NBA 75th Anniversary Season

Archive 75: Bill Sharman

Bill Sharman, who won 4 NBA titles and was named to 8 All-Star teams, excelled as an NBA player, coach and executive.

It started as a baseball pass and ended as a basketball shot. For an athlete who set out to be a Major League baseball player and ended up a Hall of Fame basketball player (and coach!), the sequence itself, really, could not be more perfect or symbolic for Bill Sharman.

The scene is this: The 1957 NBA All-Star Game in Boston Garden, first quarter, and Sharman picks off Bob Pettit’s shovel pass intended for Dick Garmaker. It started out innocently enough. But when Sharman turned, took one dribble with his left hand and launched a long pass downcourt with his right, intended for his Eastern Division (and Celtics) teammate Bob Cousy, fate intervened. Cousy sprinted after the ball, but never got it, for it instead diverted in air — curved, in fact — as Sharman later retold, and rattled into the goal at the far end.

It is believed to be the longest shot in the contest’s history, and yet one can’t help but consider the irony. Sharman, a player built on preparedness, on meticulous routine, on steady, purposeful execution, has his most memorable on-court moment arrive like this — unplanned, a little reckless, and undoubtedly spectacular. In other words, most un-Sharman-like.

We have precious few moving images of Bill Sharman the player, but thankfully, this one exists. And here it is packaged as never-before: From formulation (he teaches us the baseball pass), to execution (rare color footage!), to recollection, when Sharman retells the story of his famed shot on its 50th anniversary.

By the middle part of the 1950s, Bill Sharman’s game day went a little something like this: Rise early and by mid-morning leave his Needham, Mass., home for the nearest high school, dribbling the ball down the sidewalk. On the road, it was his coach, Red Auerbach, who would source the closest available gym. Once there, Sharman would proceed through a structured routine of shooting — no more than 30 minutes, enough to get loose, not enough to tire. The routine was perfectly calibrated to Sharman’s liking, just like the temperature of his hot tea (don’t forget the honey) that he would sip as he scribbled out notes on index cards pertaining to that evening’s game. Some of the cards were about his opponent, some about himself, little reminders and tips that, if executed, would ensure optimum performance. Sharman liked assurances, and they came to him in a series of small details.

In the locker room, in the hours before the game, with Bill Russell flicking through the daily newspaper, with Cousy chatting with a small crowd of newspapermen, it was Sharman remaining devout to his regiment — sit-ups, push-ups, reviewing his index cards, visualizing.

Why are all these details relevant? In an era of professional basketball where the emphasis was less on the “professional” and more on the “basketball,” where players worked summer jobs and took trains and washed their own uniforms, Sharman stood apart for his unique approach to the craft. So now, please, get your index cards and pencils, for Sharman will teach us the pointers that made him one of the great guards of his time.

On April 22, 1950, Sharman, having recently signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers, reported to Pueblo, Colo., to begin a baseball career he hoped would ultimately land him in the majors. Three days later, rather innocuously in Sharman’s world, the NBA held its annual college draft, with the Washington Capitols selecting the backcourt ace from the University of Southern California. The selection was of little consequence to Sharman at the time, with him busy toiling away in the summer, commencing his journey with America’s national pastime. But it would come to be one that was life-changing.

Biographically, we know the story: Sharman was a two-sport athlete who eventually pursued basketball. What resulted was one of the most rounded and prolific careers in the sport as a player, a coach, and executive. But what happened in the 1950s? Why exactly did such a promising baseball player choose basketball? Here it is, the full story, in Sharman’s own words.

Trivia question: Who was the leading scorer for the Washington Capitols in their final game in January 1951? The answer is Sharman. The game had been played on the road, in Philadelphia, with the knowledge that the team would disband following the final buzzer. It was hardly a grand entrance into professional basketball for Sharman, who had joined the Capitols following much arm-twisting and negotiation. Baseball had taken his heart first in youth, you see, and the dream of making it big there superseded any hopes he had for basketball. Taken by Fort Wayne in the dispersal draft following the Caps folding, later pried from the Pistons’ grip by Boston, it was Auerbach who had seen enough in those 31 games of Sharman’s rookie season to see the potential.

Of all the Auerbach masterstrokes, both those that had taken place by then and those most-celebrated subsequent ones, the acquisition of Sharman deserves more than a passing glance. Paired in the backcourt with Bob Cousy, Sharman perfectly complemented the Houdini of the Hardwood. Together they formed the NBA’s truly dominant guard duo.

In Boston, Sharman’s game came to life. And what did that game look like? His approach was constant movement without the ball. He had a shooting stroke basically unmatched in the professional game. And he was in possession of a competitive streak that gave him the edge in every matchup.

The Celtics, a very good team throughout the early 1950s, became a great one in 1956 following the arrival of two rookies, Russell and Tom Heinsohn. A team that had relied on its star guards for survival now presented as a balanced attack, one that had a lethal fast break bookended around Russell’s defensive rebounding and the deadeye shooting of Sharman, Heinsohn, and Frank Ramsey, with Cousy showcased in-between, spectacularly leading it all.

Boston had taken the 1957 championship in seven intense games with the St. Louis Hawks — and the fun was only getting started (it was the first of four titles Sharman won with the Celtics). As an encore to that first title, the Celtics won their first 14 games in the 1957-58 season, and the cameras were there to capture this dynasty in the making. We are journeying back to Nov. 23, 1957, to a Saturday night in the Garden, with the Celtics hosting the Lakers and Sharman leading the way.

Sharman was not merely a cog in one of history’s greatest teams. He was one of the early efficient-shooting guards, adept at both the set-shot and pull-up jumper off the dribble. And you better not even think about fouling him: Seven times he led the league in free-throw percentage; once the holder of the regular season mark for consecutive free throws (since surrendered) who also nailed 56 straight in the playoffs. It wasn’t until 1981 that his single-season free-throw percentage mark of .932 (set in 1958-59) was bested.

The numbers tell merely a small part of the story. Seven times he was an All-NBA player, four of which came as a first-team member. Sharman wasn’t just good – there was a period when he was the best shooting guard in the league.

Sharman came to be better-known after he stopped playing basketball. His coaching career earned him titles in multiple leagues, and he was at the helm of the Lakers when they ripped off 33 consecutive wins in 1972. The gameday shootaround — a concept he first used as a player — was something he introduced to his players as a coach. With its subsequent success, it became commonplace. His belief system as a coach emanated from that of when he was a player, and his insistence on conditioning, on preparation, on a pursuit for perfection can be traced directly back to his own coach in Boston: Auerbach. Sharman, many times over, said as much.

The last vault installment for Sharman is a beauty. Grainy footage, darkened room, projector, and one of the greatest coaches in league history. He is watching what he calls “the greatest shooter that ever lived.” Red Auerbach is watching Bill Sharman shoot the basketball.