Westhead, Mercury ready to run, run, run

Updated: May 20, 2006, 8:16 AM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

New Phoenix coach Paul Westhead isn't too worried about what his team will look like in its opener today against Sacramento (ABC, 4 ET). Nor, for that matter, the first few games of the season. His system takes a little while to evaluate.

In fact, Westhead sounds very relaxed. And why shouldn't he? This -- coaching women -- is a new thing for Westhead. But coaching itself is just what this guy does. You figure Westhead is a "lifer coach" -- one of those folks who probably fights the temptation to try to get squirrels in the backyard to run better patterns as they gather acorns.

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Still, it is always interesting when someone who has been at the highest level of the sport -- Westhead's 1979-80 Lakers won the NBA title -- makes this kind of move.

You almost never see this in the college ranks: longtime men's coaches deciding to go to the women's game. The WNBA is different because, of course, of the connection with the NBA. Some NBA guys get involved in the WNBA because they see it as an eventual path to coaching in the NBA. But someone like Westhead -- who coached the Lakers, Bulls and Nuggets -- isn't likely at age 67 to be going down that road again.

Along with his time leading the Lakers, Westhead is most famous for his success with Loyola Marymount in men's college hoops. The recruiting rat race would seem out of the question now, too, for Westhead. He has spent the last few years in the ABA and Japan.

So why not try this? It's a paycheck, and it's not like it can possibly be that unpleasant. No WNBA players are even going to roll their eyes much, let alone choke a coach or anything. There's little, if any, real media know-it-all griping. The expectations aren't really all that high at Phoenix; the fans there just want to see a little progress and some good times.

"The opportunity came up," Westhead said. "I was intrigued by the possibility of how my style of play would work in the women's game. I said, 'There's only one way I'm going to find out.' And I still don't know the answer to that.

"But it's sure like an adventure for me, and it will be for [the players]. And it's going to be something that either really works and shakes things up or we may struggle with it. If it were that automatic, it'd be a no-brainer and everyone might try it. There's a high risk with this system."

And, as the axiom goes, there's also the possibility of high reward. This isn't just any longtime men's coach moving to the women's side. This is someone with such a distinctive style that when you hear his name, you automatically think about triple digits. The descriptions have stayed the same over all Westhead's years of coaching: high-octane, frenetic-paced, run-run-run.

Westhead explains that the above-the-rim vs. at-the-rim difference between the men's game and the WNBA won't matter in terms of his style being successful. As he says, if you beat your opponent down the floor, you can put the ball in the basket pretty much any way you want.

Phoenix superstar Diana Taurasi is being hampered now by what Westhead described as a pull in her "high thigh, hip-flexor area." Once Taurasi is fully healthy, it's hard to imagine any system in which she can't flourish. There really isn't one. The kid just scores.

And it was not surprising when Westhead mentioned a player who immediately took to his system: Kelly Miller, who is also new to the Mercury this season. Miller and her twin sister, Coco (who plays for Washington), seem genetically predisposed to Westhead's style: They can run up and down the court about 23 of the 24 hours of the day. If they finish off a couple of Mountain Dews, maybe even 24 of 24.

So Miller has been an instant convert. Westhead says it doesn't happen that quickly for everyone, but that attitude is a part of it. If you don't embrace it, you won't get used to it. You'll be convinced you're simply running your fool head off for no good reason.

However, if you believe in the system …

"You learn how to fight through a little tiredness -- or a lot of tiredness -- to get to the speed game that's still inside you," Westhead said. "The natural result of the running is that when you get there, you can make shots. If I have some shot-makers -- where all they want in life is to get open and they'll take care of the rest -- we'll be OK.

"I like people who want to make shots. And if you don't make them, you need players committed to getting putbacks."

Some of the WNBA's coaches have competed either against or for this Westhead system before. Los Angeles' Joe Bryant was one of Westhead's players when the two of them were at LaSalle.

Bryant thinks the Mercury players will like the experience … once their lungs get used to it.

"Especially the ones who were in 'structure' -- they will enjoy playing for Paul," Bryant said. "That's going to be the greatest thing for some of them."

Mechelle Voepel of The Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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