It was a day of effusive affection, bittersweet reflections and surprising confessions.
Kobe Bryant admitted he can be temperamental, stand-offish and impatient with his teammates. Pat Riley admitted that early in his NBA career he worried he wasn’t going to have an NBA career much longer. And Jerry West admitted he can be really weird – as in wanting to score fewer points, not more, unlike virtually every other player in NBA history.
The common denominator: all three Laker icons took their troubles to Bill Sharman.
“Bill told me to try and get to know my teammates better. That’s how you lead individuals,” Bryant recalled.
“Bill said if I got in the best condition of my life, defended with aggression and always do what I tell you, you’ve got a good shot at making the team,” Riley recalled.
“Bill told me he wanted me to lead the league in assists and help Wilt Chamberlain score more,” West recalled. “And he said we’ll make Wilt captain. That will make him feel special.”
Those anecdotes helped provide some insight into what made William Walton Sharman of Redondo Beach such a unique and beloved man: a fierce competitor who would do whatever he had to to win every time he walked on the court – his nickname as a player was “Battling Bill” — yet a sweetheart off the court who possessed a rare wisdom about what makes people tick, how to motivate them to fulfill their potential, and how to concoct the mysterious chemistry of winning teams.
“I never heard Bill say a bad word about anyone and I never heard anyone say a bad word about Bill,” said former Laker player Keith Erickson, who like Sharman is a SouthBay native. “In the hyper-competitive world of pro sports, that just doesn’t happen.”
Sharman holds the record for most championship rings earned by a player, coach, general manager, team president and consultant with 17. If you add his two Hall-of-Fame rings, joining John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens as the only people to be inducted as a player and a coach, it brings the total to 19.
Sharman was also the coach of the first Lakers championship team in Los Angeles, when he led them to a 69-13 regular-season record in 1971-72, including a record 33-game winning streak that included two months without a loss.
Before he died, Sharman decided that 19 rings was more than enough and donated his 2010 Lakers Championship ring to a group of children’s charities that are going to auction it off for $2 a ticket. Anyone wishing to buy a ticket should go to www.billsringofhope.com.
“That’s the greatest way anyone can honor Bill,” his widow, Joyce Sharman, said. “He always did all he could to help young people. This turned out to be his finale, although we didn’t plan it that way.”
If you measure a man’s life by the friends he makes along the way to his final resting place, then Sharman was a true, standing-room-only champion. For it wasn’t just hall-of-famers like West, Riley and Bryant who turned out for Sharman’s memorial service last Saturday at the Terranea Resort in Palos Verdes, a week after he died on Oct. 25 at age 87. Oh sure, the crowd of more than 500 contained plenty of other big names like Pau Gasol, Phil Jackson and Jeanie Buss, James Worthy, Gary Vitti, Kurt Rambis and Paul Westphal, as well as record producer Lou Adler (the dapper guy rocking a trim white beard and hipster hat who sits next to Jack Nicholson at every Lakers home game) and Vietnam Vet Ron Kovic, who wrote the best-seller “Born on the Fourth of July” that was turned into an Oliver Stone film.
But the most moving and emotional tributes were given by ordinary every-day people – often unsuccessfully holding back tears – that Sharman befriended during his long, joyous journey from his childhood in Lomita to 3-time USC All-American to 8-time Boston Celtic All-Star to LA Laker coach, general manager, president and for the last 25 years, special consultant. Oh, and he spent five years as a Brooklyn Dodger before retiring to concentrate on basketball exclusively.
The first speaker Saturday was Claire Rothman, who met Sharman when she was general manager of the Great Western Forum (later known as the Fabulous Forum) in Inglewood, where the Lakers played before moving to StaplesCenter in 2000. She recalled that Sharman had lost his voice coaching the Lakers to the 1972 NBA title and that he never really recovered it, speaking for the last 41 years in a high-pitched scratchy squeak (except for the year, 1988, when he stopped speaking entirely in a semi-successful effort repair his vocal cords.)
“Our offices were close together, and Bill was having great difficulty with his voice, so much so that it took a lot of energy to speak. But he always took the time to pass a few words with me each day,” Rothman recalled. After Sharman’s wife died in 1975, she later met the woman, Joyce McLay, who married him in November 1981. “I had the pleasure of attending their marriage. The three of us always shared a friendship while I was still employed at the Forum, and after I retired Joyce and Bill spent even more time with me,” she said. “I was there when they renewed their vows on an ocean cruise. Every trip was more precious than the last, always leaving us wanting more.”
