In celebration of tonight's renewal of the NBA's most storied championship rivalry, the Celtics vs. the Lakers, it seems a good time to remember a man who was instrumental in winning numerous titles for both fabled franchises.
One of the NBA's greatest shooters and most innovative coaches ever, Bill Sharman has largely been forgotten by a basketball fan base that unfortunately tends to undervalue the league's early years and its pioneering stars.
The former Celtic marksman died a little over a year ago with relatively little fanfare or notice, particularly in proportion to his major hoops achievements, at age 87.
The Hall of Fame guard literally faded from the pro hoop scene and the basketball zeitgeist after severely strained vocal cords forced him to retire first as a coach, and later from his job as a successful front office executive.
But before he hung it up for good, Sharman put together an overall body of work in the modern pro game rivaled only by top-tier greats Larry Bird and Jerry West in terms of being a great player, successful coach and then front office exec.
He is one of only three men to be named to the Hall of Fame as a player (1976) and later as a coach (2004), joining the legendary John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens as the other two in the very exclusive club.
In fact, he even collaborated with Wooden on a 1975 book called "The Wooden-Sharman Method: A Guide to Winning Basketball." He also authored a book on shooting, and was one of the first to recognize the importance of muscle memory to shooting accuracy.
Sharman was named to the NBA all-time silver anniversary 10-player team in 1970, and was also voted to the league's 50 Greatest Players list just over 25 years later. Those accolades show how well he was thought of at the time, but his memory has faded since.
In all, Sharman won 12 pro titles as a player (four), coach (three) and executive (five).
He also had strong ties to both teams Bird and West played on, the franchises who have accounted for nearly half of the 68 NBA championships, with the Celtics winning 17 titles and the Lakers 16 (5 in Minneapolis, 11 in LA). Yet despite all his varied accomplishments, Sharman still has been overlooked as an all-time, all-around hoop great.
Bill won his four titles as an All-Star guard with the Celtics, retiring after the 1961 season when he still had some good basketball left at age 34 to get into coaching. Having served in the Navy in World War II, he lost two years of his pro career to military service and was already 20 when he went to college.
After that he enjoyed a fine college career, earning first team All-American honors in 1950 at the University of Southern California, where he was known as "Bullseye Bill" for his shooting prowess.
The multi-sport star also was the starting first baseman on USC's 1948 College World Series championship squad. Few also know that he was a good minor league baseball player in the Dodger system from 1951-55, compiling a .281 batting average with 52 home runs.
In fact, Sharman was actually on the bench for Brooklyn in 1951 when Bobby Thomson hit the famous ninth inning "shot heard 'round the world" homer that completed the Giant comeback from 13.5 games behind the Dodgers. Thomson's walk-off shot won New York the National League pennant over their hated inter-city rival in a memorable three-game playoff series.
Interestingly, he is the only man in major league history to be ejected from a game without ever playing in one. Late in the 1951 campaign, the entire Dodger bench was thrown out for arguing with the umpire, including Bill.
A promising outfielder/third baseman, Sharman decided to concentrate on hoops after 1955. In those days there were only 16 major league teams, so it is very likely that Sharman would have made it to the majors as a player in later years when the leagues expanded to 10, 12 and now 15 teams apiece.
Baseball was his preferred sport to play professionally, but basketball worked out better. In his later years, tennis became his favorite sport to play as the hand-eye coordination developed from hoops and baseball helped him become an avid, accomplished player.
Few fans also know that Sharman began his pro hoops career in 1950 with the defunct Washington Capitals, not the Celtics. Sharman later teamed with Bob Cousy to form one of the league's first great backcourts, very arguably the top guard tandem in the first 20 years of the NBA.
Sharman averaged 12.2 points a game with Washington in 1950-51, a team coached by Red Auerbach from 1947-49. When the Caps folded in mid-season, he was selected by the Ft. Wayne Pistons in the dispersal draft.
Auerbach was eager to acquire the sharpshooter, so the Celtics traded Chuck Share to get Bill in the spring of 1951. The steal of a deal made hoops history as Sharman teamed with the slick- passing Cousy to form the best and highest-scoring backcourt in the NBA over the next decade.
Behind their ace guards, Boston was perennially good in the early to mid 1950's. But the Celts never became a champion until rookie center Bill Russell and first-year forward Tom Heinsohn joined the team via a great 1956 draft.
After the rookie duo stabilized the frontcourt, the Celtics won four of the next five championships with the great Cousy/Sharman pair leading the way as one of the smartest and best offensive backcourt duos ever.
