In the entire history of the NBA, only three people were awarded the highest honor of all, placement in the Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame, as both players and coaches: John Wooden, Lenny Wilkins and Bill Sharman.
After his storied career as the shooting guard of the Boston Celtics, Sharman got into coaching, eventually taking the Lakers' head coaching vacancy heading into the 1971-72 season. That turned into one of the greatest seasons in NBA history. Led by stars Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich, L.A. won a major sports record 33 straight games (69 total), and eventually the franchise's first title in Los Angeles, defeating the New York Knicks in five games.
Sharman coached the Lakers through the 1975-76 season, winning 60 percent of his games (268-179), before moving into the general manager's office for a 6-year stay. Sharman offered reflections upon his career over an e-mail exchange with Lakers.com:
Q: How do you now reflect upon your playing career, and what are your fondest memories of playing with the Celtics?
Sharman: Well, I can’t believe how lucky I have been. How many people get to make a living doing what they absolutely love? I loved my time playing with the Boston Celtics. I loved the Boston Garden, I roomed with Bob Cousy for ten years, I played with Bill Russell … it couldn’t get much better than that. We shared a great camaraderie as teammates, and I was blessed to play with some of the greatest players that the game has ever had.
Q: How might you compare the level of skill and athleticism possessed by players like you, Russell and Cousy to today's players? Is it fair to say that players in your era were more fundamentally sound, and players today are more athletic?
Sharman: I do think that the players of my era were more fundamentally sound. It was a new league, and we were all in a developmental stage, so working at fundamentals was just a natural thing to do.
Q: You were known for being a great shooter, among other skills. How did you develop your shot, and what do you think made you such a success amongst all the basketball players in America that grew up as you did?
Sharman: When I was in junior high, my dad put up a basketball hoop on the garage and I would go and out and shoot and practice until it would get dark. I would just practice and practice, and many times my folks would have to make me come in to eat or go to bed. I think that all of that practice along with my competitive nature helped me to have a successful professional basketball career.
Q: Some may not know how great of an athlete you were in general, as shown by your playing with the Brooklyn Dodgers in the minor leagues for five years. What did you love about baseball as compared with basketball?
Sharman: Baseball was the first sport that I ever played when I was a young boy, so it was the first sport that I ever sort of attached myself to, and I really hoped that I would become a professional baseball player. I have always loved it, and I loved tennis, too. There was a time when tennis was my favorite sport to play.
Q: After your playing career, you got into coaching, first with San Francisco Warriors and then Los Angeles/Utah Stars. As Bill Bertka tells us, then-owner of the Lakers Jack Kent Cooke made this request to his GM, Fred Schaus: “Fred I want you to get me the best coach in America. Who is it?" His answer: Bill Sharman.
Sharman: Well, it’s such a compliment to be considered in that category. Little did I know that when I was hired that year, it would mark the beginning of a 40-year career with the greatest franchise in the history of the NBA and perhaps all of sports.
Q: As it turned out, you ended up having great success as a coach as well. How did you make the transition from being a player, and what were your key principles?
Sharman: Well, having played on a championship team and playing with and against some of the greatest players ever, it was a natural transition for me to apply all that I had learned through the years. Stressing such things as hustling, playing defense as well as offense, fundamentals, conditioning, playing together as a team.
Q: What are your recollections of the 1971-72 season, during which you won the 33 straight games, still the most in any major American sport?
Sharman: Wow, the 1971-72 season. I can’t believe it has been forty years and the record still stands. We had no idea at that time how great the streak was, and I am so proud to have been a part of it. When Jack Kent Cooke hired me, he said “Bill, I don’t expect you to win anything this year. I need you to help rebuild my team”. This was because the team was getting older, with Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain already in their thirties. I think because I was a player from a championship team, the players respected what I had to say, and they went along with what I asked of them … such as the shootaround and conditioning. The team came out and played at such a high level for every game; it was an incredible time!
