Since the Lakers came to Los Angeles in 1960, two people that never set foot on the actual basketball court stand out as constantly impactful contributors.
The first is that of legendary broadcaster Chick Hearn, who called his first Lakers game in 1960 and 3,338 consecutive regular season contests from 1965 to 2001 with his colorful, insightful and unique style of play-by-play that taught so many to love the game. Hearn called his last game on June 12, 2002, as L.A. defeated New Jersey for a third straight championship.
The second name, Bill Bertka, remains with the team to this day as the Director of Scouting/Basketball Consultant. He personally worked alongside all but three of the 13 coaches in L.A. history, beginning as a scout in 1968, and then as an assistant coach from 1981 to 2001. Bertka possesses an absolute encyclopedic knowledge of not just Lakers franchise history but also basketball in general; if you like basketball, it’s hard to find someone more fun to speak with.
With Bertka’s insight driving us along, we continue to highlight L.A.'s coaching history with a look at Bill Sharman, among the best there was:
BILL SHARMAN: 1971-76
Few things are as painful for professional sports teams than to get all the way to the peak of the mountain only to fall off at the top, but that’s just what the Lakers had done in losing in Game 7 of the Finals in both 1969 and ‘70, and then in the Western Finals in ‘71.
Elgin Baylor’s bad knee had finally regressed to where he simply wasn’t the same player, while Jerry West and Wilt Chamberlain didn’t have much longer to reign atop basketball’s best players, so owner Jack Kent Cooke made a bold request to his general manager, Fred Schaus:
“Fred I want you to get me the best coach in America,” he said, as recalled by Bill Bertka. “Who is it?”
The answer: Bill Sharman. A fantastic player before he became a coach, Sharman played 11 seasons for the Boston Celtics after starring at USC, partnering with Bob Cousy in the backcourt while making the All-NBA First Team four times and Second Team three more, with eight All-Star appearances and four NBA titles. Moving into the coaching ranks, Sharman led the ABA’s Utah Stars to the 1970-71 championship. The Lakers wanted him badly, and they got him, despite a lawsuit that developed when the Stars alleged that Sharman broke his contract.
Nevertheless, Sharman was soon in purple and gold, bringing with him a series of innovative coaching techniques and leadership style that would help produce one of the greatest seasons in NBA history.“Bill Sharman was an innovator of so many things,” said Bertka. “He introduced the use of film to scout other teams, he came up with the concept of shootarounds still used today and was an uncommon advocate of stretching.”
“Muscle memory” was one of Sharman’s favorite sayings as applying to repetition in practices, and he could often be seen scribbling ideas into what was known as a nickel notebook that he carried in his front shirt pocket. His practices were very deliberate, revolving around stretching drills, running, shooting games and full runs of 5-on-5.
Ten games into the season, the Lakers would be without Baylor for the first time since the team moved to Los Angeles, as he felt his injuries were limiting him to the point that he couldn’t help the team. But Chamberlain, West and Gail Goodrich were still playing at a very high level, while Jim McMillian – a Bertka find – and Happy Hairston were excellent at filling in the gaps. Beginning on Nov. 6, the Lakers would go on to win 33 straight games, still a record in all of the major professional sports.
L.A. rolled to 69 wins, then stormed through the playoffs past Chicago (4-0), Milwaukee (4-2) and New York (4-1) to win their first title in Los Angeles. Chamberlain was named Finals MVP, and Sharman Coach of the Year.
The Lakers would march back to the Finals in the following season, again to face the Knicks, but things flipped as it was New York earning a 4-1 series victory for the championship. It was an end of an era for L.A. as Chamberlain retired following the season, and Jerry West managed just 31 games in 1973-74 before his body could no longer take the day-to-day banging. Sharman remained on the bench, but L.A. would sit out the 1974-75 playoffs for the first time in 17 years after a 30-52 regular season. Bertka recalled some of the things that made Sharman, who’d retire in 1976, such an innovator.
“He let me do some things that I had theories on and so forth that other traditional NBA coaches and college coaches didn’t believe in,” said Bertka. “I believed in scouting our opponents, for example.”
As such, Bertka would go watch opponents on the road – the only scout in the league to do so – to identify the team’s top three or four plays, then make up a film loop on a 16-millimeter projector that Sharman could show to his players. Sharman liked the film to be no longer than five minutes, so as not to ask too much of the players’ attention span.
“I’d make the films, and put them on the projector, and there’s Wilt, Jerry and Baylor sitting there bored as heck,” joked Bertka, who would add a one-page report on opponents with strengths and weaknesses, out of bounds plays and the best plays. “But they did appreciate them, and watch. Nobody else was doing it at the time.”
Sharman’s originality would end up helping Bertka, too, as his skills were recognized by the New Orleans Jazz, who made him their Vice President and General Manager in 1974-75.
Problems with his voice, beginning in 1972, would plague Sharman throughout his final years, but it didn’t change the fact that he would become one of only three people (John Wooden, Lenny Wilkens) to enter the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.