Bill Sharman was one of the best midrange shooters in the NBA's early years. But that assessment doesn't begin to capture what he meant to basketball. Actually, it damns him with faint praise. It is almost universally agreed that Sharman and Bob Cousy -- a pure shooter and a playmaker extraordinaire, respectively -- formed the league's first modern backcourt.
Sharman -- who died Friday in his sleep at the age of 87 -- didn't just fade into the background among the other stars during Boston's frustrating early years and its later salad days. He was an eight-time All Star. He led the NBA in free throw percentage seven times and is the only player in league history to make 50 consecutive free throws three different times. His 56 straight during the 1959 playoffs is still a postseason record.
So pure a shooter was Sharman that Bob Cousy said it was "no fun" to play H-O-R-S-E with him. Other Celtics would attempt all kinds of creative shots, heaves from behind the backboard, jumpers with eyes closed. Not Sharman. He eliminated his mates by reducing the contest to free throws or 12-foot bankers. No one could beat him.
Arguably, he was even a better coach than he was a player. On the sideline he pulled off a trifecta -- winning championships in the fledgling American Basketball League in 1962, the American Basketball Association in 1971, and an unparalleled season with the Lakers in 1971-72. He collected 12 world championships as a player, coach and executive.
Sharman's athletic versatility was obvious in high school in Porterville, Calif., where he lettered in five sports, including football, baseball, basketball, tennis and track. Then, in one singularly eventful week, he graduated high school on a Monday, signed up for the Navy on Tuesday and married his longtime sweetheart Ileana Bough on Wednesday.
After enlisting and spending two years in the Navy, he returned from the Pacific in 1946. Already 21, he enrolled at University of Southern California. By his senior year he averaged 18.6 points and was named All-American.
Like so many others, Sharman was afraid pro basketball would fail financially and so put his energies into baseball. He signed a lucrative $12,000 contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers organization in 1950. In the meantime, the Washington Capitols basketball team, coached by Horace "Bones" McKinney, drafted and pursued Sharman relentlessly, even as he played outfield in Class A ball. Sharman learned that the Brooklyn outfield -- composed in the early '50s of future Hall of Famer Duke Snider, along with Carl Furillo and Andy Pafko -- would be a tough outfit to break into. So he decided to give both sports a chance before picking one. The Capitols eventually upped their competitive $4,000 offer to $9,000.
Sharman's teammates on the Caps included rookie Earl Lloyd, a scrappy forward who broke the league's color barrier on Oct. 31, 1950, when he first set foot on the floor of the Edgerton Park Sports Arena in Rochester, N.Y. Lloyd was the only player on the Caps without a car. So Sharman drove to a black neighborhood in Washington, D.C., each morning to pick Lloyd up and save him an hourlong ride on the bus. "Bill was a decent guy when it wasn't fashionable," Lloyd said.
Sharman played 31 games for the Capitols before the team folded in January 1951. Then the players went into a dispersal draft. Despite spending three years in the Dodgers' farm system, Sharman never played a game of Major League Baseball. Everyone thought he would.
Everyone, it seems, except for Red Auerbach.
Auerbach had his eyes on one prize. The Celtics coach had previously signed 6-foot-11 center Charlie Share instead of local star Bob Cousy, caught hell for it, and still got Cousy back in a circuitous stroke of luck after the Tri-Cities Hawks traded him to the Chicago Stags, who then folded. (All of Chicago's players were available. The three most coveted were high scorer Max Zaslofsky, playmaker Andy Phillip and Cousy. The three teams to draw numbers from a hat were Boston, New York and Philadelphia, and all three wanted Zaslofsky. The Knicks picked No. 1 and got Zaslofsky. Philadelphia got No. 2 and chose Phillip. So Boston owner Walter Brown picked last and drew Cousy.)
In 1951 the Fort Wayne Pistons wanted size and needed Share, so Auerbach traded him to get the rights to Sharman. "I saw him shoot," Auerbach said later. "And could he ever shoot." If he hadn't drafted Share, the Celtics wouldn't have gotten Sharman, whom they signed for $14,000.
But before he would play his first game in Boston, Sharman -- who was called up by Brooklyn in late 1951, but never got into a game -- was in the Dodgers' dugout on Oct. 3, 1951. That day Bobby Thomson hit the "Shot Heard 'Round the World" that sunk Brooklyn's pennant hopes and put the Giants in the World Series.
Auerbach's thoughts turned to how his pair of 6-1 guards would complement each other. He didn't worry for long: In their first game together they combined for 44 points. "He made the game easy for me," Sharman said. "All I had to do was get open, and he got me the ball." In Philadelphia in December 1952 Sharman scored 42 points, the highest total posted in Convention Hall, breaking Joe Fulks' record of 36 in 1946.
