By RICH MYHRE
SEATTLE – In a league full of great egos, one of the tiniest belongs to former Seattle SuperSonics coach Paul Westphal.
Which is why Westphal, on the day of his firing, did not depart in flurry of angry accusations and bitter blame.
Instead, the genial Westphal went out with dignity Monday. He acknowledged the team’s disappointing 6-9 record (“I understand the business and I understand why they felt they needed to do this,” he said), but he also believes he did his best to solve the team’s problems.
And problems, there were many.
His experiences in two Seattle seasons plus the start of a third “were extremely, unusually wacky,” Westphal said. “I’m a non-controversial guy, and (it’s astonishing to) look back at all things I’ve been in the middle of.”
Nothing was more bizarre than the first four weeks of this season. There was an ill omen on opening night as the Sonics were outscored 18-2 in the first five minutes against the Vancouver Grizzlies. Vancouver, a team Seattle has dominated since it joined the league back in the 1995-95 season, went on to a shocking 94-88 victory.
There was a locker room blowup in Orlando one week later, during which Westphal offered to resign, only to have All-Star point guard Gary Payton defuse the crisis. Two weeks later, though, it was Payton cursing Westphal and threatening violence, a bit of insubordination for which the player was suspended for one game – then reinstated a few hours later.
More than anything, though, there were losses. There were games the Sonics should have won, like the Vancouver defeat and a Nov. 16 setback vs. Dallas in which Seattle gave up a 10-point lead in the final seven minutes. And there were games the Sonics could have been forgiven for losing if they had played competitively, but instead they gave lackluster efforts and were routed.
Two of those in the past week – a 112-85 loss at San Antonio and a 125-101 defeat at Sacramento – apparently tipped the scales against Westphal.
Despite his well-publicized argument with Payton, Westphal took no verbal swings at Seattle’s volatile star.
“I think Gary and I could have worked together a lot better if the team had been more successful,” Westphal said. “Gary’s volatile personality is something that dictates that inevitably there are going to be some blowups from time to time. But I never felt that Gary was not going to play hard and I never felt that he was someone I didn’t want on the team.
“I don’t think Gary Payton got me fired, let’s put it that way,” he said.
If Westphal has any frustration, it stems from his inability to get better performances from forward Vin Baker, a four-time All-Star who has slumped in recent seasons.
“I don’t blame myself because I know I did everything I could do,” Westphal said. “I accept the responsibility, but there’s a difference. I don’t think there was anything I could have done differently. … I don’t have any regrets at all about the steps we took and when we took them in trying to help him become the player he used to be.”
Westphal, who will receive the balance of his guaranteed salary (about $2 million) for this season, and his wife Cindy plan to sell their Seattle-area home and move back to Manhattan Beach, Calif., their primary residence. He will finish a book he is working on, tentatively titled “Stories from the Big Time,” which he describes as “a collection of stories about sports and life.”
And he may coach again. “I like basketball a lot,” he said. “I’ll have to look for an opportunity that’s the right fit, and I have no idea what’s out there right now.”
Sounding remarkably upbeat, he said, “I’m sorry it did not work out here. This is a great organization and there’s great support for the Sonics. I wish it could have been different. I liked it here.
“I don’t think (the events of this season) made anybody particularly happy, but this is the NBA in the year 2000. I wish everybody the best and I’m going to move on. I’ll look back on my time in Seattle as something that could have been better, but it was a good experience.”
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