Legends profile: Bill Sharman
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. 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.
In an 11-year NBA career played mostly with the Boston Celtics, Sharman was voted to the All-NBA First or Second Team seven times, and he played in eight All-Star Games. He teamed with Bob Cousy to form one of the most formidable backcourts in league history, helping the Celtics to four championships during his tenure.
After retiring as a player in 1961, Sharman distinguished himself as an inspiring and innovative coach. He is the only man 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 also 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 1949 and 1950.
Unsure of which sport to pursue, Sharman signed a minor league 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 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 ppg and shoot .859 from the free-throw line. Boston finished in second place in the Eastern Division with a 39-27 record and lost to New York in the division semifinals.
Sharman’s playing time nearly doubled the following season and his production rose to All-Star levels, too. He led the league in free-throw percentage (.850), was fourth in field-goal percentage (.436) and sixth in scoring (16.2 ppg). 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 ppg while again leading the league in free-throw percentage (.844). 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 All-Star Game, he scored 10 of his 15 points in the fourth quarter to help the East to a 100-91 victory, earning him MVP honors. 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.
After leading the Celtics in scoring with 19.9 ppg in 1955-56, he earned the first of four consecutive berths on the All-NBA First Team. He 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 again.
Though Sharman and Cousy were solid scorers, the Celtics lacked solid rebounders in the playoffs. However, that changed in 1956-57 as Boston added Bill Russell, Rookie of the Year Tom Heinsohn and sixth-man Frank Ramsey. This big and powerful frontline teamed with Sharman and Cousy to push the Celtics to an NBA-best 44-28 regular-season record.
In the Eastern Division finals, Boston swept Syracuse and was a heavy favorite to win the championship against St. Louis. The Hawks surprised the Celtics in Game 1, but the Celtics came and routed the Hawks by 20 points in Game 2. St. Louis won a cliff-hanger in Game 3, Boston won Games 4 and 5 and St. Louis won Game 6. In Game 7 of the series, one of the most dramatic basketball contests ever, went two overtimes before Boston earned its first NBA crown.
The presence of Russell and Heinsohn allowed Sharman to have one of his most productive seasons. He led the team with 21.1 ppg, shooting .416 from the floor and a league-leading .905 from the free-throw line. His five consecutive seasons atop the free-throw percentage charts established an NBA record that still stood in 1994.
In 1957-58, Sharman helped the Celtics clinch the NBA’s best record again and 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 by Syracuse’s Dolph Schayes (.904 FT pct.).
Boston reached the NBA Finals for a second consecutive season, but this time the Hawks bested the Celtics in six games. It marked the only time in the five seasons Sharman 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 (20.4 ppg) and was selected to the All-NBA First Team. The Celtics won the title in 1959, starting 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, but his contributions diminished each year as Auerbach gave more minutes to another future Hall of Famer, Sam Jones.
Jones, a rookie in 1957-58, 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 he wasn’t done playing. A player-coach for the Los Angeles Jets of the ABL in 1961-62, Sharman appeared in 19 games for the Jets and averaged 5.6 ppg before the franchise folded at midseason. 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 and by season’s end, he had compiled a combined 43-26 ABL record.
The ABL folded after that season, but Sharman found a job on the collegiate level as 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 coach the San Francisco Warriors.
A textbook shooter in the NBA, 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 and conducted practices on a precise schedule.
Most notably, he introduced the game-day “shootaround,” a light morning practice session that most (if not all) NBA and college teams still use today. He said getting his team’s mind on the game early, going over strategy and loosening the muscles were excellent ways to prepare for a game.
Sharman spent two years at San Francisco, compiling an 87-76 record, before leaving to take control of the Los Angeles Stars of the ABA. 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 Kentucky.
Sharman became coach of the Lakers the following season. Since moving to Los Angeles from Minneapolis in 1960, the Lakers had made seven NBA Finals but had never won a title. They had all the makings of a contender when Sharman took with 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 69-13, then the best regular-season record in NBA history. When playoff time came around, L.A. didn’t slow down. It swept Chicago and Milwaukee in the early rounds and trounced New York in five games in the 1972 Finals. Appropriately, Sharman was named Coach of the Year.
The Lakers reached The Finals in 1973, 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.
After West’s retirement in 1974, the Lakers went on a downswing and missed the playoffs for the next two seasons. Even though hope arrived in 1975 in the person of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Sharman stepped down as coach after the 1975-76 season and became L.A.’s GM, a job he held until 1982. During that span, the Lakers drafted Magic Johnson and won the NBA title in 1980 and ’82.
Sharman then became club president, rolling along with the Lakers’ dynasty as the team captured championships in 1985, ’87, and ’88. 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.
Bill Sharman passed away on Oct. 25, 2013 at the age of 87.