30 for 30: The Guru of Go

The weight of this sad time we must obey;

Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

King Lear

“I learned a few things.” Kareem Abdul-Jabar’s laconic assessment allows the legend of The System to loom a bit. It’s just as well. Paul Westhead’s run-and-gun scheme was always simultaneously obvious and mystical, a game plan that had players running up and down the basketball court faster than seemed sustainable. The more times you get to the basket, the logic goes, the more shots you can take and so, the more you can score. “You know what that game was,” proclaims Dick Vitale, “Roller derby in shorts.”

Westhead’s commitment to the fast break was total. “I have no Plan B,” he says in The Guru of Go, airing this month as part of ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary series. The system makes for thrilling, high-offense and low-defense games, as opponents also put up points (“You shoot every five seconds,” observes one adherent). It demands that players be in terrific condition, and the film shows training sessions that look awfully “Be all you can be” — young men charging up sand dunes in mythical-seeming black and white footage, their thighs churning and brows glistening. If you’re inclined to believe in The System, like the Phoenix Mercury’s Diana Taurasi, “There’s no other way to play basketball” (the Mercury won the 2007 WBNA title under Westhead’s leadership).

For all the focus on the physical brilliance demanded by the system, Bill Couturie’s film highlights that Westhead also inspires his players intellectually. A former English teacher, he regularly motivates his team with chunks of literary wisdom, a concept introduced by an illustration of Westhead holding a Yorick-style skull. (“Paul and I didn’t’ talk much about basketball,” says Kareem, “We had discussions about literature.”) “I’m told he used to quote Shakespeare to you players,” Couturie asks Corey Gaines, who played for Loyola Marymount University under Westhead (and currently coaches the Mercury, coincidentally). “His Shakespeare was so much over our heads, and my head,” he smiles. “I don’t even remember the lines.”

The Guru of Go helps here, offering (mostly famous) lines to set up plot segments. “If it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well / It were done quickly,” Lady Macbeth advised her husband. But while she was discussing murder, the documentary proposes the notion applies as well to run-and-run-more basketball. And indeed, Westhead’s own career got something of a fast break when the assistant coach took the Lakers to their first NBA championship, following head coach Jack McKinney’s near-fatal head injury in a bicycle accident in late 1979. While he is surely lucky that his rookie guard is Magic Johnson, during his second year as head coach the team loses in the finals to Houston, and he’s fired the next year. The film includes a clip of Dr. Buss (with Pat Riley standing behind him), lamenting, “This team is not as exciting as it should be,” followed by Westhead’s righteous incredulity: “You can fire me for a lot of things, but I don’t think you wanna fire me for not running the ball.”

After a year with the Bulls (during which they go 28-54), Westhead lands at Loyola Marymount, where the film finds its focus: the Lions’ all-out adoption of the fast break. If the game looks like streetball, Westhead insists, “To us it was orchestrated,” from the offense full of threes to the full court press defense. This chapter includes the story of Hank Gathers, the brilliant All-American forward who, in 1988-’89, made the most of the system, becoming the second player in NCAA history to lead the league in both scoring and rebounding (32.7 ppg, 13.7 rpg). He and his childhood friend and teammate Bo Kimble led the Lions to the West Coast Conference tournament.

Here the film changes focus from Westhead and the system per se, to Gathers, a great player (a “human rebounding machine”) and excellent person (“Hank didn’t have a serious bone in his body except when it came to basketball,” says assistant coach David Spencer, through which he meant to get “his brother and his mother out of the projects”). This shift means a change in tone as well, from uptempo to heartbreaking, as Gathers collapses during a game with USCB. Diagnosed with an abnormal heartbeat, he’s prescribed a beta blocker and allowed to play again. Unhappy that the medication affects his game, Gathers makes his own decision — apparently — to reduce the dosage. “Beware the ides of March,” the film quotes, just before it shows Gathers dying on the court during the quarterfinal against Portland.

This story is famous, of course, as is the story of the aftermath, including the $32.5 million lawsuit brought by Gathers’ parents against LMU. But the documentary makes a choice premised on its initial focus on Westhead. That is, it represents Gathers’ death as a tragedy, fateful rather than avoidable. It shows the footage of his fall to the floor in harrowing slow motion, followed by a series of tearful, speechless reactions from interviewees, including Gathers’ brother Derrick. “My brother was trying to get up,” he says, his voice cracking now, 20 years later. “That did cross my mind that this wasn’t reality,” says Kimble, as the film shows coaches, medical personnel, and family members gathered around Gathers on the court.

The film understandably underlines Hank’s courage and commitment, as well as his teammates’ rallying to play in the NCAA tournament. But if this focus is surely heartening, it skirts the question of responsibility — and more stunningly, the fact that no one took it. Certainly, injuries occur, and some are devastating, like Da’Sean Butler’s torn ACL against Duke on 3 April. Still, this moment is shocking.

Not only does the film include Derrick’s apology for the family’s lawsuit, which was eventually settled for an undisclosed amount (“We were mad,” he says, “That wasn’t our intent to hurt anybody”), but it also never explicitly considers how such a series of decisions could have been made, to put him on the court in that condition. Then again, the film’s strategy pointedly leaves such questions open.

While the rest of the film looks briefly at Westhead’s subsequent career (including George Mason University, the Magic, and the Mercury; he’s now at University of Oregon, coaching the women’s team), it loses forward motion when Gathers dies. And so, even though it does not investigate questions of personal responsibility (who knew or decided what) or the broader financial and political systems that framed his death, such responsibilities and systems hang over The Guru of Go.

RATING 7 / 10