Arguably the greatest shooter of his era, Bill Sharman was one of the first NBA guards to push his field-goal percentage above .400 for a season (.436 in 1952-53). He still ranks among the top free-throw shooters of all time with a spectacular .883 lifetime percentage, and he led the league in free-throw shooting for a record seven seasons.
After retiring as a player in 1961 Sharman distinguished himself as an inspiring and innovative coach, the only one to win championships in three professional leagues-the American Basketball League in 1962, the American Basketball Association in 1971 and the NBA in 1972. He guided the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers to the best regular-season record (69-13) in NBA history until the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls finished 72-10.
In the late 1940s Sharman was a standout athlete in baseball and basketball at the University of Southern California. He was a basketball All-American and the Pacific Coast Conference Most Valuable Player in both 1949 and 1950, his junior and senior seasons.
Unsure of which sport to pursue, Sharman signed a minor league baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. Later that year the Washington Capitols drafted him in the second round of the NBA Draft, and for the next five years he played both sports. Unable to break into the majors, he abandoned his baseball career in 1955.
Sharman had no such problems in his basketball career. In his rookie year with Washington he averaged 12.2 points. When the Capitols folded during the 1950-51 season, the Fort Wayne Pistons selected Sharman in the ensuing dispersal draft. But Sharman never played for Fort Wayne, because Celtics Coach Red Auerbach negotiated a shrewd deal with the Pistons that brought Sharman and Bob Brannum to Boston in exchange for the draft rights to Charlie Share. Sharman would spend the next decade playing on Boston Garden's parquet floor, establishing shooting records and building a reputation for his fierce, aggressive defensive style.
Jerry West recalled a game early in his rookie season, 1960-61, in which he was matched up with Sharman, who by then was in the 11th and final season of his career. West had the audacity to hit seven straight jumpers over Sharman. On the seventh, Sharman took a swing at him. The punch didn't connect, but the message did. West viewed Sharman a little differently on his next trip down the court.
"Bill was tough," West recalled in the Los Angeles Times. "I'll tell you this, you did not drive by him. He got into more fights than Mike Tyson. You respected him as a player."
In 1951-52, his first season with the Celtics, Sharman saw limited action but still managed to score 10.7 points per game and shoot .859 from the free-throw line. Although Boston finished in second place in the Eastern Division with a 39-27 record, the Celtics lost to New York in a best-of-three division semifinal series.
The following season Sharman's playing time nearly doubled, and his production rose to All-Star levels. He led the league in free-throw percentage (.850) and ranked fourth in field-goal percentage (.436) and sixth in scoring (1,147 total points, 16.2 ppg). Boston finished third in the Eastern Division at 46-25, then fell to the New York Knicks in the division finals. Sharman made his first trip to the All-Star Game in 1953 and earned a berth on the All-NBA Second Team at season's end.
Sharman put up similar numbers in 1953-54, averaging 16.0 points while leading the league in free-throw percentage (.844) for a second consecutive season. His impressive .450 field-goal percentage placed him second in the NBA, behind teammate Ed Macauley's .486. The Celtics tied the Syracuse Nationals for second in the Eastern Division, then were swept by the Nats in the division finals.
With the advent of the 24-second shot clock for the 1954-55 season, Sharman's outside shot became a valuable commodity for the Celtics. He upped his scoring output to 18.4 ppg, earning a third straight All-Star selection and a second appearance on the All-NBA Second Team. In the 1955 NBA All-Star Game he scored 10 points in the fourth quarter and 15 overall to help the East to a 100-91 victory and earn the game's Most Valuable Player Award. Sharman's free-throw percentage (.897) led the league for a third straight year, and his field-goal percentage (.427) ranked sixth. Boston finished in third place in the Eastern Division at 36-36. Then, true to form, the Celtics fell to the Nationals in the Eastern Division Finals.
In 1955-56, Sharman earned official recognition as the best player in the league at his position. After leading the Celtics in scoring with 19.9 ppg, he earned the first of four consecutive berths on the All-NBA First Team. The rest of the squad that year included teammate Cousy, Bob Pettit of the St. Louis Hawks, and Neil Johnston and Paul Arizin of the Philadelphia Warriors. Sharman continued to top the NBA in free-throw percentage (.867), and he ranked among the league leaders in scoring (sixth place) and field-goal percentage (.438, fifth), but the Celtics could not advance beyond the division semifinals, falling to Syracuse in three games.
Boston could always count on Sharman and Cousy for scoring, but the Celtics lacked solid rebounders and paid the price in the playoffs. However, that changed in 1956-57 with the addition of Bill Russell and Rookie of the Year Tom Heinsohn, and the return of sixth-man Frank Ramsey. This big and powerful front line combined with the All-Star backcourt of Sharman and Cousy to push the Celtics to an NBA-best 44-28 regular-season record.
In the Eastern Division Finals, Boston easily rolled over Syracuse in three straight games and was a heavy favorite to win the championship against St. Louis. The Hawks surprised the Celtics in the first game with an overtime win, but the Celtics came back the next night to rout the Hawks by 20 points. St. Louis won a cliff-hanger in the next outing; then Boston took two straight. However, St. Louis came back to tie the series at three apiece before the big-stakes showdown on April 13. That game, one of the most dramatic basketball contests ever played, went two overtimes before Boston earned its first NBA crown.
