This was some years ago, at a gathering of insurance salesmen and managers. Paul Westhead was the invited motivational speaker.

"How many of you," Westhead asked the group, "have ever been fired?"

A number of hands went up.

"Twice?" Westhead said.

Fewer hands went up.

"Three times?" the veteran high school, college and pro basketball coach said.

Again, even fewer.

"That's me," Westhead told them, pausing for effect and telling them he could relate.

And then he paused a split second longer before saying, "So far."

"I always end with 'so far,' " he said.

Over his career, Westhead has coached at Cheltenham High, La Salle University, Loyola Marymount and George Mason. He has coached the Los Angeles Lakers, the Chicago Bulls and the Denver Nuggets in the NBA, and the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA; he is the only coach to have won championships in both the NBA and the WNBA.

He left some of those places of his own volition. Some, he didn't.

Most recently, he was an assistant with the Oklahoma City Thunder, where he was dismissed when coach P.J. Carlesimo was fired. But that was just the start in the league this season. Since then, five other coaches - Sam Mitchell in Toronto, Randy Wittman in Minnesota, Eddie Jordan in Washington, the Sixers' Maurice Cheeks and Reggie Theus in Sacramento - have all lost their jobs.

That's six, count 'em, six in roughly one quarter of the 82-game regular-season schedule. Feel free to refer to it as an epidemic. If it's not, it's close.

Disturbing?

"It's disturbing if I'm one of them, which I was," Cheeks said Tuesday during his exit interview session with reporters. "It's not easy for anyone involved."

Speaking from his home in California, Westhead said, "I guess it means the patience of team owners and management is much shorter than in the past. Normally, they wait until midseason, the All-Star break or the end of the season. It's a new era [for coaches] - month to month."

Could the current rash of firings be somehow tied to the economic crisis, with teams feeling even more pressure to win to keep ticket-buyers coming and retain advertisers and sponsors?

"It sure is coincidental if it's not related," Westhead said.

All of the suddenly ex-coaches obviously had losing records (of the six, Cheeks, at 9-14, had the most victories). The Wizards (Mike O'Koren) and the Kings (Chuck Person) also fired key assistants.

"I think it's the urgency to win, to try and get the gratification early," Cheeks said. "That's what this business is, just trying to win. That's [the owners'] right, if they want to get their team where they want it to be and they feel like they're not going in that direction."

Cheeks was familiar with the warning signs, saying, "When you try to pull and pull and nothing's coming, I think it's time to change."

But no coach is ever really ready to hear he's being replaced. And the reasons don't necessarily have to be the same.

"Everyone, I'm sure, has different reasons," said Sixers president/general manager Ed Stefanski, who gave Cheeks two 1-year extensions in a 7-month span, then let him go after 23 games. "As I stated before, in the NBA we're result oriented. In every sport, you're result oriented. But I can't answer for the other five [teams]."

Tony DiLeo remains the Sixers' senior vice president of basketball operations and assistant general manager despite being named the successor to Cheeks for the remainder of the season. He is 2-0 going into tonight's game in Washington.

"I don't know if there's a common thread," DiLeo said. "I think there's a lot of pressure to win. Before the season, teams have plans and get excited about what could happen, and when things don't go as planned they make changes.

"Each situation is different, but this is probably a record for coaches this quick. I hope this is not a trend." *