Sharman also found a kindred soul in Auerbach, who believed in rigorous conditioning. Auerbach habitually scheduled 20 preseason games while other teams played eight. The coach's routine was a two-and-a-half-hour practice in the mornings, a strategy meeting to go over plays and systems and a three-hour session of running and scrimmaging in the evenings. Most players griped, but Sharman understood the logic: Auerbach's squads got off quickly, pulling ahead of the pack and putting the pressure on other teams.
Cousy, Sharman's roommate, marveled at Sharman's exercise regimen. "He was the first to believe in a structured exercise program. Before the game we'd sit around the dressing room, talk, maybe drink some water, and there would be Sharman on the floor, doing sit-ups, push-ups, stretches and everything that is common to most teams today." New York guard Carl Braun recalled how, when he and Sharman worked at a summer camp, Sharman would run behind a car driven by his wife. "He did that every morning, and it was long before everyone started jogging," Braun said.
Other players would live out of their suitcases on the road, especially if they were in a city for just 12 or 24 hours. Not Sharman. While others were heading out for a meal, Sharman would empty the contents of his suitcase completely, hanging shirts and pants and putting away socks and underwear. Upon leaving he would put each item back in the suitcase in the very position it had been in before. "Bill was the most structured person I've ever seen," Cousy said.
His meticulous habits couldn't help but affect his game. He was known for not taking bad shots. In everything he did, Sharman seemed to follow the Socratic injunction "Know thyself." He kept index cards reminding him to "square up to the basket" and "follow through" on his shot. Other cards included notes on players which he studied in the locker room before games.
Viewing the game as a series of studied routines aided his seamless style of shooting. "He was a good pure shooter -- a one-hander standing on both feet, not jumping," recalled Vern Mikkelsen, a forward for the Minneapolis Lakers from 1950 to 1959. With uncanny precision, Sharman could take the mechanics of one shot and duplicate it in his next and his next. He won the free throw title seven times in nine years between 1953 and 1961.
When he made 90.5 percent of his free throws in 1956-57, he snapped Rochester guard Bobby Wanzer's record of 90.4 set in 1951-52. Syracuse forward Dolph Schayes bested Sharman (90.4 to 89.3) in 1957-58. But Sharman left no room for doubt the following season. He hit a miraculous 93.2, taking his title back. Schayes wrested it back in 1959-60, but Sharman replied with a 92.1 in 1960-61, his last year in the pros. It was 1976-77 before Buffalo guard Ernie DiGregorio (with just 146 attempts, or less than two per game) hit 94.5. Sharman had 367 attempts in his record 1958-59 campaign. Not until 1992-93, when Mark Price hit 94.8 (on 305 attempts), did someone best Sharman with 300 or more attempts.
As Cousy was leading the league in assists eight times, Sharman could be found among the top 10 in field goal percentage six times. But for all the electric synergism generated by Sharman and Cousy, it was never enough.
The early NBA was a rough, take-no-prisoners circuit. The absence of a bulky center or power forward in a lineup usually meant an early dismissal from the playoffs. The Celtics made the postseason every year from 1951 through 1956 but never got past the second round. "We couldn't get the ball," Auerbach lamented. Protecting your defensive boards was crucial in the endgame.
The acquisition of Bill Russell from St. Louis in the 1956 draft changed everything. Now all the players could do their thing, and Russell would complement them by playing defense and igniting the fast break. With Russell's boarding, Boston was attempting 300 to 700 more shots than any other team over a season. In each of Russell's first three years Sharman broke his record for field goal attempts. He had never averaged more than 20 points per game, but then he did it three straight years.
Moreover, Sharman would play on title winners in Boston in four of his last five seasons. Just as Cousy, Tommy Heinsohn, Auerbach, Sam Jones and Russell would all end their Celtics careers with a title, so, too, did Sharman. In 1960-61 the Celtics tore up the East with a 57-22 record before hammering Syracuse and St. Louis in the playoffs in eight of 10 games.
For Sharman, a second career would begin.
In 1961, Abe Saperstein, the owner and manager of the Harlem Globetrotters, began the American Basketball League. Sharman was offered a coaching contract with the Los Angeles Jets, who then went out of business before the season began. So Sharman hooked up with the Cleveland Pipers, a team owned by George Steinbrenner. He got help with 26 points a game from a young Dick Barnett, a guard who later played for the Lakers and Knicks. The Pittsburgh Renaissance had a 19-year-old Brooklyn dazzler named Connie Hawkins. Hawkins, who later played nine years in the ABA and NBA, led the ABL in scoring with a 27.5 average.
In the Finals, Sharman's Pipers topped the Kansas City Steers -- who boasted the league's best record (54-25) and included future NBA standout Bill Bridges and another strong forward, Larry Staverman -- in a best-of-five final. But the league ceased operations in December 1962, claiming losses of more than $1 million.
