"Fastbreak?'' the man at the counter said.
Westhead was feeling pretty good about this apparent instant recognition.
"Yeah, that's me,'' he said.
After an awkward silence, Westhead soon learned "Fastbreak'' wasn't a reference to the coach being the guru of up-tempo basketball, it's the name of Budget's preferred customer club.
OK, so maybe Westhead, now the University of Oregon women's head coach, isn't recognized wherever he goes. But he did get this when his Ducks played last week in Atlanta against Georgia Tech.
"We went to the restaurant that Gladys Knight owns (Gladys Knight and Ron Winans' Chicken & Waffles),'' Westhead said. "We walked in and the maitre d' said, 'I know you. Lakers.' "
Bingo. That was Westhead's claim to fame before he unleashed "speed ball,'' as he likes to call it, on the world at Loyola Marymount in the late 1980s. He coached the Lakers to the 1980 NBA title.
"I don't know,'' Westhead said recently when asked if he's a basketball lifer. "Age kind of creeps up on you. It just seems like a few years ago (1970-71) I was taking my first college team at La Salle in Philadelphia to play at the Palestra. One thing leads to another and here I am.''
One wonders, though, if Westhead ever will say to coaching, "Here I go.''
"I don't think he's ever going to stop,'' said Thunder star forward Kevin Durant, who learned from Westhead when he was a Seattle assistant during Durant's rookie year of 2007-08 and during the first month of last season in Oklahoma City. "I think he's one of those guys who's going to do it until his body can't stand it any more.''
Westhead was thrown out of work with the Thunder when head coach P.J. Carlesimo was ousted in November 2008. But retire at the age of 69?
Back to School
Pat Kilkenny, then Oregon's athletic director, is a longtime friend of Carlesimo's. Kilkenny reached out to Westhead, who, to use Duck lingo, had first gotten his feet wet with the women's game by coaching the Phoenix Mercury in 2006 and 2007, winning the championship in his second year to become the only man to coach an NBA and WNBA titlist.
"He wrote the book on the run and gun,'' Kilkenny said about why he went after Westhead, who once had a Loyola Marymount team score 181 points in a regulation college game. "I don't think it's as pronounced in the women's game as much as the men's and I think it can make a big difference if you're looking for a edge. And you also want to be entertaining.''
Westhead accepted a five-year, $3 million contract. Kilkenny said Westhead has told him he definitely wants to coach at least until he's 75, although Westhead wouldn't speculate on how much longer he will go.
"I don't think it took a lot of convincing (to take the job),'' said Westhead, whose Ducks are off to a 9-3 start while averaging 86.6 points after the team went 9-21 last season while averaging 56.6. "I liked what I heard. I thought that was something that I'd like to do ... I've never stopped (coaching). It was a very nice opportunity to coach women.''
Just give Westhead a grease board to write down his high-octane ideas and some players, and that's all he really needs. In addition to NBA stops as a head coach with the Lakers, Chicago and Denver and as an assistant with Golden State, Orlando and Seattle/Oklahoma City, his WNBA stint and college head positions with La Salle, Loyola Marymount and George Mason, Westhead has coached in the minor-league ABA, Puerto Rico and Japan.
And, while we're at it, Westhead still has time to quote the Bard. He's a Shakespearean scholar who has a master's degree in English from Villanova.
"He's one of most extraordinary people in the world,'' said Mike Bellotti, the former Oregon football coach who took over as athletic director when Kilkenny retired last summer. "I was kiddingly introducing him at a booster group by saying, 'He's 71 years old (in February). He looks 81. But he acts 51.' He relates to college-age women who want to play basketball at the next level, and it's really an amazing gift he has to be able to communicate via the game of basketball.''
Player Left 'Speechless'
When these women first learned who their new coach would be, few actually knew anything about Westhead. But forward Amanda Johnson came away impressed after her father, Eric Johnson, a former Division II player, gave her some tapes of Loyola Marymount from 20 years ago.
Guard Micaela Cocks immediately went to Google to learn about Westhead. She said she was "speechless'' when she saw Westhead had coached the Lakers to an NBA title during Magic Johnson's rookie season and her reaction was "oh my gosh'' when she learned about his legendary fast-break attack that has led him to be called both a genius and a mad scientist.
It took a tragic accident, though, for Westhead to first emerge on the national scene. After a solid 1970-79 stint at La Salle, Westhead was named a Lakers assistant under his good friend Jack McKinney, whom he once had been an assistant under at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia, the alma mater for both men. But a month into the 1979-80 season, McKinney suffered a serious head injury in a bicycle accident that nearly cost him his life.
The Lakers, who were 10-4 and featured legendary center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in addition to their rookie sensation at point guard, needed a coach fast. With nowhere else to turn, the Lakers went with Westhead as the interim man, and it soon became evident McKinney wouldn't be back that season.