In the initial Celtic title season of 1956-57, Sharman (21.1 ppg) and Cousy (20.6 ppg) became the first guard tandem to have each player score 20 or more ppg in the same season.
In the 1957 mid-season classic at the Boston Garden, Sharman provided one of the indelible moments in All-Star history. Trying to throw a length of the court baseball pass to a fast-breaking teammate, he overthrew a 75-foot toss so far that it went directly into the basket.
Showing off his quick mind, Sharman turned to a nearby defender on the West team and joked, "you never could play defense."
They made the 20-20 club again in the second Celtic championship campaign of 1958-59, as Sharman tallied 20.4 ppg and Cousy 20 ppg. Only the Hall of Fame Laker duo of West and Gail Goodrich ever had more such high-scoring seasons as a backcourt, from 1971-74, and they did it under the tutelage of none other than Sharman.
Bullseye Bill led the NBA in foul shooting an astounding seven times, and retired with an amazing 88.3 percent accuracy mark for his 12-year career.
Bill, named William Walton Sharman in an incredible coincidence to future great and fellow California Celtic William Theodore Walton, made eight straight All-Star Games from 1953-60.
Sharman averaged 18 points, four rebounds and three assists a game in 10 seasons for Boston, and had his jersey number 21 retired by the franchise.
He made 43 percent of his career field goal tries, a high mark for a guard in that era, since most guards shot well under 40 percent then (by comparison, Cousy never even shot as high as 40 percent in any single season, for example).
Back then the gyms were not as well-lit, the balls were not as uniformly round, the sports medicine was primitive, travel was difficult and the courts were also rough and not always level, a far cry from today's luxuries, making his shooting percentages even more impressive.
In 1954, Bill canned an impressive 45 percent of his field goal tries, an unheard-of figure at that time, especially for a guard who took many of his shots from long distance.
In the playoffs during his career, the clutch Sharman was even more deadly. He averaged 18.5 ppg over 78 post-season contests, shooting 43 percent from the field AND an incredible 91.1 percent (370-for-406) from the charity stripe.
Displaying great concentration and skill over an unsurpassed span from 1954-59 in the playoffs, he converted an unreal 221 of 234 foul shots for an accuracy rate of 94.4 percent!
From 1953-57, Sharman won five consecutive NBA foul shooting crowns. In 1958-59, he shot a career-best and then-NBA record 93.2 percent from the charity stripe. And in his final season two years later, he showed his shooting eye had not dimmed at all as he led the league with a 92.1 percent mark.
Sharman, always known as a physically-tough competitor and fighter when the situation called for it, led Boston in scoring average every year from 1956-59. Even the often-abrasive and inflammatory Auerbach knew better than to challenge the pugnacious Sharman, lest he risk a pop in the cigar.
Bill went out on top in 1961 after Boston dispatched the Hawks 4-1 in the championship series. At age 34 he still was playing at a high level, having scored 16 ppg and shot 92.1 percent from the charity stripe that season.
In the 1961 playoffs he scored 16.8 points per game, then stepped aside to let Sam Jones take over the starting shooting guard duties for Boston in a follow-up similar (but much less-publicized) to the Yankee passing of the torch from the retiring Joe DiMaggio to youngster Mickey Mantle in center field a decade earlier.
Almost no one is aware that Sharman, a year after he retired as a player and won his fourth ring, coached the Cleveland Pipers of the fledgling American Basketball League to the 1962 championship.
The owner of the Pipers was none other than Cleveland native and future Yankee impresario George Steinbrenner. Among the top players for Sharman's champs were future Celtic guard/Ohio State standout Larry Siegfried, Knick/Laker star guard Dick Barnett and tiny Rio Grande College scoring legend Bevo Francis.
Sharman actually started that inaugural 1961-62 season coaching the Los Angeles Jets, but the team folded. When distinguished Piper coach John McLendon resigned due to the meddling of Steinbrenner (sound familiar?), George tabbed Sharman to replace McLendon, who was the first African-American coach of a major American pro sports league team.
The heady Sharman went on to lead the Pipers to a 3-2 win over the Kansas City Steers in the ABL title series.
The ABL, which pioneered the three-point shot that the better-known and longer-lasting ABA later adopted when it formed in 1967, folded early in its second season. Sharman was instrumental in developing the three-point shot with Abe Saperstein, the Globetrotter owner who also owned the LA Jets.
