Mourning a mentor

The note is six or seven sentences, hand-written on a narrow piece of paper.

“Appreciate your time. Thank you. You have a bright future in the business and I’ll be following along,” wrote Paul Westphal.

“For a Hall of Famer to say, ‘Hey, you have a future in this business. Keep it up.’ It’s a boost,” said Todd Simon. “You keep your head down and keep working, see what happens. And here we are.”

Simon is the fifth-year coach of 9-1 Southern Utah. Five days after the 70-year-old Westphal succumbed to brain cancer, Simon reviewed that note last Thursday in his Cedar City home.

For the second half of the 2003-04 season, Westphal’s third as Pepperdine boss, he and his staff welcomed Simon into their fold in Malibu as a volunteer.

“Way back then, I was into analytics,” says Simon, 40. “I studied film, presented my information. As a young guy, wow, to know he actually paid attention to that was encouraging. I was sick when I heard he had passed.”

Simon and his girlfriend Kati, whom he’d marry, had bolted west after he had coached the junior varsity and assisted with the varsity at Harrison High in Michigan. He’s promised himself to live an interesting life. They went to Southern California to explore. He had side gigs in Information Technology, a major at Central Michigan, and as a chauffeur. Hoops, though, was in his heart.

Kati encouraged him. Henry Bibby at Southern California and Ben Howland at UCLA welcomed Todd to their practices to observe. Michigan State boss Tom Izzo had been just as generous to him.

Simon had known someone at Pepperdine, and he was invited to Firestone Fieldhouse. Westphal made it special. They didn’t do lunch, barely exchanged words. Didn’t matter. There were games to win.

“He allowed me to get involved, wet my feet,” says Simon. “I hadn’t been a good player. I didn’t know anybody in college sports. But I got in that door … saw what they were doing, heard what they were talking about.

“Paul Westphal, a beautiful mind.”

Out of Redondo Beach Aviation High, Westphal had declined John Wooden’s lures to UCLA. He went to USC to try to beat the Bruins.

“It would have been just another championship at UCLA,” Westphal told Sports Illustrated. “If we win here, it will be unique. It’s more of an achievement to beat Coach Wooden than to win for him.”

Didn’t happen. The Westphal-led Trojans, 1-5 against the UCLA, never played in an NCAA Tournament. USC would retire his No. 25.

Westphal was a five-time all-star in a dozen NBA seasons. He coached three NBA teams for nine seasons. In 2019, he was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a player.

“He had a gift,” said Simon. “Everyone wanted to perform and do their jobs at a high level for him. He didn’t blow a gasket or get after people. I needed to see that, but I also wanted to study how you get that, a level of demand without bringing the fire every day.”

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Simon left Pepperdine for UNLV, where he’d learn more about sublime motivation from the classy Lon Kruger. He cherishes that note from Westphal.

“So many stories have come out about him,” said Simon. “He was a pretty damn good person. A very good player, but it was more than just basketball. To try to be as good a person as you can be, that’s an incredible tribute to his life.”

Thursday

Bryant -3 at St. Francis (Pa.):  This is the first of a Northeast Conference back-to-back between these two teams.

The Bulldogs can hit 3-point shots at a 40.2% clip. That’s 12th in the country. They’re also defensive pests beyond the arc, restricting foes to 28.6% from long range. BRYANT

Friday

Liberty -7 at Stetson: The Flames (11-4) shoot 56.9% inside the 3-point line (20th in the land), where they will exploit the Hatters, and 38.1% outside the arc, among the top 10 percent in the game. Liberty sophomore forward Blake Preston is a rebounding star. LIBERTY 

Saturday

The Citadel -6 at VMI: These Bulldogs entered the week 8-0 overall, 4-0 against the number in lined games. They average 78 possessions, among the country’s top-10-percentile. Their 88.8-point average is fourth nationally. VMI fades badly in the second half. THE CITADEL

Mississippi Valley State at Alcorn State, Total 150: The Delta Devils allow a national-worst 99.6 points, the Braves are next at 97.4. Both should offer matador majors, graduates advancing straight to Madrid, Seville and Pamplona. OVER

Last week: 3-0

Season: 14-6