"It kind of just happened,'' Westhead said. "I surely hoped Jack McKinney never had his bicycle accident. It kind of just unfolded. I was well-schooled to coach the team but I wasn't prepared for the NBA intricacies of agents and players and contracts and people at the end of their contract who needed to play. I came from the college game, and you had none of that.''
At first, though, Westhead just coached. Did he ever.
Going 50-18 the rest of the way, Westhead led the Lakers to a 60-22 mark. He steered them to a 3-2 lead in the NBA Finals, and everything looked great until it became apparent Abdul-Jabbar wouldn't be able to make the trip to Philadelphia for Game 6 due to a severely sprained ankle suffered late in Game 5.
On the plane, Westhead met with Johnson, clearing the way for one of the great moments in NBA history. With Johnson playing center, he scored 42 points in Game 6 to give the Lakers a 123-107 win and championship.
"We had a conversation with Magic on the flight, and we said, 'We'd like you to play center for us. Can you jump center?' Westhead said. "He said, 'I can do that. I did in high school.' It was kind of no problem. He went out and the first shot he took was a Kareem hook shot. No, make that a Magic hook... We won. It was incredible. To win Game 6 and the NBA title in my hometown, I couldn't have scripted it any better.''
The victory parade was held in Los Angeles. But it soon went downhill for Westhead with the Lakers.
He was named the regular coach, but that permanently strained his relationship with McKinney, who was able to recover and become coach of the Indiana Pacers the next season. The two didn't talk much for a while after that and, although they have seen each other in recent years, they're not the close friends they once were.
The Magic was gone the next season. Literally.
Johnson played in just 37 games due to a knee injury, and the Lakers finished 54-28. Although Johnson was back for the playoffs, they were stunned 2-1 in the first round by 40-42 Houston.
Early in the 1981-82 season, Westhead's inexperience in backdoor NBA dealings caught up to him. With the Lakers 7-4, there were rumblings about player unrest due to Westhead being too overbearing, and he was ousted. The belief always has been Johnson led the rebellion, but Westhead can't say for sure.
"We had a disagreement at the end of (a game against Utah),'' Westhead said of his final moments with Johnson. "We had a difference of opinion. It just happened. It was a situation regarding a coverage or something. It was a missed assignment.''
Westhead figured both men were ready to move on from the episode. Instead, only Westhead moved on, being fired before he coached another game.
Assistant Pat Riley took over, and everybody knows what happened next. Riley led the Lakers to the title that season and to three more in the 1980s.
Riley is a legend and is in the Hall of Fame. Does Westhead ever wonder if it could have been him instead leading the Lakers to glory throughout the 1980s?
"I don't have any regrets,'' Westhead said. "I'm happy for having that one chance (to win a title). I've enjoyed my career. I understand that the NBA is business.''
While the "Showtime'' Lakers were continuing their march into NBA history, Westhead got another chance with Chicago in 1982-83. But that didn't work out as the Bulls, with a roster full of misfits and two years away from being rescued by Michael Jordan, went just 28-54. Westhead was fired after just one season.
Westhead soon went back to his laboratory. While coaching in Puerto Rico in the 1970s, he had picked up many elements of fast-break basketball. He accepted a job at obscure Loyola Marymount in 1985, and figured he would take it to the extreme.
Westhead had incorporated portions of his current style with the Lakers and Bulls, but never had gone with non-stop full-court pressure. That was born in a small gym just a few miles up the road in the Los Angeles area from where the Lakers played to regular sellouts at the Forum.
"I went from the fast break to an ultra-fast break,'' Westhead said.
By the end of the decade, Loyola Marymount had become a household name. It looked like a layup line when the Lions set an NCAA record for points in a game by defeating U.S. International 181-150 on Jan. 31, 1989. In the 1989-90 season, they averaged an unbelievable 122.4 points.
Westhead's program took a tragic turn, though, on March 4, 1990 when star forward Hank Gathers collapsed and died during a West Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinal. The Lions soon rallied around Gathers' memory.
With guard Bo Kimble shooting his first free throw of every NCAA Tournament game left-handed to honor the southpaw Gathers, the Lions surprisingly advanced to the Elite Eight. After setting a tournament record for points scored in a 149-115 win over defending champion Michigan, they finally ran out miracles and lost to eventual champion UNLV, 131-105.
"The guys really caught on and embraced the style by scoring 100 to 110 points a game,'' Westhead said. "But (Westhead's run at Loyola Marymount) and that particular season was a mixture of joy and sorrow. There was nothing that could change the death of Hank. All of us grieved and felt great pain. But we had the excitement of winning games.''
After his impressive Loyola Marymount tenure, which included seasons of 28-4 in 1987-88 and 26-6 in 1989-90, the NBA again came calling. But, just as Westhead had taken a job with a declining Bulls unit, he got one with a Denver team in 1990 that was rebuilding after dispatching some former stars.
