By Cort Reynolds
One of the NBA's greatest shooters and more innovative coaches died recently with relatively little fanfare, at least in proportion to his massive achievements, at age 87.
Former Celtic Hall of Fame sharpshooting guard Bill Sharman faded from the pro hoop scene after strained vocal cords forced him to retire as a coach and later as a successful executive.
But Sharman put together a body of overall work in the modern pro game rivaled only by top-tier legends Larry Bird and Jerry West in terms of being a great player, successful coach and then front office exec. He is one of only three men to be named to the Hall of Fame as a player (1976) and later as a coach (2004), joining only John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens as the other two in the exclusive club. In fact, he collaborated with Wooden on a book about their shared guide to playing winning basketball.
Sharman was named to the NBA all-time silver anniversary 10-player team in 1970, and was also named to the league's 50 Greatest Players list just over 25 years later.
And Sharman had strong ties to both teams Bird and West played on. Yet he still has been overlooked as an all-time great.
Bill won four titles as an All-Star guard with the Celtics, retiring after the 1961 season. He teamed with Bob Cousy to form one of the league's greatest backcourts, probably the top guard tandem in the first 25 years of the NBA.
Few people know that Sharman began his pro hoops career with the defunct Washington Capitals after a fine career at the University of Southern California.
Or that he was a good minor league baseball player in the Dodger system for five years, compiling a .281 batting average with 52 home runs. In fact, Sharman was actually on the bench for Brooklyn in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit the famous "shot heard 'round the world" homer to lift the Giants past the Dodgers in their memorable three-game playoff.
Interestingly, he is the only man in major league history to be ejected from a game without ever playing in one. Late in the 1951 campaign, the entire Dodger bench was thrown out for arguing with the umpire, including Bill. A promising outfielder/third baseman, Sharman decided to concentrate on hoops after 1955.
In those days there were only 16 major league teams, so it is very likely that Sharman would have made it to the majors as a player in later years when the leagues expanded to 10 and then 15 teams apiece.
Sharman averaged 12.2 points a game with the Capitols in 1950-51, who were coached by Red Auerbach from 1947-49. When the Caps folded in mid-season, he was selected by the Ft. Wayne Pistons in the dispersal draft.
He was then traded to Boston for Chuck Share, and he then made history by teaming with the slick passing Cousy to form the best and highest-scoring backcourt in the NBA over the next decade.
Boston was perennially good in the early to mid 1950s, but never became a champion until rookies Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn joined the team in a great 1956 draft.
After they stabilized the frontcourt, the Celtics won four of the next five championships with the great Cousy/Sharman pairing leading the way as one of the smartest and best offensive tandems ever.
Sharman led the NBA in foul shooting an astounding seven times, and retired with an 88.3 percent accuracy mark for his 12-year career. Bill, named William Walton Sharman in an eerily similar coincidence to future great and fellow Californian Celtic William Theodore Walton, made eight straight All-Star Games from 1953-60.
In the 1957 mid-season classic at the Boston Garden, he provided an indelible memory. Trying to throw a length of the court baseball toss to a fast-breaking teammate, he overthrew the 70-foot pass so far that it went directly into the basket. Sharman, showing off his quick mind, turned to a nearby West team defender and quipped, "you never could play defense."
Bill averaged 18 points, four rebounds and three assists a game in 10 seasons for Boston, and had his jersey number 21 retired by the franchise. He made 43 percent of his career field goal tries, a high mark for a guard in that era, since most guards shot well under 40 percent then (Cousy never even shot as high as 40 percent in any single season, for example). Back then, the gyms were not as well-lit, the balls were not as uniformly round or well-inflated, and the courts were also rough and occasionally bumpy, a far cry from today's perfectly-designed courts.
Thus that era's relatively primitive conditions made it much harder to shoot well. And of course, sports medicine was not even its infancy yet, making it even tougher to play at a high level, especially for a long period of time.