The Pipers had signed Ohio State superstar Jerry Lucas out of college, merged with the Kansas City Steers and were set to join the NBA, but Steinbrenner fell behind in making player payments and the team disbanded before the 1963-64 NBA campaign. Cleveland would get its own NBA team with the expansion Cavaliers seven years later.
After two seasons coaching Los Angeles State College, Sharman got his next shot at pro coaching with the 1966-67 San Francisco Warriors, and promptly guided them to the championship round.
He then moved on to coach the ABA Los Angeles/Utah Stars for three years and won one more banner before returning to the NBA to lead the Lakers for five highly successful seasons.
As a coach, Sharman fashioned a 466-353 overall regular season record over seven NBA seasons and three in the ABA, plus an impressive 97-57 NBA/ABA playoff record. He won titles in both major leagues in consecutive years no less, pacing the Utah Stars to the ABA crown in 1971 and the Lakers to the NBA title in 1972.
He is the only coach to win championships in three pro leagues, including the ABL crown.
In 1970, he led the then-LA Stars to the ABA Finals, where they lost to Indiana 4-2, which earned him Coach of the Year honors. This made him one of the few men to also lose in an NBA and ABA championship series.
Fellow USC alumnus and ex-NBA forward Alex Hannum won an ABA title coaching Oakland - led by Rick Barry, Larry Brown and Doug Moe - in 1969.
Interestingly, Hannum was previously the only non-Celtic coach to win a title during the 13-year Russell era, as he led the Hawks to the 1958 crown over Boston, and won again in 1967 with the 76ers.
Sharman, ironically, coached the Barry-led Warrior team that lost to Hannum's 76ers in six close games in '67.
After winning the ABA title with Utah in 1971, Sharman returned to the NBA and paced the Lakers to the best record in league annals to that time (69-13), a mark that stood for nearly a quarter century until the Jordan-led Bulls 1996 finally bested the mark in an expansion-diluted league.
The far-sighted Sharman guided LA to the record 33-game win streak that still stand, and the championship over the Knicks in 1972, their first crown since moving to California despite eight Finals showings. He thus won back-to-back titles in different leagues, the only coach to do so as well.
He was named ABA Coach of the Year in 1970 and NBA Coach of the Year in 1972. But perhaps his most lasting contribution to the game as a coach was his invention of the morning game-day shootaround, now a staple of the sport.
Sharman, being a superb shooter, was a great believer in muscle memory. When he mapped out to his team what he planned to do in the short walk through and shootaround, someone asked what the team would do when it was over?
Before Sharman could answer, guard Gail Goodrich quipped, "Go back to the hotel and wake up Wilt."
When Bill took over the Lakers in 1971, the proud team was in decline. Superstar Jerry West was upset when he found out that ex-Celtic Sharman and another former Boston guard in feisty defensive ace KC Jones would be the new Laker coaches.
The haunted West West had battled both players throughout his long and illustrious career, always coming up just short, often agonizingly so, and needed no reminders of the ghosts of Celtics past.
"They hired the bleeping Celtics," West wailed angrily into the phone to a teammate after the coaching announcement. But Sharman turned out to be the best and last NBA coach West would play for, as well as a great friend to the man known as Mr. Clutch.
Sharman immediately implemented a fast-breaking offensive system a la his old Celtics. Impressively, he convinced aging center Wilt Chamberlain to turn into a reborn version of his retired nemesis Bill Russell.
In his penultimate season, Sharman had Wilt focus on defense, rebounding and triggering the transition game, while limiting his offense to dunks, finger rolls and putbacks.
Wilt, who was notoriously rough on his pro coaches, responded well to Sharman and became the league's top shot-blocker. While shooting far less than normal (only 9.3 times a game), he still led the league in rebounds (19.2 per game) and field goal shooting (64.9%) while scoring a career-low 14.8 ppg.
And he won his second ring, in large part due to Sharman's vision.
Recognizing West's brainy and athletic approach to the game, Sharman also convinced the long-time scoring ace and shooting guard to be the primary ballhandler and team leader, sacrificing some offense in the process.
All West did was lead the NBA in assists for the first time (9.7 per game) while still scoring 25.8 points a game and making the all-defense squad. Not a bad transition for a superstar in his 12th pro season.
Backcourt mate Goodrich, entering his prime at 28, blossomed into a superstar and led the club in scoring at 25.9 ppg. The quick, hard-driving and sweet-shooting southpaw flourished in Sharman's new fast-paced offense. The 51.7 ppg the West and Goodrich combined to score is still a single-season pro record for a backcourt tandem.
