LMU was a bizarre open gym like offensive show that never stopped. True college basketball fans stayed up until midnight for a chance to see this team from L.A. That team transformed college students across the nation and made life long college basketball fans of any college student at that time.

There’s a summer league now named in Hank's honor, the recreation center where he honed his skills now bears his name and there is a beautiful mural of Hank at 25th & Diamond Streets and as mentioned above Gersten Pavillion share its name as Hank's House.

This past week, Westhead was named the head coach of the Oregon women's squad. He is 70 years old. I have no idea what Westhead will do with this opportunity. My best guess is that he will buy a nice house along the Willamette River in Eugene, spend some time at Kentucky Falls, enjoy the microbreweries around Eugene, teach English Literature as he did at his previous college coaching stops, and hand most of the actual coaching over to a high paid assistant as he rides his final years out along the beautiful Oregon Coast.

No matter what Westhead does he can not equal the memories which were provided while he was at Loyola Marymount.