Westphal offered to quit

  • RICH MYHRE / Herald Writer
  • Thursday, November 16, 2000 9:00pm
  • Sports

Payton intercedes after Sonics coach told players he would resign during ugly locker room scene following loss in Orlando

By RICH MYHRE

Herald Writer

SEATTLE — Four games, three losses and one huge argument into this young NBA season, the Seattle SuperSonics had reached a crossroads.

And in a moment of utter frustration, Sonics coach Paul Westphal offered to go one route and let his team take the other.

On Thursday, Westphal revealed that an ugly locker room blowup on Seattle’s recent East Coast road trip led him to offer his resignation — not to team president Wally Walker, but to the Sonics players.

"I was serious," Westphal said. "That’s what I felt I needed to do right then. I was serious as a heart attack."

It happened Nov. 6 in Orlando, moments after the Sonics had opened their five-game road swing with a disappointing 110-99 loss to the Magic. In the locker room immediately after the game, Seattle’s Gary Payton went into a verbal tirade. In loud, angry remarks, Payton criticized the lackluster efforts and contributions of some teammates.

A few of the other players fired back with heated comments of their own, and some of the retorts took aim at Westphal.

Stung by those words, and with no forethought, Westphal promptly offered to resign.

"Obviously, I was taken aback enough to make the offer," he said. "If I’m the problem, then I’ll get out. I told them to have a meeting and to let me know.

"At that point," Westphal said, "I was ready to walk out the door."

Westphal’s statement took everyone by surprise. "It was shocking," said Sonics assistant coach Dwane Casey.

What followed was almost as remarkable as Westphal’s suggested exit. Payton, one of the most volatile players in professional basketball, stood and addressed the team. Speaking more calmly, Payton’s message (according to Westphal) was essentially this: "This is our team. This is our group. We’re all in this together, and we’re not (staying together)."

Payton and Westphal have sometimes been at odds in their two-plus seasons together, just as Payton was occasionally at odds with K.C. Jones and George Karl, his two previous Seattle coaches. This season, though, Westphal believes the relationship with his All-Star guard is better than ever.

"Gary and I have worked real hard to be on the same page this year," Westphal said. "When things come up, we’ve communicated real directly about them. It’s been very satisfactory. Certainly, when we’re in the midst of going 2-6 neither one of us is very happy, but the communication has been good."

After Thursday’s workout, Payton reiterated his plea for oneness. "We all need to be together," he said. "If we lose, we lose together." Of Westphal, Payton added, "As long as he’s here, he’s my coach and I’m going to try to get him wins."

Neither is Payton keen on talk of a possible coaching change, despite the team’s slow start. "It’s too damn early for all that," he said. "If we don’t start jelling, then next month (people) can talk about all that. But (Walker) will do all that, not (the players)."

The irony of the incident is that there was no immediate Seattle turnabout. The Sonics went on to Miami, where they dropped an 87-81 decision to the Heat two nights later. Seattle won at Charlotte the next night, but closed the trip with a 35-point loss at New Jersey on Saturday and a nine-point defeat at Detroit on Sunday.

Still, Westphal said Thursday, the episode seemed to galvanize the team. The Sonics returned home to face New York on Tuesday and had their best outing of the season, routing the Knicks 96-75 to raise their record to 3-6. The practices this week have been energetic and harmonious, and the entire stretch of days has renewed Westphal’s belief in his ballclub.

"I believe this team is going to (succeed) because they decided to be together," Westphal said. "That doesn’t mean we’re going to win every game and not look bad sometimes, but I believe there’s a good unity that will let the team come up to its potential."

Westphal was initially reluctant to talk about what happened in Orlando, but decided that "it’s probably not a bad thing to have out there." The notion of a resignation, he went on, "is what you need to do if you’re faced with a circumstance where it seems like guys don’t want to listen. If a team is not going to listen, then get somebody they’ll listen to.

"If I don’t feel we’re on the same page, there’s no reason to continue," Westphal said. "This team is too good not to be on the same page as the coach."

On Thursday, Westphal could occasionally smile and joke about the incident. NBA coaching, he suggested, is never static duty. There are great rewards and satisfactions, just as there are agonizing periods of disappointment and distress.

"I know what this business is all about," he said. "I know there are going to be ups and downs. It makes it fun and it makes it hard sometimes.

"But I like these guys. I like their competitiveness. I like the way they pulled together against the Knicks after a terrible road trip. I’m optimistic that we’re going to continue to improve. And that’s really where we’re at right now. I’m not predicting any championships. We have one good game in a row. Let’s have two good games in a row and see if we can build on that."

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