In 1957-58, Sharman helped the Celtics clinch the NBA's best record again, at 49-23. He shot .424 from the field, averaged a career-best 22.3 points, and hit at an .893 clip from the line. The Celtics' scoring leader for a third straight season, Sharman ranked sixth in the league in that category but saw his free-throw shooting reign come to an end as Syracuse's Dolph Schayes eclipsed him with a .904 percentage.
Boston reached the NBA Finals for a second consecutive season, but this time the Hawks had the upper hand. St. Louis took the 1958 title with a six-game series victory. It marked the only time in the five seasons Sharman had teamed with Russell that the Celtics didn't win the title.
The 1958-59 season saw Sharman regain the free-throw shooting title with a career-best .932 mark. He led the Celtics in scoring for a fourth straight year, at 20.4 ppg, and was selected to the All-NBA First Team. The Celtics became champions again in 1959, beginning a record string of eight consecutive titles. Sharman averaged 20.1 points in the postseason, hitting 57-of-59 free-throw attempts.
Sharman played two more seasons for the Celtics and earned two more championship rings, but his contributions diminished each year as age began to take its toll and Coach Red Auerbach gave more minutes to another future Hall of Famer, Sam Jones.
Jones had come aboard as a rookie in 1957-58, and he would split time with Sharman for four seasons before becoming an integral part of the Celtics' dynasty in the 1960s. Sharman averaged 19.3 ppg in 1959-60 and 16.0 ppg in 1960-61. His final two seasons were not without their accomplishments: in 1960 he received his eighth consecutive All-Star selection, and in 1961 he won his seventh free-throw percentage title.
Sharman retired from the NBA in 1961, but his playing career wasn't over just yet. He was hired to serve as player-coach of the 1961-62 Los Angeles Jets of the American Basketball League. Sharman appeared in 19 games for the Jets and averaged 5.6 points, but when the franchise folded at midseason his playing days officially ended. He remained in the ABL that year, however, moving over to coach the Cleveland Pipers. Under Sharman's direction, the Pipers won the ABL Championship. By season's end, he had compiled a combined 43-26 ABL coaching record.
The ABL folded after that season, but Sharman found a job on the collegiate level as head coach at Cal State-Los Angeles. He guided the team to a 27-20 record over two seasons before leaving to become a broadcaster. After two years in the booth, Sharman returned to the NBA to take a head coaching position with the San Francisco Warriors.
A textbook shooter as an NBA guard, Sharman was just as methodical and meticulous about his coaching, which was characterized by rigorous conditioning and strict discipline that often didn't sit well with his players. He established a system of fines and bonuses for on-court behavior and performance. He conducted practices on a precise schedule.
And he introduced an innovative training device on game days called the "shootaround," in which players went through a light morning practice session prior to the day's contest. He felt that getting his team's mind on the game early, going over strategy, and loosening the muscles, were excellent ways to prepare mentally and physically for a game. Today most (if not all) NBA and college teams use shootarounds as a regular part of their training regimens.
Sharman spent two years at San Francisco, compiling an 87-76 record, before leaving to take control of the Los Angeles Stars of the American Basketball Association. He led the Stars to a 43-41 record in 1969-70 and was named ABA co-Coach of the Year with Denver's Joe Belmont. In 1970-71, after the franchise had moved to Utah, Sharman maneuvered the Stars into the ABA Finals, in which they won the championship against the favored Kentucky Colonels.
The following year Sharman became head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers of the NBA. Since moving to Los Angeles in 1960 the Lakers had made it to the NBA Finals seven times but had never won a title, although they had all the makings for it when Sharman took over. The team had Wilt Chamberlain at center, Jim McMillian and Happy Hairston at forward, and West and Gail Goodrich at guard.
Sharman sensed a championship season was in the making after his team went a full two months, from Nov. 5 to Jan. 7, without losing a game-an NBA-record 33 victories in a row. The Lakers finished the year at 69-13, then the best regular-season record in NBA history. And the Los Angeles juggernaut didn't stop when playoff time came around. The Lakers swept the Chicago Bulls and buried the Milwaukee Bucks in the early rounds, then trounced the New York Knicks in five games in the 1972 NBA Finals. Appropriately, Sharman was named NBA Coach of the Year.
The Lakers reached the Finals again in 1972-73, this time losing to New York in five games. In 1973-74, with Chamberlain retired and West seeing only limited action, the Lakers topped the Pacific Division but fell to Milwaukee in the conference semifinals.
With West's retirement in 1974, the Lakers went on a downswing, missing the playoffs for the next two seasons. Even though hope arrived in 1975 in the person of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sharman gave up his coaching duties after the 1975-76 campaign to become the team's general manager, a job he held until 1982. During that span Los Angeles drafted Magic Johnson and brought home two more NBA titles, in 1980 and 1982.
Sharman then became club president, rolling along with the Lakers' dynasty as the team captured three more championships in 1985, 1987, and 1988. He retired in 1988 but remained with the Lakers' family as a special consultant.
As player, coach, general manager and club president, Sharman brought to basketball an untiring quest for perfection and a winning attitude. Perhaps West, whom Sharman coached at Los Angeles, summed it up best in an article in the Los Angeles Times: "I've been around a lot of coaches but none like him. He's a different type. A remarkable guy. He doesn't miss a thing. He has the ability to get the most out of people. He always sees a bright spot even when things are darkest."
Sharman's many contributions to the sport were recognized when he was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1975. In 1996, he was named to the NBA 50th Anniversary All-Time Team.
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