Q: You were a trailblazer for many things in the NBA, such as the aforementioned shootaround. What was most important to you?
Sharman: The shootaround and conditioning were very important to me. I was a great believer in staying in top physical shape and “muscle memory”.
Q: How and why did you develop the concept of a shootaround, and are you surprised that every NBA team uses one to this day?
Sharman: When I was playing with the Celtics, I would be very keyed up on game days. I would go to the Garden and practice, and on road games, I would find a local gymnasium or sometimes I was able to get into the stadium where we were playing and get a feel for the floor and the basketball hoops. Bill Russell tells a great story of the time when I told Red Auerbach that I didn’t think the hoops were are the right height at one of our away stadiums, and Red approached the owner of the team, and they got into it and Red knocked his front teeth out. They were different times.
Q: What kind of a role did scouting play for you, with pros like Bertka having a major impact on your teams? Bertka told us that you were far ahead of the rest of the league in this aspect.
Sharman: Scouting was extremely important to me and it was a great tool for preparing the players for their opponents. I also liked to use film footage, which was a new concept, and the great Bill Berka would stay up all night and splice films together so that we could show them at practice the next day. Actually, during the 33-game winning streak, we needed a new projector, and Jack Kent Cooke didn’t want to spend the money on one. Even Chick Hearn couldn’t convince him, so Bill Bertka had to show the film holding a pencil and his finger in the reel to make it work. We were determined!
Q: What did you find was the best way to motivate an athlete?
Sharman: For me, motivating an athlete really depends on the individual players. I tried to find their best abilities and stress those to gain confidence for them.
Q: Among the more remarkable distinctions of your career is being one of only three people, along with Lenny Wilkens and John Wooden, to be selected to the Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. You were great friends with Wooden in particular, correct?
Sharman: I am very proud to be included with them both. I was very close with Coach Wooden, and we wrote a couple of books together and held basketball camps together as well. We saw each other often through the years, and as we all know, he was one of the greatest people this world will ever know. I loved him and miss him greatly.
Q: Could you describe your transition from Lakers coach (1971-76) to general manager (1976-82), prompted in part by your struggle with your voice?
Sharman: Because of the voice problems that I developed during the 33-game winning streak, my coaching career was shortened. The doctors told me that if I didn’t rest my voice during the streak, I would cause permanent damage, but how could I stop during such an incredible time? So, when I became the general manager, I am proud to have had a hand at putting together the great eighties teams along with the incomparable Jerry West. The story of the coin toss for Magic Johnson is a story for the record books for sure!
Q: How different was being a GM in your day to being a GM today?
Sharman: Today, things are more complicated. With high tech, more teams, more money, more agents … it is a much different era. (Current Lakers GM) Mitch Kuchak does a fantastic job, and I marvel at how he handles the pressure. He is amazing!
Q: Pick one: Boston or Los Angeles?
Sharman: Absolutely. LOS ANGELES … without a doubt. I have been a Laker for forty years, and I am purple and gold all the way!
Q: Who is your favorite player of all time to watch play?
Sharman: That is a hard question to answer. There are great players for different positions and different eras. Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Jerry West, Magic Johnson … it’s impossible to say just one for me.
Q: So we probably won’t get your all-time starting five, right?
Sharman: When you have been in the ABL, ABA, and the NBA for 60 plus years, I have been able to see the greatest players ever to play the game. Again, it is impossible for me to narrow it down to five.
Q: What's the most important skill a basketball player can possess?
Sharman: I think that competitiveness is right there at the top. When you are competitive, you want to improve and do better all the time. With that would come more practice, which usually makes for a better player … and the great players are always true competitors.
Q: What can you share with younger players today?
Sharman: I would tell the younger players to practice their fundamentals! Shooting, rebounding, free throws … practice and improve all the time. A free throw can win a championship, as can a rebound … it is ALL important. And as always, stay in top condition!