Another big move the gutsy Sharman negotiated was to ask aging star Elgin Baylor to accept a reserve role. At 37 and racked by knee and Achilles injuries, the former great was just a shell of himself and had played just two games the prior season, after suiting up for only 54 in 1970.
LA had promising young small forward Jim McMillian waiting in the wings, and Sharman wanted to make him the starting forward alongside rebounding ace Happy Hairston.
The proud Baylor, who was averaging 12 points and six rebounds a game at the time, less than half his astounding career numbers, balked at becoming a reserve and abruptly retired nine games into the 1971-72 season.
On the same night Baylor retired, the better-shooting and more mobile McMillian entered the lineup and not coincidentally, the Lakers embarked on their incredible 33-game winning streak.
Baylor was a great one-on-one player whose ball-stopping offensive style and inability to run the floor anymore clashed with Sharman's new, quick-paced running style.
The intelligent McMillian provided much better player and ball movement, plus improved shooting and athleticism, and he fit seamlessly into the lineup.
When the smoke cleared just over two months later, Sharman's Lakers boasted an amazing 39-3 record. The 33-game streak record still stands today, with only the Miami Heat of 2012 having even come close to threatening it when they won 27 straight.
It is doubtful that many coaches would have had the nerve and foresight to make so many changes to a veteran team, but the tough and smart Sharman did so with incredible results.
When he informed Wilt the team was going to start having 11 a.m. shootaround practices on the mornings of night games to test his muscle memory theories, Chamberlain, a notoriously late riser, objected strenuously.
"You can either have me at 11 a.m. or 8 p.m., but not both times," boomed Wilt. But Sharman convinced the
Big Dipper to give it a try, and the results were so outstanding that even Wilt could not argue.
The 33-game win streak captivated the sports world, but also took its toll on Sharman. It was during the streak that he strained his vocal cords, a condition which plagued him the rest of his life, despite many attempts at a cure. President Nixon, however, sent Sharman a congratulatory letter which said the "only thing he lost that season was his voice."
Later on Rob Yardley, son of Hall of Fame cager George Yardley (the first NBAer to score 2,000 points in a season), gave Sharman a license plate for his car that read "33 STR8" to commemorate the incredible run. The plate inspired the title for a film Bill's widow Joyce recently co-produced on the record streak.
When the playoffs rolled around, LA swept a tough Bulls squad 4-0 to set up a titanic showdown in the Western Finals between the Lakers and Milwaukee, the defending champion.
The Bucks had snapped the Los Angeles 33-game streak on Jan. 9, 1972 in a nationally-televised ABC contest and were eager to defend their crown. The defending champs were 63-19 and possessed the great but aging Oscar Robertson, a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, sharpshooting Jon McGlocklin and a young All-Star forward in Bob Dandridge to match McMillian.
The series promised to be a thriller, with the squads combining for an incredible record of 132-32 that year, the best mark of any two playoff foes in league history. The antagonistic and anticipated Wilt vs. Kareem and West vs. Robertson matchups were two of the greatest head-to-head showdowns ever.
Buck coach Larry Costello confidently boasted that the series "will only go six games, not seven as everyone expects." He ended up being right, although he had the wrong team winning.
After being throttled in game one, LA pulled out a 135-134 nailbiter in game two, aided by a loose ball that bounced back into play off an official late in the game when a Laker had last touched it. McMillian scored 42 and Jabbar 40 in the epic.
Wilt, nearing age 36 and showing new-found humility, admitted in the Laker locker room that he could not individually handle the much-younger Jabbar, who was over a decade younger.
But he did add that he thought the Lakers were the better team, two things Wilt would not have admitted earlier in his career, an admission that helped coalesce the team under Sharman's leadership.
LA went on to take a 3-2 series lead as West clearly outplayed Robertson, having surpassed his long-time rival in the last third of their incredible parallel careers that each began in 1960 after they were Olympic gold medal-winning teammates, and ended in 1974.
In Milwaukee for game six, LA rallied from a 77-72 deficit to pull off a thrilling 104-100 road win that clinched the series. West led the Lakers with 25 points while Oscar tallied a mere two. Wilt was outscored 37-20 by Kareem, but by then he mostly cared about helping his team be ahead in the final score a la Russell, not his own point total.
The Lakers then went on to take out New York 4-1 in the Finals to finally win its first title in Los Angeles, and break the curse of not being able to win the big one since moving west from Minneapolis 14 years earlier.
