Paul Westhead's eyes have pupils of vastly different sizes -- one larger than normal, the other hardly bigger than a pinhead.

As a result, the Los Angeles Laker coach seems to have one eye wide open to observe a friendly world, while the other seems withdrawn and contemplative.

"The eye is a remnant of my other life, the first one," says the sinewy, rawhide-tough 39-year-old who may be the first man to coach an NBA champion while maintaining almost complete anonymity.

"Until I was 17, I was just a street fighter in West Philly, the kind of kid who climbs the playground fence and stays there -- either playing ball or getting into gang fights -- until they throw you out of at midnight.

"Those were scrambling, clawing years . . . a lot of elbows and fingers and fists. One of them got my eye."

Just as Westhead's strong eye compensates with its openness for the weak eye, so this dichotomous man has always enjoyed reconciling apparently contradictory pursuits.

As a youth, "my buddies would have beaten me up if they had seen me even carrying a book, much less reading Romeo and Juliet." Yet six years later, he was writing a master thesis on the uncertain authorship of the bloody "Titus Andronicus."

As a player at St. Joseph's he was, in his words, "a nonshooting hatchet man who could only play defense."

Yet, as a coach, he is such a speed freak for offense that his primary dictum is: "There is never an excuse for not running."

During his nine years (1971-79) as coach at La Salle, where he had a 142-105 record, he was such an addict of the fast pace that once, when a team stalled against his zone, he ordered four of his players to the opposite, empty end of the court.

What if the foe still had not taken a shot?

"Then I'd have sent the fifth man down," says Westhead. "At least that way we'd have gotten the ball back, then we could have pressed them after we scored."

Westhead wants "a scrambling team" and all we know him call him "a fierce competitor." Yet he never baits on official, lounges so casually on the bench that he barely looks concerned and for all the world looks like a man who has spent 13 years on the English faculties of three universities, teaching composition courses and lecturing on Shakespeare.

In one of his first Laker huddles -- trailing Golden State by one point with nine seconds to go -- he told his players, "If it were done when 'tis done, then "twere well it were done quickly."

"Right on, coach," replied a beaming Magic Johnson, who passed to Jim Chones for the winning basket.

Whether he is quoting Mark Twain ("The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning") or analyzing Julius Erving, Westhead is comfortable.

"Most of the parts of my personality go together," says Westhead. "Being a teacher, a coach or an actor are more similar than those professions like to recognize. You are a man performing in front of an audience that must be kept awake."

Even Westhead knows that he is not close to resolving his most troubling enigma.

He became the Laker's coach after the season's 13th game because his best friend in basketball, Jack McKinney, almost died in a bicycle accident.

McKinney, who had either hired or recommended Westhead for most of his coaching jobs, from St. Joe's to Puerto Rican summer ball to Italian pro ball, suffered severe head injuries Nov. 8.

McKinney was on his way to play tennis with Westhead, riding a 10-speed bike that his kids had warned him was not working right. No one knows what happened because McKinney, who was found near a stop sign and was registered in the hospital for an hour as a John Doe, still can't remember.

Like those poets who, Westhead says, "must choose their words more carefully than anyone," the youngish assistant took over the Laker reigns with infinite deference.

"I'm just the guardian of the shop . . . I'm just playing out the hand for Jack . . . I'm in limbo . . . I'm like a substitute teacher who comes into a well-ordered classroom and asks the students, 'What's the next chapter'?" says Westhead, who insists in countless ways he would not usurp McKinney's job.

That was easier to say 80 games ago. Now, McKinney has made so strong a recovery that he has been scouting for the Lakers and doctors say he can coach next year. But what if Westhead wins the title?

"I refuse to think about it. I'm living in the hour, as they say," says Westhead. "The NBA is life in such constant flux that it teaches you to live in the 'now' and not to worry about anything else.

"Jack has told me, 'You got a good thing going, so run with it.' He's let me take off with the team and do it my way. He tells me, "Don't spend five minutes thinking about where Jack McKinney fits in this. Just get that (championship) ring first."

No one in the Laker family has been dumb enough to throw a wrench in the works by speculating on next season.

The Lakers' president, Jerry Buss, even mentions "cocoaches."

Whatever the outcome, Westhead gradually has had a greater and greater effect on the Lakers, making the transition from substitute teacher to professor of ball.

"It's simply the way of the business that the players must accept you," says Westhead. "But, just like on the playgrounds back in Philly, you don't get picked for the team by begging and saying, 'I'm a good player.' You have to be invited."

The Lakers have issued their invitation -- or, rather, Kareen Abdul-Jabbar has, which amounts to the same thing. Abdul-Jabbar, the jazz buff and dabbler in languages and exotic philosophies, has found Westhead eminently to his liking.

"I hear all the stock things about Kareem," says Westhead, "that he was indifferent, that he shows up, plays the game and then says, 'See you later' with no real commitment. Well, it's not true.

"He has the best concentration of anyone I've seen. Kareem misses nothing. He's been ready to play every night. As they say in the opera, 'When "Carmen" is announced, "Carmen" is what you get.'"

Whether teaching composition or basketball, Westhead wants his pupils to be "clean and exact, to throw away the garbage and cut to the core." Abdul-Jabbar has bought the program.

After his first three-game losing streak as Laker coach, Westhead was demonstrating how he wanted defenders to fight their way through a screen. "There was our first uneasy silence," says Westhead. "You could tell from their eyes that 'the class' had some reservations about the teacher. "Kareem jumped up and said, 'You mean you want us to do it this way, coach?' And he was the demonstration tool. Then he said, 'O.K., then that's the way we'll do it.'

"That 10 seconds did more for me than my closed-door meeting or speech," says Westhead.

To hear Westhead, his transition has been effortless -- no transition at all.

"After 18 years of coaching, it's all the same. It's a job, like delivering the mail," he says, "although some packages are third-class and some are 'Special Deliverys."

Now, he is a winner in Southern California fantasy land, with his basic blue oxford cloth shirts, narrow ties, old comfortable shoes and plain gold band as his only jewelry. "As you know," he introduced himself to Los Angeles, "I'm from Philadelphia and, because of that, it's a pleasure to be anywhere."

When he returns to West Philly, his old buddies gather. They don't swallow the quips. "They ask me, 'What's your new con? All of a sudden you're William Shakespeare's best friend and you're coaching Jabbar,'" Westhead says with a laugh.

"I guess," Westhead says with a wink, "that all's well that ends well.'"