Westhead implemented "speed ball'' with the Nuggets. To put it mildly, it was a wipeout.
In his initial season of 1990-91,The Nuggets averaged 119.9 points per game but gave up 130.8, still an NBA record. With Atlanta having racked up 194 points in a preseason game and Phoenix scoring 107 first-half points early in the regular season (Denver clamped down in the second half and the Suns finished with just 173), there was talk of the Nuggets becoming the first team to give up 200.
"It was chaos,'' Carl Scheer, then Denver's president, said while looking back earlier this decade. "I thought, (at first, Westhead) was maybe way ahead of his time or a little crazy. It was more of the latter, as it turned out.''
Westhead was fired after seasons of 20-62 and 24-58. In hindsight, Westhead said he didn't have the best personnel for his frenzied attack due to having "some young players and some veterans who were at the end of their careers.'' But he believes he would have gotten the system to work had he been given three or four seasons on the job.
"That's the perennial question,'' Westhead said of whether his style can work in the NBA. "I think it would if you have the right players. You need to have skilled and talented guys who can play close to 100 percent 48 minutes a game.''
Genius or Mad Scientist?
After being regarded as genius during his Loyola Marymount stint, Westhead suddenly became known as a mad scientist. So which one is he?
"I'm probably a little of both,'' he said.
Westhead has spent the past two decades wandering from job to job. He had an ugly 38-70 run at George Mason from 1993-97, the death blow for his NCAA men's tenure.
He had NBA assistant stints with the Warriors under Carlesimo and with the Magic under Johnny Davis. He went to Japan and to the Los Angeles Stars and Long Beach Jam of the ABA, which gave four points for a shot beyond halfcourt, something even Westhead couldn't use to his advantage.
Westhead finally started looking like a genius again after he figured he had nothing to lose by becoming a WNBA coach at 67. During its title season, Phoenix averaged a league-high 89.0 points, 8.6 more than the No. 2 scoring team.
Westhead learned that coaching women isn't all that different than dealing with men. He's brought that thinking to Oregon.
"It wasn't as big of a challenge as I thought because I did all the things that I normally do,'' Westhead said of taking over the Mercury, which he only left in order to be reunited in Seattle with Carlesimo. "I pressed. I ran. I tried to run my fast break. And it took them about four or five games to get into the swing of it. They embraced it. I haven't had to make all kinds of changes (coaching women). I run the same drills. I've found out (women) don't want to be treated differently. They want me to do what I did with the NBA guys.''
Westhead actually believes it's easier to get players outside the NBA, who don't have huge contracts, to buy into his philosophy. When asked to explain his running game in 30 seconds or less, Westhead cracked, "How about in three seconds?''
It basically involves non-stop pressing and looking on offense to get the quickest possible open shot. In a recent 88-61 win over Boise State, the Ducks were still pressing and firing up 3-pointers in the waning minutes despite a huge lead.
Broncos coach Gordy Presnell didn't believe the Ducks were trying to rub it in because that's the style they play. But Presnell wonders if they can keep up that frantic pace the entire season.
"I have never seen a team press in women's baseball as effectively in February as they do in December,'' Presnell said. "Players fatigue so it will be real interesting, and they don't have a lot of depth ... I don't want to sound negative but when you get to the NCAA tournament the rim shrinks and possessions become more important.''
Westhead, the man who once had a 149-point tournament game, simply shrugs when he hears the doubters. Seeing what might happen in the NCAA Tournament would be a nice situation to have for Westhead, who said he really won't know how good the Ducks can be until after they start Pac-10 play Jan. 1 against Washington.
For now, his players are embracing what Westhead, a grandfather of 10, brings.
"He's got more energy than us,'' Johnson said. "He's very lively. He's very passionate about what he does. His age really doesn't come through ... He's got a very dry sense of humor. He has a mantra that we're performers. When we go on the road for a game, we're there to provide entertainment. So he has this metaphor that we're circus act.''
Those who watched Westhead's Denver teams might have a different interpretation of circus. So when Westhead draws back to his NBA days for motivation, he pretty much confines it to the Lakers.
"He told us there was this one time at the airport he was all uptight and was pacing up and down after a loss,'' Cocks said of what Westhead told the players after a 58-57 home loss last month to Wisconsin. "And Kareem comes up to him and says, 'Hey, we got to move on.' So we had to move on from that loss. Any time he tells a story that has people like Kareem in it, it has a different feeling and really makes you think.''
That was three decades ago. But, as evidenced by Westhead's recent visit to Atlanta, he still is well remembered from his days coaching the Lakers.
Westhead wouldn't mind one day being widely recognized for what he does at Oregon, the latest stop on a most interesting coaching odyssey. Nobody has dared yet to call it a last stop.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @christomasson.