He Was A Champion
We interviewed Hall of Famer Bill Sharman just weeks before he passed in October. The man leaves quite a legacy.
by Michael Bradley
It’s no secret Wilt Chamberlain had a vigorous social life. He was dominant on court but could be equally overpowering off it. And let’s face it: It’s tough to be an MVP after dark and an All-Star early in the morning. Something has to give. For Wilt, it wasn’t going to be the party.
This was a problem for Bill Sharman, who played against Chamberlain while a member of the Boston Celtics’ early dynasty and who in 1971 signed on as Wilt’s coach after leaving the ABA’s reigning champion Utah Stars to take over the Lakers. Throughout his Hall of Fame career as a player, Sharman was fastidious in his preparation. Instead of sitting around the hotel before games, he would find a gym and spend time shooting and getting loose, the better to keep sharp. “I really felt like it helped me,” he says.
During his time coaching in the old ABL and with the ABA’s Stars, Sharman demanded a similar behavior by his players. Get up and get going, even at home. He didn’t want players with dead legs. But how would this fly in the big leagues, and how would it work with Chamberlain?
Sharman wasn’t going to chance a showdown, so he arranged a lunch with Goliath and hit him with the idea. As you can imagine, Chamberlain wasn’t thrilled. He told Sharman he was a late sleeper and that the early rise might help his legs, but it wouldn’t do much for his state of mind. Sharman persisted.
“After talking, he told me that he would give it a try, and if he thought it helped the team, he would do it,” Sharman said in an e-mail interview we conducted with him just weeks before he died, at age 87, on October 25, 2013. “The truth is he only ever missed two shootarounds, and he called me both times to tell me he wouldn’t be there. I told him that it was important for the rest of the team to see him there, and he could come and not work too hard but at least show up.
“And he did.”
Sharman’s successful recruitment of Chamberlain paid huge dividends. The ’71-72 Lakers won 69 total, an NBA-record 33 straight games and the ’72 league title. The Chip made Sharman the only person ever to win crowns as a player and as the coach of teams in three different leagues. (He directed the Cleveland Pipers to the ABL title in ’62.) The sharpshooting guard was present at the creation of the Celtics’ reign over the NBA and teamed with Bob Cousy to form one of the League’s greatest-ever backcourts.
A perfect part for the Boston fastbreak offense favored by Red Auerbach, Sharman was a superior athlete who got a Major League Baseball call-up and is one of only three players to be named to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. (John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens are the others.) He played on four title teams and was named First-Team All-NBA four times.
“Bill was such a competitor,” says Frank Ramsey, a forward on seven Celtic championship squads. “When he shot, you expected the ball to go in. He was a tough defensive player, too.”
And what about that FT shooting? Sharman was almost automatic, leading the League seven of 11 seasons he played, retiring with a career .883 success rate. The .932 mark he posted in ’58-59 stood as the best season percentage for 18 years. But he wasn’t just accurate standing still. He could hit from all over the place, and at a time in NBA history when a 40-percent success rate from the floor was considered pretty good, he topped that standard nine times and shot better than 45 percent two times. The precision came from hours of shooting as a young boy in the southern California town of Lomita, in the southwest corner of L.A. County. Some nights, Sharman’s parents had to force him to stop shooting and do homework or go to bed. “Yes, I would say I was always a pretty good shooter,” Sharman told us with characteristic modesty.
Sharman averaged 17.8 ppg for his career and topped 20 a game three straight years, from 1956-59. He was a sharp passer, a capable rebounder for someone who only stood 6-1 and a perfect member of the selfless Celtic lineup. He was the shooter, and he performed his job well, but rarely to excess.
“We always wanted Bill to take the shot,” Ramsey says.
Professional baseball has been played for more than 140 years, and with so many teams having played so many games for so many seasons, it’s understandable that there isn’t too much unique in the sport. So, if you are the only person ever to do something in baseball history, you are special.
Bill Sharman is special.
In addition to being an All-American guard at USC, Sharman was also an outstanding baseball player and spent five seasons between 1950-55 (he didn’t play in ’54) in the Dodgers system. In ’51 he earned a call-up and was in the dugout on Sept. 27 when umpire Frank Dascoli ejected the entire Brooklyn team for arguing a call at the plate. Thus did Sharman become the only person in major league history to be tossed from a game without ever appearing in one.
But that’s not how Sharman remembers his time. He was a solid hitter in the minors his first three years in pro baseball and hit .294 with 16 homers in 1952 with the class AAA St. Paul Saints. He also had a chance to witness history: In ’51, he was on the roster for the playoff game between Brooklyn and the New York Giants that was decided on Bobby Thomson’s dramatic “Shot Heard Round the World.” He also got to know Jackie Robinson, then the Dodger second baseman.
“Jackie was really nice to me and always tried to make me feel comfortable as a rookie,” Sharman said. “I think I liked baseball more than basketball. However, there was such talent on the Dodgers that I felt I could do better with basketball.”
