The speed game is basketball in its most simple form. It requires players, first and foremost, to run as fast as they can from tipoff to final whistle. Passing, shooting and rebounding are important but secondary. So is defense. Speed rules.
Paul Westhead, a coach who values speed, tells us in “The Speed Game: My Fast Times in Basketball” that he likes to quote what Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden: “ ‘Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand.’ Henry David would have made for a hell of a shooting guard in my system.”</p><div readability="125"> <p>A speed offense begins the moment it gets the ball. Racing into the front court, the point guard passes to one of his four teammates, who have sprinted to their assigned positions. Whoever gets the pass shoots instantly. Only five seconds should have expired. If the shot is missed, the other players are ready to rebound and shoot again. This routine is repeated over and over. The key is to never let up, never pause. Slowing down only gives the other team a moment to rest. Under conditions of relentless speed, the opponent will tire in the second half. It won’t be able to get back on defense a hundred times a game, as it would otherwise, but will instead be left trailing behind in its own offense zone. As the game enters its final stretch, the fast team must be primed to step on the accelerator. Then victory is all but certain. <div data-layout="wrap " data-layout-mobile="" class=" media-object type-InsetMediaIllustration wrap scope-web|mobileapps
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The Speed Game
By Paul Westhead
<br><em>Nebraska, 187 pages, $29.95</em></p> </div> </div> <p>Mr. Westhead, now 81 and retired, saw his first high-speed game in the early 1970s, when he was coaching in Puerto Rico. “They were playing the speed game that I had never seen before,” he writes. It pushed him toward becoming a “committed fast break believer.” He got another shove in that direction from Sonny Allen, who had coached Old Dominion, in Norfolk, Va., to a Division II championship. Allen told him that “you’ve have to be a little crazy” to adopt a speed offense. “I told him, ‘Sonny, I’m a little crazy.’ ” But don’t get the idea that “The Speed Game” is infatuated repetitiously with a scheme for winning basketball games. Mr. Westhead gives us a lot more. It may be a surprise to readers to learn how graceful and interesting a writer he is. In four years at St. Joseph’s in his hometown of Philadelphia, his 3.4 grade average topped his basketball scoring average of 2.4 points per game. And he spent two years at Villanova studying Shakespeare and teaching college English. In his memoir, he writes especially well about coaching the Los Angeles Lakers to an NBA championship in 1980 and the Phoenix Mercury, led by the great Diana Taurasi, to the 2007 women’s title. He also describes how, in the late 1980s, he transformed Loyola Marymount into a powerhouse, and he does so without diminishing the role of Hank Gathers and Bo Kimble in the team’s success. Mr. Westhead is tough on Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who bought the team in the late 1970s, for blaming others for his own egregious mistakes and taking credit for others’ smart moves. He remains angry that Buss would fire him only 18 months after he stepped into the Lakers’ top coaching spot in 1979—when coach Jack McKinney was badly injured in a bicycle accident—though Mr. Westhead had kept the team on a winning path. It is clear that Buss was lucky to have Mr. Westhead around to block unwise trades and keep him from succumbing to power forward Spencer Haywood’s pleas for more playing time. Kareem-Abdul Jabbar, in Mr. Westhead’s view, was the only adult among the Lakers players and was the key to Haywood’s departure in 1980, in the middle of the NBA finals. During a practice, Haywood “fell into a deep sleep and was snoring loudly,” Mr. Westhead writes. Awakened, he dozed off again. At the next home game, Haywood got the crowd to scream for him to come off the bench and play. Following the game, Mr. Westhead says, “Kareem walked over to me and simply said, ‘Get him out of here.’ ” Mr. Westhead passed Jabbar’s comment to Buss, and Haywood “was removed from the team, never to return.” Magic Johnson was the most popular Lakers player, but Mr. Westhead found him to be more trouble than not. A breach between the two came in a deciding playoff game in 1981 against the Houston Rockets. With 14 seconds to go, the Lakers needed a basket to win. “It was money time, and I went with the man, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, ” Mr. Westhead writes. “The play was one we had run hundreds of times before at end-of-quarter and end-of-game situations.” Magic had the ball, but “he did not look for his primary target, Kareem, who was open in the low post.” Instead Magic “decided to go one-on-one himself. . . . He shot a running jumper above the free-throw line and missed.” It was an air ball, and the game was lost. Magic “felt he had earned the star position, and with that role went the right to take the final shot. In this instance, Magic unfortunately chose the wrong star.” Mr. Westhead’s third Laker season didn’t last very long, but he had two brief NBA coaching jobs ahead of him, as well as college coaching. The Loyola Marymount position, in 1985-90, allowed him to restore the speed game to active duty. (It had never really caught on in the NBA and was too radical for most college coaches.) A game with Holy Cross was too strenuous for the referees. Exhausted, they stayed still for the final eight minutes. Mr. Westhead’s core argument in “The Speed Game,” though persuasively advanced, may feel like a lost cause. As exciting as the speed game is, and as successful as it can be, most coaches and fans are fine with the slower game and think it’s exciting enough. At least the“four corners” stall, favored by legendary coach Dean Smith, is dead. “There were coaches who didn’t like me purely based on my style of play,” Mr. Westhead writes. “Others just thought it made them look bad.” Yes, it often did. <em>Mr. Barnes is a senior columnist for the Washington Examiner.</em> </div>Copyright ©2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8