Howard Herman | Designated Hitter: New Hall of Famer Paul Westphal a friend and foe to Boston Celtics
SPRINGFIELD — Celtics legend Red Auerbach either didn't make many mistakes or didn't admit to any during his decades of running the greatest dynasty in NBA history.
But one mistake helped land Paul Westphal in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
"That's as nice a thing as anybody could ever say," Westphal said, regarding Auerbach's admitted mistake of trading the newest Hall of Famer out of Boston.
Westphal, the 10th player chosen in the 1972 NBA Draft, was traded from Boston to Phoenix three years later along with two draft picks for Charlie Scott. Ironically enough, both of them are in the Hall of Fame, and in 1976 Westphal's Suns reached their first-ever NBA Finals — playing the Celtics.
"Anybody that knew Red, he didn't either make too many mistakes, A, or B, admit it if he did," Westphal said, when he met with a few reporters during breakout sessions after the Class of 2019 all received their blazers. "To hear him say that was the best compliment I ever had."
Westphal, who became an All-Star with the Suns, capped his 14-year NBA playing career with an orange jacket signifying membership in the Hall of Fame. He was part of the Class of 2019 that was inducted over the weekend.
By the way, Basketball-Reference.com gave Westphal a 44.4-percent chance of being inducted. I guess that can be changed now.
Westphal is one of three members of the first-round draft class in 1972 to earn induction. He joins Bob McAdoo and Julius Erving out of the first round. Erving was drafted, by the way, by the Milwaukee Bucks but had signed with the Virginia Squires of the ABA.
For the record, Bob Nash of Hawaii was taken ninth by Detroit. The Knicks had the eighth pick and took Tom Riker of South Carolina.
Westphal was on an NBA championship team in Boston in 1974, where he played with Hall of Famers Dave Cowens, Don Nelson, John Havlicek and Jo Jo White. That team was coached by the legendary Tommy Heinsohn, one of the few Hall of Famers to be inducted separately as a player and as a coach.
"Tommy's greatest skill was that he was a relentless competitor," Westphal said of his first coach. "Whatever came his way as a coach, he wanted more. It was like the way he played. If he got 20 shots, he wanted 30 or whatever. He was a relentless competitor. He wanted to win every quarter, every half, every game, every trip down the floor. That's what he was about.
"That was transmitted to the team, and had a huge impact because of that."
Westphal played AGAINST the Celtics in perhaps the most memorable game of the 1970s. It was on June 4, 1976 in Game 5, when Boston and Phoenix battled through three overtimes in the NBA Finals, before the Celtics won 128-126. Westphal scored 25 points on 11 of 20 shooting. White scored 33 to lead Boston. And it's a loss that still stings.
"It was a real privilege, it was great basketball and people say it was probably the greatest game of all time that we played in. It's a thrill to be a part of that. It still hurts to lose," he said. "You wouldn't want it any other way. If you didn't care if you lost or not, why play?"
That was then. Now, I asked the newest Hall of Famer if he would have been a good player in the modern NBA.
"I think I could have been a good 3-point shooter, if I could have worked on it," he said. "That's all the game is now is how many threes can you get up and how are you going to stop them from getting up a whole lot of threes."
If that didn't read like Paul Westphal was in love with the way the NBA plays basketball these days, well you would be right.
"I would like to see it return to a little more balance," he said to me. "Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, he would probably be a 3-point shooter today instead of the greatest low-post player in history. People adapt, great players adapt. At the same time, my preference would be to not have the 3-point shot be what the game is all about any more.
"It's a good tool, but I don't think it should be all there is."
And when Paul Westphal was taken by the Celtics, he thought he'd be a good NBA player. Hall of Fame? Not so much.
"Anybody that plays would have that be out there as a dream, but it certainly wasn't ever any kind of expectation," he said, "It was a dream. It was a dream come true."
Howard Herman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, at @howardherman on Twitter, or 413-496-6253.
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