The Washington Capitols selected Sharman in the second round of the ’50 Draft, after the SoCal product averaged 18.6 ppg as a senior at SC. (Sharman was in the U.S. Navy from 1944-46 before beginning college.) The franchise was doomed to fail, and Sharman was selected by Fort Wayne in the dispersal draft of the Capitols’ roster in January, 1951. But Sharman never played for the Pistons. Three months later, Fort Wayne shipped him to Boston for center Chuck Share, who enjoyed marginal success but never reached stardom. It was yet another great move by Auerbach, and it gave the Celtics the perfect backcourt mate for Cousy.
Not that Sharman’s arrival triggered an immediate run to the top of the L. Boston was still building, and Minneapolis owned the League in the early to mid-’50s. But Auerbach was shrewd and drafted and traded for pieces that would fit his roster.
“Red did not pick out the best player available in the Draft,” Ramsey says. “He picked the one that would fit the group.”
By the ’56-57 season, that group included Cousy, Sharman, Bill Russell, Tom Heinsohn, Jim Loscutoff and Ramsey. It was time to roll. Boston turned its fastbreak offense loose, scoring an NBA-best 105.5 points per game. When the Celtics defeated St. Louis in seven games to win the title, it was the beginning of a run that featured 11 Championships in 13 seasons.
Sharman and Cousy were the scourge of the League. It didn’t hurt that Russell would turn into the League’s most fearsome defender and its best rebounder. But the backcourt duo was potent, relentless and poised. Cousy ran the team with confidence and felt extremely comfortable delivering his menagerie of passes to the reliable Sharman.
“Bob Cousy, what can I say?” Sharman asked. “He was the best, and we also became great friends. We were roommates for 10 years on the road.”
Sharman played in eight All-Star Games and was a fixture on either the First or Second All-NBA team from 1953-60. But he understood the true force behind the Celtics—Auerbach. Despite the coach’s rough edges, he knew how to treat the players, many of whom had military backgrounds and weren’t good targets for a martinet’s ways. Auerbach allowed players to make suggestions at practice and in huddles during games. He built a team, not a collection of individuals, and the results were overwhelming.
“Red was obviously an extraordinary coach, and I learned so much from him,” Sharman said. “I always had great respect for him, and I am grateful to have been able to play for him.”
Sharman retired after the ’60-61 season, even though he’d averaged 16.0 ppg. But his minutes had dropped, and the arrival of talented wing Sam Jones gave the Celtics a more than adequate replacement. He took over the reins of the Los Angeles Jets of the ABL, and when that franchise folded, moved to Cleveland to squire George Steinbrenner’s Pipers to the ’62 title. The ABL didn’t last another full season, and in ’66, Sharman assumed control of the San Francisco Warriors and led them to the NBA Finals.
After one more year by the Bay, Sharman was lured to the ABA, where he spent three years directing the Stars. “I loved the ABA,” he remembered. But not enough to ignore the entreaties of the Lakers when they approached him before the ’71-72 season. Although Utah sued to keep him, Sharman broke free and took over a team that included Chamberlain, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich.
That was a remarkable campaign that included the record 33-game streak. (Sharman’s license plate was 33 STR8.) More importantly, it featured the Lakers’ first title since Minneapolis won it all in ’54. It was ironic that Sharman, a member of the Celtic franchise that had tormented the Lakers, would lead them to the top.
“When the streak ended, all I could think about was that it wouldn’t really matter if we didn’t win the Championship,” Sharman says. “I think everyone that was a part of the team is really proud to have brought the first Championship to Los Angeles.”
Sharman coached the Lakers four more seasons and reached the Finals in ’73. But as the team’s fortunes faded, his voice gave out. He used a megaphone and rested when he could, but the strain of the job finally knocked him off the bench. “My coaching career ended much sooner than I would have liked,” he said. Until his death, Sharman remained a consultant for the Lakers and lived in southern California with his wife, Joyce.
There was an outpouring of sadness in the NBA world when Sharman passed away. We saw Shaquille O’Neal tweet the following on October 26: “R .I.p. to coach BILL SHARMAN. A TRUE LAKER LEGEND. LOVE U COACH THANKS FOR ALL THE GREAT CHAMPIONSHIP ADVICE. YOU WILL NEVER B FORGOTTEN.”
We asked The Diesel about Sharman at a TNT media luncheon a few days after the Hall of Famer passed away, and like the man himself, the former Laker star’s answer was heartfelt and funny.
“When I was with the Lakers there were always old guys hanging around practice, talking to us. Bill Sharman is one of the ones I really listened to,” Shaq recalls. “It’s funny, the first time he came up to me and started talking, I was like, Who the heck are you? He says, ‘Bill Sharman.’ I knew the name because my father was a big sports fan, but I didn’t know much about him. This is in, like, the early days of Google. I pull out my phone and type in his name. Ooohhhh, he did all that? I respected him from that day on, and he was great. Gave me advice on defense, free-throw shooting, and he and his wife were always so nice to me. A great guy.”
And a very successful one. Anybody who can convince Wilt Chamberlain to get up early had a magic touch.