The Los Angeles Lakers have announced that Bill Sharman died today at his Redondo Beach home. He was 87. The following originally appeared June 12, 2008, prior to the Lakers-Celtics NBA Finals.
Bill Sharman coached the LA Lakers to their first NBA championship, helped lead the Boston Celtics to four NBA championships as a player, invented the jump shot, and helped popularize the 3 pointer
It was two hours before Sunday’s tip-off for Game 2 of the NBA finals when Lu Lu, the Sharman family poodle, strutted into the living room sporting a purple and gold collar.
Lu Lu’s feelings were clear, but the question still had to be asked: is Bill Sharman rooting for the Boston Celtics or the Los Angeles Lakers this week?
Sharman didn’t hesitate, not even for the split-second it takes to launch one of his classic jump-shots. “The Lakers,” he replied instantly. “I think we’re going to win this series in 7 games.”
A second later, however, he admitted his choice wasn’t as easy as his quick answer indicated.
“Of course, I root for the Celtics whenever they play anyone else. Anyone other than the Lakers,” he said wistfully. “I’ll always love the Celtics, but I am now a Laker through and through. I’ve been with the Lakers for almost 40 years. They’re family to me.”
Sharman’s emotional tug-of-war stems from his unique perspective on this week’s retro-cool revival of the classic Celtics-Lakers championship series.
From 1951 to 1962 the Redondo Beach resident was an All-Star shooting guard for the Celtics and the backcourt running mate of his best friend, Hall of Fame point guard Bob Cousy. With the help of a big fella named Bill Russell and some other pretty fair ballers named Tommy “Gun” Heinsohn, Tom “Satch” Sanders and Sam “Shooter” Jones, Sharman was a key member of four NBA championship teams that got the Celtics rolling on their way to an unprecedented-and-unlikely-to-ever-be-matched 11 world championships in 13 years.
Sharman was so good as a 6-foot-2 shooting guard — the best outside shooter in the league for a decade, the best foul shooter in league history, and also athletic enough to be a lock-down defender — that he was selected as one of the NBA’s 50 greatest players during the league’s 50th anniversary season of 1996-97, alongside more famous and more celebrated teammates Russell and Cousy.
A decade after he retired from the Celtics, Sharman was hired as head coach of his arch-rival, the Los Angeles Lakers, for the 1971-72 season.
The new coach got off to a shaky start when Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor suddenly retired after nine games. Sharman promoted a younger, more versatile player named Jim McMillan to the vacant starting spot and the Lakers went on a 33 game winning streak — an NBA record that still stands.
Sharman was hailed as a coaching genius as the Lakers went 69-13 and won the first of their nine championships in the NBA’s modern era. He may well be a coaching genius, but it didn’t hurt that he had Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gale Goodrich on the Lakers roster.
On the other hand, he is the only coach to win championships in all three modern pro leagues (The NBA, ABA and ABL). He was inducted into the Hall of Fame as a coach in 2004. That made him one of only three men — along with John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens — elected to the HOF as both a player and a coach.
That first championship season was also the year he introduced the game day morning shoot around to the Lakers, a ritual designed to work off tension and warm up a player’s shooting touch. It was something that he had started doing individually with the Celtics in 1955, and now he saw an opportunity to demonstrate its benefits to his players.
“Billy was always obsessed with all his training rituals,” Bob Cousy recalled in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “He would drop down and do push-ups right in the locker room just to work off nervous energy. But he never got me to go to any morning shootaround. I didn’t like the idea. And I wouldn‘t do it when I was a coach in Kansas City.”
Bill Sharman is just one of three people to be inducted into both the NBA Players Hall of Fame and the NBA Coaches Hall of Fame. Photo by Tom SandersSharman couldn’t convince Cousy, but early in his first Lakers season he got notorious night owl Wilt “20,000 women” Chamberlain to agree to at least show up and give the shoot around a chance if Sharman would delay it until noon.
“Once we started winning every game, Wilt had to admit it worked,” Sharman recalled, not trying to hide a note of triumph.
The morning shoot around is now a standard pre-game ritual of every NBA team. But in the process of transforming the Lakers culture and ultimately the entire NBA culture, Sharman coached so hard that he lost his voice and has never fully recovered it, despite trying long periods of total silence and sophisticated medical attention. He estimated Sunday that his voice has now returned to 60 percent of what it was before that championship season. Bottom line: although he speaks in a high, scratchy tone, he is completely intelligible and is as articulate as any other USC graduate.
Baylor, a truly great player who pioneered many of today’s hip-hop moves, reverse spins and check-this-out finger rolls, went on to become general manager of the Clippers — a cruel and unusual punishment for the man whose departure from the Lakers was followed by the greatest winning streak in NBA history.
