Bill Sharman died on Friday. The 87-year old former NBA player and coach was in poor health recently after suffering a mild stroke, and he passed away just days before entering his 24th year as special consultant with the Los Angeles Lakers. It was with those Lakers that Sharman made perhaps his greatest impact, presiding over a disparate group of talents as head coach of the 1971-72 Laker team that won an NBA record 33 games in a row, alongside a 69-13 regular season record that still ranks second all time for wins in a single season. That team would provide Jerry West with his lone championship ring, and Wilt Chamberlain with his only title with the Lakers.
Sharman was also a brilliant, Hall of Fame-inducted player in the early days of the league, working mostly with a Boston Celtics squad that he would win four titles with. An eight-time All-Star, Sharman led the NBA in free throw percentage seven times.
In his Los Angeles Times obituary, the Los Angeles Times quoted the legendary Jim Murray in discussing Sharman’s work at the line:
"Bill Sharman with the basketball at the free throw line was a sports work of art," Jim Murray, the late Times columnist, wrote in 1994. "Ruth with a fastball, Cobb with a base open. Dempsey with his man on the ropes. Hogan with a long par three. Jones with a short putt. Caruso with a high C. Hope in a 'Road' movie. Shoemaker on the favorite. Sinatra with Gershwin.
"When it was Sharman at the line, the next sound you heard was swish! It was as foregone as the sun setting."
Born in Abilene, TX in 1926, Sharman was also drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers organization, and while he was called up to the majors, Bill never played a game. Upon joining the Celtics after one season with the Washington Capitals, Sharman joined fellow second-year guard Bob Cousy to contribute in perhaps the finest backcourt in NBA history.
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It was as a coach, though, that Sharman made his true mark in professional basketball.
After winning an American Basketball League championship in 1962 as coach of the George Steinbrenner-owned Cleveland Pipers, Sharman moved on to coach Cal State L.A. in the NCAA after the ABL folded. He enjoyed a two-year stint with the San Francisco Warriors, forced to take over just a year and a half after Chamberlain was traded for the team. Upon hooking up with the American Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Stars in 1968, Sharman guided the fitful franchise through two years while waiting out the arrival of franchise-level big man Zelmo Beaty, who was kept from the team due to a contract dispute between the ABA and Beaty’s former NBA club, the Atlanta Hawks.
When the Stars moved from Los Angeles to Utah (think of the dire financial situation that must have inspired that, moving from one massive market to a previously uncharted basketball territory) in 1971, the Beaty-led Stars won the ABA title.
Along the way, Sharman introduced the concept of a “shootaround” to his teams – hoping to curtail late nights by rousing them out of bed in late morning on a game day not for a strenuous practice, but for a unhurried meet-up designed to shake the cobwebs and go over strategy. It was a carryover from a healthy habit Sharman developed as a player in Boston.
Hired by the Lakers after winning the ABA title, Sharman immediately hit pay dirt in Los Angeles. Though Elgin Baylor would be forced to retire just nine games into the 1971-72 season, a team led by Jerry West, Chamberlain, and Gail Goodrich took the title. In a short oral history on that team from earlier this year, ESPN documented some of the changes that Sharman brought from his older Celtics teams:
“One of the things I’ve always said is the Lakers were really an isolation team. And [Bill Sharman] came and changed that. We played like Boston did. We moved the ball. We were a great fast-breaking team.”
“It just came together. When it happens, when those two worlds collide, of conflict and voluntary cooperation, there was never any of that. I think Bill had a lot to do with that. He brought something to the team from Boston.
JERRY WEST (12th season, 25.8 points per game)
“It’s rare to have a team that everyone seems to know their roles. We could win any kind of game. We certainly could win a game where we scored a lot of points. We could win a slowdown game, a physical game, We could win any kind of game.
“With that team, there weren’t any missing ingredients, really. It was a magical year for all of us.”
Sharman’s Lakers topped the New York Knicks in that year’s Finals, but succumbed to New York in a rematch the next year, with Sharman barely able to talk due to the pressure he put on his voice while coaching throughout the years. That perpetual Laryngitis would stick with Sharman for the rest of his life.
As the aging Lakers fell apart, with Chamberlain leaving the NBA for an aborted run with the ABA following the loss to the Knicks, Sharman’s teams won fewer and fewer games. He moved up to the front office in 1976 to work as general manager, and was part of the personnel team (with former player West) that helped put together the great Laker dynasty of the 1980s, sticking with the team until 1982.
On Friday, the Lakers released a statement concerning Sharman’s passing:
“Today is a sad day for anyone who loves and cares about the Lakers,” said Lakers President Jeanie Buss. “As our head coach, Bill led us to our first championship in Los Angeles, and he was an important contributor to the 10 championship teams that followed. For the last 34 years, his importance to Dr. Buss and our family, and for the last 42 years to the Lakers organization, cannot be measured in words. His knowledge and passion for the game were unsurpassed, and the Lakers and our fans were beneficiaries of that. Despite his greatness as a player, coach and executive, Bill was one of the sweetest, nicest and most humble people I’ve ever known. He was truly one of a kind. On behalf of our organization, the Buss family, and the entire Lakers family, I send my condolences, prayers and love to Joyce and the Sharman family.”
“Bill Sharman was a great man, and I loved him dearly,” said Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak. “From the time I signed with the team as a free agent in 1981 when Bill was General Manager, he’s been a mentor, a work collaborator, and most importantly, a friend. He’s meant a great deal to the success of the Lakers and to me personally, and he will be missed terribly. My love and sympathy go to Joyce and Bill’s family.”
Sharman is one of only three people (John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens acting as the others) who have been enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach.
In one final act of philanthropy, Sharman’s charitable instincts recently inspired him to set up a raffle drawing to give away the 2010 championship ring he won as a consultant with the Los Angeles Lakers. His charitable organization, which will continue under his wife Joyce, will benefit the Toberman Neighborhood Center in San Pedro, California, amongst other charities.
Interested parties can purchase the raffle tickets here, at two dollars apiece, minimum of five per person. We can think of no better way to extend the legacy of Bill Sharman, the man who gave so much to the game we dearly love.
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