She recalled that Sharman, who started at USC in 1946 after two years in the Navy where he fought in the South Pacific, needed a job to help pay his way.
“They assigned him to clean up the art classes,” she said with a chuckle. “When his teammates found out the models were live – and nude – all his friends wanted to help him.”
She also revealed a little known fact about Sharman: while at USC he worked as an extra in more than 40 Hollywood films.
“He was even a stand-in for Tarzan,” she said.
Her voice quivering, Rothman summed up more than four decades as Sharman’s friend: “I have known many athletes, but never anyone with so many talents yet so humble and sweet and loving. I will never forget Bill, and I will hold these memories as long as I am walk this earth. Thank you Bill for gracing my life and for being my friend.”
Victor Reichman, a retired family court judge who got to know Sharman through John Wooden more than 20 years ago, became his best friend – a singular honor that Sharman acknowledged in his 2004 Hall of Fame acceptance speech. Reichman has spent the last few years working on a biography of Sharman.
It’s well known that Sharman was great at basketball, baseball, track, tennis and golf. But Reichman said his research revealed that Sharman’s ultra-competitiveness first emerged in elementary school in Lomita, long before he won 15 varsity letters at Porterville High in central California.
“Bill was also a great marbles player,” Reichman recalled. “He beat everybody at his elementary school.”
In an age of players sending out tweets to their followers and holding press conferences to announce their choice of college, Sharman’s life-long humility was as refreshing as a chocolate sundae with nuts, his favorite guilty pleasure.
Reichman recalled that Sharman walked onto the USC basketball team after WW II with no fanfare and no expectations. He was initially banished with the other scrubs to practice in the girl’s gym while the varsity squad practiced in the men’s gym. Sharman simply got down to work and never uttered a word of complaint. Finally, it took the team’s resident star, Tex Winter, to inform the coaches that there was a pretty good shooter in the girl’s gym who should be moved up to the varsity. Soon Sharman was the undisputed star of the team.
“I grew up in BoyleHeights. I was in junior high and used to come to USC games just to watch Sharman shoot his one-handed jump shot,” Lou Adler recalled. “It was a big change from the two-handed set shots they all used to shoot.”
Reichman told a little known story to illustrate just how kind and accommodating Sharman was even when it conflicted with his hyper-competitiveness. As Lakers general manager Sharman made the trade in 1976 that gave New Orleans an aging Gale Goodrich in exchange for a first round draft pick in 1979, which turned out to be one of the top two picks that year. Back then the league held a coin-flip among the top two picks to determine which team would pick first. That year it was the Lakers and Chicago, whose general manager, Rod Thorn, had the bright idea of having Bulls fans vote on whether to call heads or tails.
Thorn called Sharman and asked if he would let Chicago accept whatever the fans voted for and have the Lakers take the opposite side of the coin. “Bill had been involved in a lot of coin flips as a captain and he always chose heads because he felt it was more positive,” Reichman explained. “But after thinking it over, he reluctantly agreed. The fans voted to call heads and the coin came up tails, giving the Lakers the first pick.”
Their prize: Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who won a title in his rookie season and ushered in the Showtime era of the 1980’s, when the Lakers won five NBA titles.
“All because Bill did a favor for Rod Thorn,” Reichman said.
Jerry West confessed he was wearing green underwear. Normally that would be too much information, but not this time.
“I hate the color green, but I’m wearing them in honor of Bill’s beloved Boston Celtics,” he said as a collective chuckle swept through the crowd.
Indeed, although the memorial service had overtones of a Laker family affair, there were frequent references to the damned, dreaded Celtics and the 10 years Sharman spent, from 1951-61, as a 6-foot-2 deadeye shooting guard next to his best buddy, the great Bob Cousy, who was throwing no-look, behind-the-back passes long before ShowTime was cool. Many hoop historians consider them the greatest backcourt in league history as both men were named to the list of the NBA’s 50 greatest players when the league celebrated its fiftieth anniversary in 1996.
Cousy, alas, could not make it Saturday because his beloved wife of 62 years, Missy, had just died. And Bill Russell, his other great and good friend from those Celtic teams, could not make it because he had to be there when his statue was unveiled in Boston Friday afternoon.
Over the decades the Lakers and Celtics have become the NBA’s fiercest rivalry. The Celtics beat the Lakers in seven Finals during the 1960’s, again in 1984, and most recently in 2008, when they put a 39 point beatdown on the Lakers in the deciding game 6. LA finally got its revenge in 1985 and 1987, and again in 2010 when Gasol and Ron Artest carried them until Kobe was able to snap out of his game-long scoring funk and will them back from a 13 point fourth quarter deficit in a Game 7 instant classic at a crazed StaplesCenter.