Sharman went on to coach the Lakers for another four years — getting them to the NBA finals again in 1973, where they lost to the Knicks — before he was promoted to Lakers general manager. In 1976 he pulled off the most important trade in purple-and-gold history — yes, even bigger than the grand-theft-centers of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Pau Gasol — when he unloaded an aging Gale Goodrich on New Orleans for its first round draft pick three years later.
Sharman waited patiently for that deal to bear fruit and admits he got lucky when it turned out to be the first overall pick in the 1979 draft. He quickly tabbed Earvin Johnson, a 6-foot-9 sophomore who had just led Michigan State to the NCAA championship over Larry Bird and Indiana State.
Soon Showtime was born, Randy Newman’s “I Love LA” became the Fabulous Forum’s soundtrack, Johnson won a championship in his rookie season and the rest is Jack-and-Dyan-and-Dancing-Barry history.
Sharman’s key role in Laker history has a little known twist. Back then the league held a coin flip between the two teams with the worst records to see who would get the top pick. One day a few weeks before the coin flip Sharman, who held the rights to the New Orleans pick, got a phone call from the Chicago Bulls general manager.
“He said the Bulls were going to run a poll in the newspapers asking if they should pick heads or tails,” Sharman recalled. “He wanted to know if I would go along with whatever the Chicago fans chose.”
Sharman, by all accounts, is one of the nicest, most genuine people ever to lace up a pair of Chuck Taylor high-tops. He has always tried to accommodate people, including pesky media types.
But this time he had a superstition problem. After all, he had been involved in many coin flips as the captain of several teams in high school and later during his All-American career at USC from 1946 to 1949. “All my life, I had always called heads whenever I was in a coin flip,” he said. “I just felt that heads was more positive and that somehow you had a better chance if you chose heads.”
Eventually, and very reluctantly, he agreed to the unusual request, which took his team‘s destiny out of his hands.
Sure enough the Chicago fans voted to have the Bulls call heads. As history recorded it, the coin flip came up tails, the Lakers got the top pick — the second pick was David Greenwood of UCLA, a college star but a pro bust — and Sharman realized that he was the luckiest man in the wide world of sports.
“Of course I would have called heads if Chicago hadn’t asked me to go along with the fans poll, and we never would have gotten Magic Johnson,” he said. “It just goes to show that you never know what will happen in this crazy life.”
Zelig of the hardwood
Sharman, who grew up in Lomita, now lives in Redondo Beach with Joyce Sharman, his beautiful and devoted wife of 27 years. She is also his biggest fan, gently reminding him when he forgets to mention some particularly impressive detail, like being named MVP of the 1955 All-Star game.
And it is Joyce who suggests that he bring out the lengthy tribute from Earl Lloyd, one of the three black men who broke the NBA color line in 1950, along with Chuck Cooper and Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton.
In the hand-written tribute that Sharman keeps under glass, Lloyd recounts how Sharman went out of his way to bring him to practice, take him home, and look out for him every step of the way in between.
“No one succeeds alone,” Lloyd wrote. “You understand what I mean?”
In a lengthy interview Sunday at their graceful home filled with pictures of his career and his teammates, the athletic 82-year-old Sharman discussed a zig-zag history that in many respects qualifies him a sporting version of Zelig, the Woody Allen character of the 1985 film who appears in every historic event of the early 20th century.
For Sharman, his Zelig period is the expansive post World War 2 era, the years after he came home from serving with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific campaign. That’s when American sports, aided and abetted greatly by the rise of television and the ever-expanding media monster, exploded from a primitive, 19th century business model to the big-bucks, big-business era of the Super Bowl, ESPN and backup point guards making $5 million a year even if they can’t make a foul shot.
Sharman? He made $28,000 in his best year, third on the notoriously tight Celtics behind Russell and Cousy.
Nightmare at the Polo Grounds
But it wasn’t just basketball where Sharman cracked the record books.
“Billy Sharman is the greatest all-around athlete I’ve ever seen or been associated with,” Cousy said in a telephone interview Monday afternoon. “He was a star quarterback in high school, he won the national juniors in tennis, he played baseball in the Dodgers system for five years, and after he retired from basketball he became a golf pro.”
Cousy said very few people know that Sharman was called up to the Dodgers late in the 1951 season and was sitting in the Dodgers dugout when Ralph Branca threw the hanging curve that Bobby Thompson hit out of the Polo Grounds with the shot heard round the world.
It was a pop-fly homer that barely cleared the 257-foot wall, but it gave the Giants the National League pennant in the climax of a bitter three-game playoff between two teams — and two New Yawk boroughs — that hated each other.
Sharman laughed when asked about his below-the-radar baseball career.
“When they called me up to the big team the Dodgers were up by 13 and a half games, and Branch Rickey said I would play as soon as they clinched the pennant, any day now,” Sharman recalled. “Well, we started losing every day, the Giants starting winning every day, and they caught up to us on the last day of the season to force a playoff. I didn’t play much but I did get to see history made.”