In 1954, Bill canned an impressive 45 percent of his field goal tries, an unheard-of figure at that time, especially for a guard who took many of his shots from long distance.
In the playoffs, the clutch Sharman was even more deadly. He averaged 18.5 ppg in 78 post-season contests, shooting 43 percent from the field AND an incredible 91.1 percent from the charity stripe.
Over an unsurpassed span of concentration and skill from 1954-59 in the playoffs, he converted an unreal 221 of 234 foul shots, an accuracy rate of 94.4 percent! Sharman, always known as a physically-tough competitor and fighter when challenged, led Boston in scoring average every year from 1956-59.
He went out on top in 1961 after Boston dispatched the Hawks 4-1 in the championship series. At age 34 he still was playing at a high level, having scored 16 ppg and shot 92.1 percent from the line that season. In the '61 playoffs he scored 16.8 points per game, then stepped aside to let Sam Jones take over the shooting guard duties for Boston in a follow-up similar (but much less-publicized) to the Yankees passing the torch from Joe DiMaggio to Mickey Mantle in center field a decade earlier. Most fans also are not aware that Sharman, a year after he retired as a player and won his fourth ring, coached the Cleveland Pipers of the fledgling American Basketball League to the 1962 championship. The owner of the Pipers was none other than Cleveland native and future Yankee impresario George Steinbrenner. Among the players for Sharman's champs were future Celtic guard/Ohio native Larry Siegfried, Knick/Laker standout guard Dick Barnett and tiny Rio Grande College scoring legend Bevo Francis.
The ABL, which pioneered the three-point shot the ABA later adopted when it formed in 1967, folded early in its second season.
The Pipers had signed Ohio State superstar Jerry Lucas, merged with the Kansas City Steers and were set to join the NBA, but Steinbrenner fell behind in making player payments and the team disbanded before the 1963-64 NBA campaign. Cleveland would get its own NBA team with the expansion Cavaliers seven years later. Sharman got his next shot at coaching with the 1966-67 San Francisco Warriors, and promptly guided them to the championship round.
He then moved on to coach the Los Angeles/Utah Stars for three years and one one more banner before returning to the NBA to lead the Lakers for five highly successful seasons.
As a coach, Sharman fashioned a 466-353 overall record in seven seasons in the NBA and three in the ABA. He won titles in both major leagues, pacing the Utah Stars to the ABA crown in 1971. Not only is he the only coach to win championships in both leagues, including the ABL crown, he is the only man to win in all three major pro hoop leagues.
The next year, he returned to the NBA and led the Lakers to the best record in league annals to that time (69-13), a mark that stood for nearly a quarter century until the Jordan-led Bulls finally bested the mark in an expansion-diluted league.
The heady Sharman guided LA to the championship in 1972, their first since moving to California despite eight Finals showings. He thus won back-to-back titles in different leagues, the only coach to do so as well. In 1967, his SF squad came up just short in their bid to upset the favored 76ers, losing in six close games.
He was named ABA Coach of the Year in 1970 and NBA Coach of the Year in 1972. Perhaps his most lasting contribution to the game as a coach was his invention of the morning game-day shootaround, now a staple of the sport. Sharman, a superb shooter, was a great believer in muscle memory.
When he took over the Lakers in 1971, the proud team was in decline. Laker great Jerry West was upset when he found out that ex-Celtic Sharman and another former Boston guard in feisty defensive ace KC Jones, would be the new LA coaches. Jerry had battled both players throughout his long and illustrious career, always coming up just short, often agonizingly so. "They hired the bleeping Celtics," West wailed into the phone to a teammate furiously after the announcement. But he turned out to be the best NBA coach West would play for, and a great friend to the man known as Mr. Clutch.
Sharman immediately implemented a fast-breaking offensive system a la the old Celtics. He convinced aging center Wilt Chamberlain to turn into a reborn version of his retired nemesis Bill Russell, asking him to focus on defense, rebounding and triggering the transition game, while limiting his offense to dunks, finger rolls and putbacks.
