There's something cultish about how Paul Westhead and his former players discuss "The System" − the coaching style that has earned him NBA and WNBA titles, launched the most exciting college basketball team of the last 25 years and gotten him run out job after job, time and again.
The name − so menacing, so "1984" − ill suits the brand of voluminous offense, pipe-bursting defense and blockbusting bombast that freaks out hoops squares and inflames true sons' hearts. It's the leather-jacket-clad counterpart to convention, flicking ash as it blows past toward either buckets or broken bones.
After watching "Guru of Go," you kind of get why Westhead and his tribe talk the way they do. They've had the most dangerous fun 94 feet of hardwood can offer. What have you ever done?
In "Guru of Go" — premiering this Saturday, April 3, at 4 p.m., on ABC as part of ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary series — Oscar-winning director Bill Couturié's storytelling pace often matches Westhead's run-and-gun style. He races from scene to scene, jamming exposition, interviews and game footage into a tight 51-minute film.
Two main devices structure "Guru of Go," allowing it to remain propulsive without feeling rushed. Both reflect Westhead's off-court academic vocation; he's taught literature and writing wherever he's coached and often quotes Shakespeare to players.
One uses interstitial screens to introduce adapted lines from Shakespeare's works that set the scene for upcoming segments. "The unkindest cut of all," from "Julius Caesar," precedes Westhead receiving a pink slip from Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss just a year after bringing L.A. the 1980 NBA Championship. "A method in the madness," from "Hamlet," leads to former Loyola Marymount University player Corey Gaines' explanation of The System. (Each screen includes a silhouette of Westhead-as-Hamlet holding a basketball-as-Yorick's-skull, which is awesome.)
In the other, Westhead narrates notes on his System, offering a sort of Fastbreaker's Manifesto. The first-person examination of his mindset reveals that what looks like anarchy to the masses is highly structured and actually sort of basic.
"I coach a style that demands maximum speed, every second of the game," he says. "... That's the point of The System. No downtime for your opponent. Wear them down, and victory will come easy."
But it hasn't always come easy, as the many stamps on Westhead's passport attest. He's had multiple head-coaching stints in college (at LaSalle, LMU and George Mason) and the NBA (with the Lakers, Chicago Bulls and Denver Nuggets). He's led teams in the revived ABA and in a Japanese professional league. Lately, he's ventured into the women's game, first with the WNBA's Phoenix Mercury and now at the University of Oregon.
A pair of NBA assistant coaching jobs makes 12 stops in a 40-year career — evidence that things fall apart in The System more often than they harmonize. Westhead admits as much, describing his running game as "agony and ecstasy" and saying his method will leave you checking the want ads.
"The System is doomed to fail. You'll get fired trying to do it," Westhead says. Still, though, he never strays from the commitment he conveys in the film's opening moments: "My basketball system ... I have no Plan B."
Back in the late '80s, it looked like he wouldn't need one. After going 31-27 in his first two years at LMU, Westhead unwrapped two gifts to start the 1987-88 season — transfers from the University of Southern California that would kick The System into overdrive.
A coaching change at USC left Eric "Hank" Gathers and Gregory "Bo" Kimble without scholarships and a long way from North Philadelphia, where they'd teamed to win a city championship at Dobbins Tech. Before the 1986-87 season, Gathers, a rebounding machine and lane-filling terror, and Kimble, a slick-shooting guard who could fill it up in a hurry, were all but dropped on Westhead's doorstep — the late Rev. David I. Hagan, a longtime mentor to troubled Philly youth, knew Westhead from back home and recommended Hank and Bo play at LMU.
After sublimating the shock of seeing The System for the first time on film (Kimble says he could've sworn the footage was fake), Kimble and Gathers saw the appeal in playing Westhead's "Philly-style ball." They keyed an offense that averaged at least 110 points per game for three straight years (including an NCAA Division I record of 122 points per game in 1989-90), leading the Lions to a 74-21 mark and three straight NCAA tournament bids. (They also got theirs. Gathers led the nation in scoring and rebounding in 1988-89, and Kimble topped the nation with 35.3 points per game in 1989-90.)
LMU's meteoric rise is exhilarating, full of recollections of the freedom the players felt and the rush of knowing they were playing a different game than everybody else. Couturié doesn't get swept away, though; like a savvy lead guard, he knows when to slow things down and let the viewer feel the full weight of what former LMU player Tom Peabody notes is both "a great success story" and "a great tragedy."
Couturié handles the tragedy of Gathers' death after a sudden cardiac arrest during the West Coast Conference tournament unflinchingly. Interviewees tell the story of Gathers' first on-court collapse in December 1989, as well as the diagnosis of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy and the prescription of medication to manage it. They detail Gathers' lackluster homecoming performance against St. Joseph's in Philly, the pressure he felt to succeed and the decision to cut his dosage so that he'd feel less sluggish.
And they recall his final game, against Portland on March 4, 1990. When Gathers collapses, the talking stops; in Hamlet's last words, "The rest is silence."
Former USC assistant David Spencer, who recruited Gathers and Kimble, just nods. Gaines stares beyond the camera, catches the interviewer's eye, then looks away. Ex-LMU trainer Chip Schaefer chokes down the lump in his throat. Peabody bats away tears. Gathers' brother Derrick — a live wire whenever he's on-screen — swallows hard, his jaw tight, eyes smoldering.
The sequence would be deliberate in any context; relative to this film's speed, it's agonizing. When Westhead breaks the silence, you realize that, even with LMU's inspiring Elite Eight run still ahead, an era has ended. That exhilaration, that freedom, that rush — they're not coming back. At least, not like before.
"Perhaps the truth is, The System could only happen once in a lifetime," Westhead says during one Manifesto moment. "And it ended with Hank's final fast break dunk."
Yet Westhead has never stopped coaching The System, and it's brought him more agony than ecstasy over the past 20 years. Which begs the question: Why?
Surely Westhead's got the sideline chops to coach a guard to walk the ball up and make an entry pass to the post, then teach a pivot how to toss up a hook. Maybe, at one or two stops, that would've stayed the executioner's hand.
"Why I do it? I'm bullheaded," Westhead says. "I refuse to change."
That's an answer, but it's not the answer — at least, not the one "Guru of Go" ultimately offers.
When Peabody describes Kimble's decision to shoot his first free throw of each 1990 NCAA tournament game left-handed in tribute to Gathers as a "perfect idea," it evokes their coach's own relentless quest for the uncompromised poetic fluidity of the speed game.
By displaying the persistence of Westhead's pursuit through good times and bad, Couturié paints the coach as a prophet, touched by an idyllic form of sport so pure that he can't help but follow it and sing its praises. Even if that pilgrimage sometimes leads him into the lion's den.