Thompson’s homer is often cited as the most dramatic single moment in baseball history — sorry, Yankee and Red Sox fans — and it has been the subject of dozens of articles and books, some even alleging conspiracies and cheating by the Giants.
Sharman, still rail thin and as physically fit and mentally sharp as the day he watched in horror as Thompson hit his historic homer, remembered the climactic moment like it was yesterday. He recalled Branca still sitting frozen in the same spot in the locker room an hour after the game, totally devastated and unable to deal with the reality of his role in the historic choke-job loss.
“But Mr. O’Malley, the Dodgers owner, came in the locker room and told us to keep our heads up,” Sharman recalled. “He said we had played hard all the way, and he was proud of all of us. He was a great man.”
And again, there was one of those random little twists that often play such a big part in historic events. “That was a football field converted for baseball. That’s why that wall was such a short distance,” Sharman said without a trace of bitterness. “Any other ball park in the majors and that ball is a pop fly out.”
The fog of hoops history
Sharman quit the Dodgers in 1955 — there were two pretty good outfielders named Duke Snider and Carl Furillo ahead of him — thus ensuring that basketball is and always will be the game most associated with the name of William Walton Sharman, born May 25, 1926 in Abilene, Texas, where his father was a farmer.
When you peel back the fog of hoop history over the last 50 years — a time when primitive shooting styles evolved and video-enhanced skills became taught in a standardized progression, when white dominance gave way to black dominance, and when the fitness revolution transformed yesterday’s skinny-strong greyhounds into today’s bulked-up beasts — it becomes clear that Sharman is an iconic figure, a hardwood visionary who pioneered many of the things taken for granted in the modern game.
Many hoop historians credit Sharman with developing the modern jump shot, the key innovation — along with the 24-second shot clock — that helped change the plodding, 20-passes-leading-to-a-set-shot mentality that had limited scoring and hurt fan appeal in the early decades of the pro game.
But Sharman was quick to share the credit for developing the jump shot with Paul Arazin of Philadelphia. “I think he started it on the East Coast, and I sort of started it on the West Coast at USC,” he said. “It just happened, playground by playground. No one talked about it as being historic at the time.”
He also revealed that his picture-perfect jump shot, with a support hand, a guide hand and a wrist-snap release at the peak to get maximum backspin on the ball, was developed during the many hours as a teenager when he would shoot baskets by himself on the side of his family’s barn in Lomita, in the prewar years when it was still an agricultural area.
“The jumping part just came naturally,” he recalled. “Someone showed me how to snap the wrist to get backspin, and jumping to shoot it just felt right.”
That early jump shot made him a star at Porterville High when his family moved north for a few years, but it was wartime and no one outside Porterville paid much attention to the 15 letters he won in football, baseball, basketball and tennis. He enlisted in the Navy, was sent to the Pacific, and was discharged in time to enroll at the University of Southern California in 1946.
That’s where he emerged from open tryouts to become the protégé of Tex Winter, a senior star on that USC team who is now a basketball legend, a long-time assistant to Lakers Coach Phil Jackson and the creator of the Triangle offense.
There is one other important element of the modern game that Sharman can take at least partial credit for: the three point shot.
Now widely accepted as a fan favorite and a potential game changer for teams trailing late in the game, the three pointer was initially viewed as a cheap gimmick that would never last.
Abe Saperstein, the founder and owner of the Harlem Globetrotters, introduced the three point shot to professional basketball as founder of the short-lived American Basketball League, which began in 1961. But first Saperstein consulted with the best shooter in the world at the time, Bill Sharman, who had just been hired as the coach of the new league’s Los Angeles entry, the LA Jets.
“Naturally, I thought it was a great idea because I was an outside shooter,” Sharman recalled. “And Saperstein thought it would be as popular as the homerun in baseball.”
Indeed, Saperstein wanted to call the shot The 25-foot home run, but Sharman convinced him to tweak his idea in two ways. First, just call it the three point shot. Second, scale the distance back to 23-feet-9 inches at the top of the circle, and 22 feet in the corners.
“A twenty five foot shot is longer than it looks,” he said. “The shorter distance worked better.
The ABL soon folded, but the American Basketball Association picked up the three point shot and it was a big part of their success, which eventually forced a merger with the NBA. The NBA, however, didn’t start using the three point shot until 1979.
“The NBA didn’t want anything to do with anything the ABA had promoted because they were afraid of looking like copycats,” he said. “But they finally came around, and it’s been a big success.”
After 11 years with the Celtics and 38 years with the Lakers — he’s still employed as a special consultant — that’s something Bill Sharman knows a lot about: success.
“I’ve been blessed with a wonderful life,” he said. “But no one succeeds alone. You understand what I mean?”