Wilt responded well, becoming the league's top shot-blocker. While shooting far less (only 9.3 times a game), he still led the league in rebounds (19.2 per game) and field goal shooting (64.9%) while scoring a career-low 14.8 ppg.
Seeing his brainy and athletic approach to the game, Sharman then convinced long-time scoring ace and shooting guard West to be the primary ballhandler and team leader.
All West did was lead the NBA in assists for the first time (9.7 per game) while still scoring 25.8 points a game and making the all-defense squad. Backcourt mate Gail Goodrich blossomed into a superstar and led the club in scoring at 25.9 ppg as the quick southpaw flourished in the fast-paced offense.
Another big move the gutsy Sharman negotiated was asking aging star Elgin Baylor to accept a reserve role. At 37 and racked by knee injuries, the former great was just a shell of himself and had played just two games the prior season, and only 54 in 1970.
LA had promising young small forward Jim McMillian waiting in the wings, and Sharman wanted to make him the starting forward alongside rebounding ace Happy Hairston.
The proud Baylor, who was averaging 12 points and six rebounds a game, less than half his astounding career numbers, balked at becoming a reserve and abruptly retired nine games into the 1971-72 season.
On the same night Baylor retired, the better-shooting and more mobile McMillian entered the lineup and the Lakers embarked on their incredible 33-game winning streak.
Baylor was a great one on one player whose ball-stopping offensive style and inability to run the floor anymore clashed with Sharman's new quick-paced running system. The intelligent McMillian provided much better player and ball movement, plus improved shooting and athleticism, and he seamlessly fit into the lineup.
When the smoke cleared just over two months later, the Lakers boasted an amazing 39-3 record. The 33-game streak record still stands today, with only the Miami Heat of 2012 having even come close to threatening it by winning 27 straight last season.
It is doubtful that many coaches would have had the nerve and foresight to make so many changes to a team, but the tough and smart Sharman did. When he informed Wilt the team was going to start having 11 a.m. shootaround practices on the mornings of night games to test his muscle memory theories, Chamberlain, a notoriously late riser, objected strenuously.
"You can either have me at 11 a.m. or 8 p.m., but not both times," boomed Wilt. But Sharman convinced the Big Dipper to give it a try, and the results were so outstanding that even Wilt could not argue.
When the playoffs rolled around, LA swept a tough Bulls squad 4-0 to set up a titanic showdown in the Western Finals between the Lakers and Milwaukee, the defending champion.
The Bucks had snapped the Los Angeles 33-game streak on Jan. 9, 1972 in a nationally-televised ABC contest and were eager to defend their crown. The defending champs possessed the great but aging Oscar Robertson, a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, sharpshooting Jon McGlocklin and a young All-Star forward in Bob Dandridge to match McMillian.
The series promised to be a thriller, with the squads combing for an incredible record of 132-32 that year, the best mark of any two playoff foes in league history. The antagonistic Wilt vs. Kareem and West vs. Robertson matchups were two of the greatest head to head showdowns ever. Buck coach Larry Costello confidently boasted that the series "will only go six games, not seven as everyone expects." He ended up being right, although he had the wrong team winning.
After being throttled in game one, LA pulled out a 135-134 nailbiter in game two, aided by a loose ball that bounced back into play off an official late in the game when a Laker had last touched it and the orange was headed out of bounds to the Bucks. McMillian scored 42 and Jabbar 40 in the epic.
Wilt, nearing age 36 and showing new-found humility, admitted in the Laker locker room that he could not individually handle the much-younger Jabbar, who was almost 12 years his junior.
But he did add that he thought the Lakers were the better team, two things Wilt would not have admitted earlier in his career, an admission that helped coalesce the team under Sharman's leadership.