And Sharman was a huge reason why they ultimately broke through. His new system had utilized a somewhat aging team's skills perfectly.
Had they not hired Sharman, it is entirely possible the Lakers would not have won any titles during West's fabled career, and Sharman may not have moved into the LA front office and set the franchise up for continuing on to great success in the 1980's.
When the Lakers and West finally won the elusive crown in his 12th season in 1972, a happy Jerry embraced former Celtic rival/Laker assistant K.C. Jones warmly in the locker room.
KC and Sharman - two former California college stars at San Francisco and USC who were ironically also both born in Texas yet grew up out west - brought the Celtic tradition and winning ways back to the west coast for the Lakers.
When asked after winning the 1972 crown if the West/Goodrich duo was a better guard tandem than the celebrated Sharman/Cousy combination of over a decade earlier, Sharman humbly and emphatically said yes.
The next year, LA went 60-22 and made it back to the Finals before falling in a deceptively close 4-1 series to the rival Knicks, and Wilt retired.
In 1974, West had his season and ultimately his career ended by a knee injury, and without their leader the Lakers lost to the Bucks in the West semis, 4-1.
Sharman continued to lose his voice and eventually retired from coaching in 1976, one year after LA acquired Jabbar in a mega-trade that set the franchise up for 15 years of success.
He then moved into the Laker front office and oversaw five titles as a GM and later as team president.
In an ABC TV pre-game interview with Dave Diles at the 1973 All-Star Game, Sharman joked that his friends told him he "sounded like a hundred-year old man" due to the injured vocal cords. Yet as it turned out, the damage was far more serious.
As Laker general manager succeeding the great ex-California coach Pete Newell, Bill helped construct the Laker team of the 1980s, making key personnel moves and tabbing new coaches such as Paul Westhead and Pat Riley, who combined to win five NBA titles for LA.
Continuing voice problems helped force him to move from a GM role with the Lakers (replaced by West) to the presidency in 1982 after Sharm helped guide LA to a third NBA championship in 11 years.
Even though Johnson, Jabbar, Riley and West got the lion's share of the Laker success in Los Angeles, it was Sharman who quietly laid the groundwork for most of it with his coaching, organization, drafting of players like Johnson and James Worthy, and other canny personnel and administrative moves.
LA won three more crowns with him as team president before he retired in 1991.
In all, Sharman won four championships as a top player, three rings as a coach of three separate franchises in three different leagues, and five more as a major front office executive/GM.
Few, if any men in pro basketball, can boast such a diverse and successful resume. Yet somehow his impact has been under-represented and underappreciated, and forgotten.
Certainly, the fact that the NBA does not respect or promote its past like baseball or even hockey has a lot to do with Sharman's lack of notice. For example, other sporting contemporaries of Sharman like Mantle, Gordie Howe and Willie Mays are still household names.
The fact that the Celtics did not skip a beat in winning seven more titles in the eight years directly after he retired also seemed to diminish his accomplishments as a player. Yet he was one of the original cornerstones of the Boston dynasty.
The fact that the Celts had so many great players during and after his era, some more flashy or noticeable like Cousy, Bird and Russell, also helps Sharman to get lost in the shuffle. For some franchises, Sharman would rank as a top three all-time player. In Boston, he has to fight to be thought of in the top 10.
This even though he was a first team All-NBA guard four times (1956-59) and made second team all-league three times (1953/55/60).
He was also not a self-promoter, and his fading voice literally and figuratively also factor into his lack of commensurate respect. The fact that few NBA games were on national TV when he played also lessened his exposure as a star player, and what little film exists of that era is in black and white, which seems prehistoric to most younger fans today.
A pale 6-1.5 shooting guard who retired a half-century ago does not bespeak "great athlete" to most today, but as a two-sport professional and perennial All-Star cager who stayed physically fit his entire life, Sharman was clearly a top-notch athlete.
His game-day shootaround innovation positively impacts players at all levels today, 43 years after he instituted it, even though few if any know or recognize who started the ritual. Thus his specter still has a major effect on the sport he excelled in on many levels.
Sharman's great playing career, distinguished coaching and front office accomplishments, and highly influential theories and innovations on basketball - in particular regarding shooting -should speak much more loudly for themselves.
Sadly later in life Bill could not speak easily for himself, and earlier due to humility, he did not.
If you wish to contact the author directly, you can email Cort Reynolds at email@example.com.