Sharman is the only man who has been able to truly bridge the tribal rivalry. And even for him it wasn’t easy or quick. Riley, West and Laker scout Bill Bertka all described the uneasy sensation of having a Celtic legend come into LA to teach the Lakers how to win, transforming the Lakers not-quite-good-enough culture to a we-expect-to win culture.
Bertka recalled being called in by mercurial owner Jack Kent Cooke, along with GM Fred Schaus and broadcaster Chick Hearn, after the 1970-71 season.
“The decision by the Lakers to hire a Celtic was a tough one,” Bertka said. “But Mr. Cooke said he wanted to get the best basketball coach in America, and we all agreed that was Bill Sharman, who had just won an ABA title with the Utah Stars.”
So Cooke lured Sharman away from Utah and Bertka quickly saw what an innovator he was.
“Bill started all the film and video work that we now take for granted, he was the first to put a coach behind the bench, and he introduced one-page scouting reports,” Bertka said. “He said to include just three main points – that’s all they can remember.”
Other innovations introduced by Sharman included the morning shoot-around – an extension of his individual pre-game routine with the Celtics – and the three-point shot, both of which have become staples of the modern game.
Riley recalled being stunned in the summer of 1971 when he heard Sharman had been hired.
“I was talking to Jerry West and we were shocked that after losing to the Celtics seven times now Bill Sharman – and KC Jones too – were going to come in here and take over,” Riley said.
There were some rough early patches when the two strong-willed men were getting to know each other.
“One day I got very angry,” Riley recalled. “Maybe I even cursed at him.”
Sharman wheeled on him and asked him to repeat what he said.
Riley denied saying anything foul but Sharman shook him off.
“He said if you say it again, you and I are going to have to take it outside,” Riley recalled. “He rarely raised his voice, but he was tough.”
After that confrontation, Riley found his niche on the team: to play such rugged, physical defense on West and Elgin Baylor in practice that they were ready for whatever they had to face in a real game.
“They didn’t like it, but I could tell Bill loved it,” he said.
And he recounted the day Sharman said he had heard that Riley was a pretty good pool player.
The cocky Riley agreed that he was pretty good and challenged him to a game.
After Sharman had won five straight games, he turned to Riley and said: “Want to go bowling next week?”
The Celtic superstar was well on his way to becoming a Laker legend.
In the spring of 1981 Joyce McLay was a young and beautiful single woman living temporarily in Los Angeles, the type of blond, vivacious woman constantly being approached by men. With only two weeks left before she was moving back to Pittsburgh she took a last-second temporary job helping out at a property management firm.
In her first day on the job there was a fire alarm at the Brentwood apartment complex she was assigned to. The fire marshal came and told her two cars in the circular driveway had to be towed away, so she made a phone call. After the cars were towed a middle-aged, well-dressed man stormed into the office and she prepared for a hail of abuse.
“I kept apologizing and telling him how sorry I was,” she recalled.
Instead of complaining about his car the man asked: “Are you married?”
She immediately put up a wall of resistance: “I said I’m not interested, I’m going back to Pittsburgh and I don’t want to meet anybody.”
The stranger, who she later learned was sports agent Reeve Whitson, came back for five straight days, telling that he wasn’t asking for himself but that he had a friend she should meet. He had a strong feeling that they would really connect.
Her answer was always the same – not interested. Finally on the fifth day she asked him: “Why, in this city of millions of people, would I want to meet him and why would he want to meet me?”
His answer touched something deep in her heart: “Because he is a prince among men.”
Now, agents like Whitson – who represented two Laker players – are normally adversaries of a team’s general manager, not an advocate or matchmaker for them. But in his dealings with Sharman he had become impressed with him as a human being and knew he had been single since his wife died of cancer five years ago.
“He never told me that this guy Sharman was the general manager of the Lakers or that he was a well-known former star,” she recalled. “But that statement got to me and so I finally agreed to meet him for coffee at Central Park on San Vincente.”
Her initial impression: “He was charming, just wonderful and fun and charming.”
They went to dinner almost every night of her remaining week, but still she returned to Pittsburgh. That didn’t deter Sharman.
“As he said later, he put the full court press on me,” she recalled. “He called and sent flowers every day.”
Soon she was back in LA and six months later they got married. After they exchanged vows, she turned to his family – including his children from his first marriage – and made a vow to them: “I told them I knew how much they loved him, and that I’m going to take good care of him.”
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