Hard to imagine many firsts remain following 31 years of coaching basketball, but Paul Westhead found one.
Having coached men’s basketball (college, pro and overseas) since the 1970s — including stops at Loyola Marymount, an NBA title with the Los Angeles Lakers, Tokyo, and most recently an Orlando Magic assistant — the 2006 season will be Westhead’s first coaching women’s basketball at age 67.
His first training camp begins today at US Airways Center, and the man hired to replace Carrie Graf has his sights set on getting the Mercury back to the playoffs for the first time since 2000.
And he plans on doing it his way: Fast and furious.
As is often the case, Phoenix will be shorthanded for today’s opening practice. Diana Taurasi and Kamila Vodichkova are finishing commitments in Moscow, but general manager Seth Sulka said they should return well before the team’s first preseason game May 11. Penny Taylor is back playing in the Italian League, and, depending on her team’s playoff fortunes, Sulka doesn’t expect her to be available until mid-May.
With most of the roster accounted for, Westhead dives into his first training camp as a women’s basketball coach, but first he sat down with the Tribune last Friday:
Q: Most people in your position are thinking of retiring and you’re coaching. What gives?
A: I’m as excited as I have been at any other training camp. Basketball season is like a lifetime. It’s the start of a new life with all that excitement, and every season you start is brand new, it’s not like “Oh, hum you have to go to work again.” It’s the excitement and renewal and everything’s fresh. Especially with a new team. Everyone has a chance to make their mark.
Q: Why do you still want to do this?
A: It’s what I do. I’m a basketball coach. I like putting together a team from the start. I’ve always been someone who’d rather start something than just maintain, I like the newness of it. It’s intriguing, having never coached women or tried my style, we’ll see what effect it can have on the game.
Q: You’ve made it clear you want to run an up-tempo style, but the team finished third in the league in scoring in 2005. What do you want to change?
A: We want to change the amount of scoring. We’re going to score more, more than third-best, more than hopefully anyone in the league. Those are my aspirations. We want to be a very high-scoring team, if they had some capability in the past, that’s fine, then I’ll try to build on that. That’s all a function of how I play.
Q: What do you expect defensively out of this group?
A: I expect high-quality, tough defensive basketball. We’re going to get after people. We’re not going to be laid back, let you do what you feel like, and then retrieve the ball. We’re going to be aggressive, frequently a full-court defensive team. There will be no free walk-down to get into your favorite play.
Q: Do you feel this team now has the one or two components needed to get into the playoffs?
A: I think so. You really don’t know until you have them, so it’s hard to say. I think we have a great player in Kelly Miller (acquired in a trade with Indiana). My guess is she’s going to be very good for us, but having been outside the league we’ll find out for sure. I’ll know more in a week and after we play a couple preseason games.
Q: Have you sought guidance from people or suggestions on coaching a women’s team?
A: My quick answer is I’m accustomed over a lot of years to coach the best men in the world. Now I’m going to coach the best women in the world, so I don’t see the need for any significant change how to practice or prepare. It’s a compliment to their ability level. They’re professional athletes. We share that commonality, men and women.
Q: Is coaching different at the WNBA level than the NBA or college? Does the philosophy or style change?
A: I’m not anticipating a change, but I have no idea yet. It’s part of this newness and birth. What’s this child going to be like? Is she going to be the first president of the United States? That’s part of the adventure and excitement doing it. Can this happen? If it does, it’ll be marvelous. We’re plunging in to get the fastest offense and most aggressive full-court defensive team ever put together. That’s the goal, and that means we need players to say “Here we go.” Until I can coach them, I’m optimistic. Now, we’ll find out.