1961 NBA Finals: Boston 4, St. Louis 1
Celtics Give Sharman Championship Sendoff
People who knew Bill Sharman well called him Willie, a term of endearment that didn't adequately describe his toughness. His reputation is as one of the early game's great shooters, and that, too, is misleading. Shooters are considered specialists, guys who languish on the perimeter, where they take the open shots while everybody else mixes it up. In other words, shooters play soft.
There was never anything soft about Sharman's game. He was a rarity, because he was not only a great shooter but also a tenacious defensive player. Bob Cousy always figured that he had the most intense killer instinct in basketball -- until he met Sharman. "Bill matched mine," he admitted.
The Boston Celtics ran a freewheeling system that allowed the players to play with few restrictions hampering their skills. Red Auerbach was unique among coaches in that he understood what it took to win: When you have talented players, you play to their strengths. Boston had six basic plays and three variations on each of those for about 18 different options. But they relied on the freelance and transition situations as often as possible because they played best that way.
"Sharman was just perfect for it because he moved constantly," said Cousy. Other players around the league hated to defend him because he ran continuously. "He would move in a circle, and eventually he would come free," Cousy said. "I almost knew where he was going before he got there."
Most often he would circle and emerge on the weak side just as the defense was collapsing, which left him with an open shot. Sharman was a quick shooter, hoisting the ball from his shoulders up. "He was a complete technician in terms of the mechanics of the shot," Cousy said. "He never took a low-percentage shot."
Those mechanics also served him well at the free throw line. For eight seasons he led the league in free-throw percentage, and for four seasons (1956-59) he led the Celtics in scoring. He relinquished that role to Tom Heinsohn in 1960 and 1961, although Sharman continued to average better than 15 points per game.
But with each succeeding season, Sam Jones had become a bigger factor coming off the bench. By 1961 Sharman had reached age 35 and had played 11 seasons. The opportunity became available for him to coach the Los Angeles franchise in the new American Basketball Association. Sharman knew it made good sense to retire, but it was a difficult decision.
The Celtics sent Sharman out a winner that spring of 1961. They won 57 games during the regular season, 11 better than Wilt Chamberlain and Philadelphia. Their roster had changed only slightly, with the addition of rookie Tom "Satch" Sanders, a 6-foot-6 rebounder and defensive forward out of NYU who fit nicely into Auerbach's system. With this regular crew, Boston steamrolled Syracuse in five games in the Eastern Division Finals and awaited its opponents.
The Hawks had again dominated the West, although Ben Kerner had changed coaches again. The St. Louis owner had hired Paul Seymour, the former Syracuse coach, at the close of the previous season, but he didn't inform Ed Macauley until after the playoffs were over.
Macauley later said he would have preferred to remain coach, but he agreed to move up to general manager. Seymour wanted the team to run a little more, and they finally had a role model in rookie guard Lenny Wilkens out of Providence College. At first the Hawks veterans were cool to Wilkens, but they soon realized how well he could run the team. Bob Pettit averaged a whopping 27.9 points, while Cliff Hagan and Clyde Lovellette each scored about 22 per game.
The Hawks might have made a better showing in the championship series if they hadn't gotten caught in such a fight with Los Angeles in the Western Division Finals. Elgin Baylor and rookie Jerry West had pushed the Hawks through an exhausting seven-game series before falling.
The Hawks arrived at Boston Garden on April 2, having just completed their series with the Lakers the night before in St. Louis. As expected, they were blown out by the Celtics, 129-95. The Hawks improved a bit in Game 2 but still lost, 116-108. Their single victory was a tight 124-120 win in Game 3 in St. Louis. But the Hawks lost Game 4 at home the next night by 15 points, 119-104, then succumbed 121-112 in Boston Garden to fall 4-1.
It was the Celtics' third straight title and fourth in five years. Sharman had certainly done his part, but Sam Jones was eager and waiting in the wings.
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