Sharman won a title in his first year of professional coaching. Two other seasons would ensure his reputation for orchestrating winners. For the 1970-71 season he coached the Utah Stars. Behind the strong pivot play of center Zelmo Beaty, who had starred with St. Louis of the NBA since the early 1960s, the Stars won a seven-game Finals over the Kentucky Colonels. Having won another title in a second, more competitive league, it was as though Sharman were climbing a staircase with the final step still ahead of him.
In July 1971 he was hired for $75,000 to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. Owner Jack Kent Cooke hadn't won a title in Los Angeles in 10 seasons despite being in the Finals seven times. He had acquired Wilt Chamberlain in 1968 and had still lost two of the previous three Finals. Now it was tougher: Sharman was inheriting an old team. At the start of the season Elgin Baylor would be 37, Wilt Chamberlain 35 and Jerry West 33. Could Sharman catch the champion Bucks, who had demolished the league with 66 wins in 1970-71?
From the outset, the team meshed. Chamberlain, playing his penultimate 13th season, took care of interior defense and rebounding. Rather than share time off the bench, Baylor had retired nine games into the season. Now the Lakers used speedy Jim McMillian and Happy Hairston, who helped out Chamberlain with the rebounding. Then there were Gail Goodrich and Jerry West, who were, Sharman told reporters after a game in which they combined for 69 points, "the best backcourt pair that has ever played this game."
The Lakers started a winning streak on Oct. 31, 1971. The previous record was 20 straight, set in 1970-71 by the Bucks, who had broken New York's record of 18 set season before. The Lakers ran off 33 straight before Milwaukee ended it on Jan. 9, beating Los Angeles 120-104 behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's 39 points and 20 rebounds. "We just finished a streak that I don't believe any other team is going to break," McMillian said prophetically.
Forty-one years later, only the 2012-13 Heat have come within striking distance of the Lakers' streak. Before L.A., no professional sports team had won more than 26 straight. The Lakers were behind at halftime in only four of the 33 games. Their average margin of victory was 16 points.
The Lakers finished the season 69-13. They lost five of nine to Boston and were 64-8 against everyone else.
In the conference finals they avenged their loss to Milwaukee, beating them in six as Chamberlain posted 22 points and 24 rebounds and held Abdul-Jabbar to 16-of-37 shooting in the clincher. "I feel as happy now as I have after any one particular game," Chamberlain said, exhausted after playing all 48 minutes.
The Lakers then played New York, which had beaten them in the Finals just two years before. In 1970-71 the Lakers were still a one-on-one outfit composed of aging stars without an offensive identity. But in 1971-72 they had the best differential in the league, averaging 121 points, and allowing 108. With Goodrich, West, McMillian and Hairston -- and reserves Pat Riley, Flynn Robinson and John Trapp -- they stole Boston's title as the league's best fast-break team. They leveled New York in five games, winning 114-100 in the finale as Chamberlain towered above Jerry Lucas and other New York Knicks to log 24 points and 29 rebounds. They ran off with playoff earnings of $17,269 each.
In all, the Lakers had won 81 games and lost 16. Whenever the greatest all-time teams are discussed, the 1971-72 squad is among the handful of candidates.
Lakers GM Fred Schaus lavished praise on Sharman. "Can you imagine that Wilt didn't miss a practice session this season? Now that takes convincing." Schaus then recalled a game of tennis. Sharman had tossed the ball up and was about to serve to Schaus when he suddenly dropped the racket, pulled a small pad from his pocket and wrote himself a note. "I just thought of something that might give us an edge in the playoffs against the Bucks," Sharman explained. "Bill lives basketball 24 hours a day during the season and coaches as hard as he used to play for the Boston Celtics," Schaus marveled.
McMillian was also amazed. "I never met a man like Sharman before," he had said before the playoffs that year. "On our flights he usually sits alone and thinks basketball. He is always seeking a way to give us an edge against opponents. He never lets up. Some of his most difficult times were trying to keep us up during our 33-game winning streak."
But the Knicks, now with a healthy Willis Reed, would need only five games to snatch the title back from Los Angeles in 1972-73. With Hairston missing 54 games, the Lakers lost a key component of their attack (he averaged 13 points and 13 rebounds in 1971-72) and no longer led the league in rebounds.
West and Chamberlain retired after the season. Jim McMillian left for Buffalo. By 1974-75 the team Sharman shepherded to the title three years earlier was barely noticeable. Then, with the 1975-76 season -- Abdul-Jabbar's first season in Los Angeles and Sharman's last as a coach -- the team began a rebuilding period that would result in five championships in nine years.
Sharman could no longer shout directives -- because of throat problems, he had lost his voice -- but steered the team as an executive. As GM, Sharman played a part in the 1980 and 1982 championships. He was then president during the 1985, 1987 and 1988 championships before retiring in 1991 at age 65.
In nearly 40 years Sharman had enjoyed success at every level. Aside from his 12 titles, he was elected to the Hall of Fame as a player and a coach, a distinction enjoyed by only two others: John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens.
Few players, if any, ever showed that kind of versatility.