LA went on to take a 3-2 series lead as West clearly outplayed Robertson, having surpassed his long-time rival in the last third of their incredible parallel careers that each began in 1960 after they were Olympic gold medal-winning teammates, and ended in 1974.
In Milwaukee for game six, LA rallied from a 77-72 deficit to pull off a thrilling 104-100 road win that clinched the series. West led the Lakers with 25 points while Oscar scored a mere two. Wilt was outscored 37-20 by Kareem, but by then he mostly cared about the final score, not his own point total.
LA then went on to take out New York 4-1 in the Finals to finally win the title and break the curse of not being able to win the big one since moving west from Minneapolis 14 years earlier.
And Sharman was a huge reason why they broke through. His new system had utilized a somewhat aging team's skills perfectly. When the Lakers and West finally won the elusive crown in his 12th season, he embraced former Celtic rival KC Jones warmly in the locker room.
KC and Sharman - two former California college stars at San Francisco and USC who were ironically also both born in Texas but grew up out west - brought the Celtic tradition and winning ways back to the west coast for the Lakers.
The West/Goodrich backcourt is still the highest-scoring such duo in NBA history, having combined to score an amazing 51.7 ppg in 1971-72. When asked if they were a better gaurd tandem than the Sharman/Cousy combination of over a decade earlier, Sharman humbly laughed and replied "hell yes they are."
The next year, LA went 60-22 and made it back to the Finals before falling in a deceptively close 4-1 series to the rival Knicks, and Wilt retired. In 1974, West had his career ended by a knee injury and the Lakers lost to the Bucks in the West semis.
Sharman continued to lose his voice and eventually retired from coaching in 1976, one year after LA acquired Jabbar in a mega-trade that set the franchise up for 15 years of success.
In an ABC TV pre-game interview with Dave Diles, Sharman joked that his friends told him he "sounded like a hundred-year old man" due to the injured vocal cords. Yet as it turned out, the damage was far more serious.
Bill moved into the front office as general manager and helped construct the Laker team of the 1980s, making key personnel moves and tabbing new coaches such as Paul Westhead and Pat Riley, who combined for five NBA titles for LA.
Severe vision problems helped force him to retire from the Laker front office in 1982 after helping guide LA to a third NBA championship in 11 years. Even though Johnson, Jabbar, Riley and West got the lion's share of the Laker success in Los Angeles, it was Sharman who quietly laid the groundwork for most of it with his coaching, organization, drafting of players like Johnson and James Worthy, and other canny personnel and administrative moves.
In all, Sharman won four championships as a top player, three rings as a coach of three separate franchises in three different leagues, and two more as a major front office executive/GM.
Few, if any men in pro basketball, can boast such a diverse and successful resume. Yet somehow his impact has been under-represented and underappreciated, and forgotten.
It is unfortunate that his legacy is not greater and that his passing did not meet with more awareness of these accomplishments in the sports world. Certainly, the fact that the NBA does not respect or promote its past like baseball or even hockey has a lot to do with Sharman's lack of notice. The fact that the Celtics did not skip a beat in winning seven more titles in the eight years directly after he retired also seemed to diminish his accomplishments as a player.
He was also not a self-promoter, and his fading voice literally and figuratively also factor into his lack of commensurate respect. That few NBA games were on national TV when he played also lessened his exposure as a star player, and playing mostly in the 1950s when the league was largely white also adds to the disrespect many fans have now who think of the league as inferior and "un-athletic" then.
A 6-2 caucasian guard from a half-century ago does not bespeak "great athlete" to most today, but as a two-sport professional and perennial All-Star cager who stayed physically fit his entire life, Sharman was clearly a top-notch athlete.
His truly great playing career, distinguished coaching and front office accomplishments, and highly influential theories and innovations on basketball - in particular regarding shooting -should speak much more loudly for themselves, because Bill could not, and did not.tb727 11/08/2013 03:05:00 PM Tweet