Bill Sharman preceded Phil Jackson by about 30 years as the coach who figured out a way to unite a star-driven Lakers squad, point them toward an NBA title and turn Los Angeles into a basketball town. In some way, Sharman would also have a hand in the next nine franchise championships as well.
And long before Gus Williams, Harold Miner or Paul Westphal were All-Americans at USC, there was Sharman — the first one in school history.
Before long, the Basketball Hall of Fame had to induct Sharman twice – as a player in 1976 and a coach in 2004.
When Sharman died Friday peacefully at his Redondo Beach home at age 87 surrounded by his wife Joyce and his family, and less than a week after suffering a stroke, all factions of the basketball world were rightly trying to claim a piece of his legacy.
So, too, were the Dodgers – he signed with Brooklyn to play baseball, and did so for five minor-league seasons before he was called up in 1951.
What followed in a multi-part NBA career started with an 11-year run as a 6-foot-1 star shooting guard with the Celtics from 1953-61, where, teamed with Bob Cousy, Sharman was an eight-time All-Star, played on four NBA championship teams and was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players on the league’s 50th anniversary in 1996.
In Los Angeles, Sharman’s 40-plus year association with the Lakers started when he took his first team, led by Jerry West, Wilt Chamberlain and Gail Goodrich, to a record 33-game win streak and the 1971-72 title. It was the first in the history of the city.
With that season came Sharman instituting the first morning “shoot-around” routine, one that all teams do today as normal practice. It was something he enjoyed doing as a player on his own while in Boston.
Sharman stepped down in 1976 to become the team’s general manager, winning the coin flip in ’79 with a call of tails that ultimately landed the Lakers the NBA’s No. 1 draft picked, used to select Magic Johnson.
He then became the Lakers’ president in 1982 before officially retiring six years later because of voice problems he attributed to damaged vocal cords during his coaching days.
He remained with the Lakers as a special consultant for the last 23 years until his passing, a role that entailed attending all games and drafting monthly reports filled with his advice and critiques on the Lakers’ play.
“Be it on the court as a star player for the Boston Celtics, or on the sidelines as the guiding force behind the Lakers’ first NBA championship in Los Angeles, Bill Sharman led an extraordinary basketball life,” said NBA commissioner David Stern. “More than that, however, Bill was a man of great character and integrity. His loss will be deeply felt. On behalf the NBA family, our thoughts and condolences go out to Bill’s family.”
Lakers president Jeanie Buss said Sharman’s importance to her father, former team owner Dr. Jerry Buss, “cannot be measured in words. His knowledge and passion for the game were unsurpassed, and the Lakers and our fans were beneficiaries of that.
“Despite his greatness as a player, coach and executive, Bill was one of the sweetest, nicest and most humble people I’ve ever known. He was truly one of a kind.”
“I loved him dearly,” Kupchak. “He’s been a mentor, a work collaborator, and most importantly, a friend. He’s meant a great deal to the success of the Lakers and to me personally, and he will be missed terribly.”
Jackson tweeted out: “Dr. Buss always wanted people to know Bill Sharman was the architect of the Lakers of the 80’s. He will be missed greatly by all who knew him.”
History will show that Sharman became the only person in professional basketball history to coach a championship in three professional leagues — the ABL (with the Cleveland Pipers, after serving as player-coach for the L.A. Jets), ABA (Utah Stars, former the L.A. Stars) and NBA. Sharman also coached two seasons at Cal State L.A.
History also notes that John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens are the only other two to have Hall of Fame honors both as a player and a coach.
Pat Riley, who coached the Lakers to four NBA titles in the 1980s, played on Sharman’s 1971-’72 team that set a record for most wins in the regular season (69) as a result of Sharman’s ability to get all the star players to perform as a unit.
“Bill was the best coach I have ever had, and I will miss him greatly,” said Riley in a statement issued by the Miami Heat, where he is the team president. “This is a sad, sad day for me personally.”
West called Sharman “without a doubt, one of the greatest human beings I have ever met and one of my all-time favorite individuals, both as a competitor and as a friend. He was the epitome of class and dignity and, I can assure you, we find few men of his character in this world.”
Johnson tweeted out that he “lost a coach, mentor and friend in the great Bill Sharman.” Johnson added that “Sharman helped me work harder on my game and made me a better free throw shooter! God bless his beautiful wife & family.”
Sharman’s free-throw shooting became his signature mark as a player. Not only was he one of the first guards to shoot better than 40 percent from the field, but he held the NBA single-season free-throw shooting record of 93.2 percent in 1958-59, which remained for nearly 20 years. His 88.3 percentage rates 12th all time today.
He still holds the record for making 56 consecutive free throws during the playoffs and is third all-time with a 91.1 percent mark in the post-season.
Sharman’s outreach to the community was being part of many Southern California charities. Last year, he launched a raffle on a CelebritiesForCharity.org website to raise money by selling his 2010 NBA championship ring, which would benefit eight charities, including the Toberman Neighborhood Center in San Pedro, the Lakers Youth Foundation and the James Worthy Foundation. The auction will continue later this month and the winner will be given the ring at a Lakers’ game this season.
“Despite all of his accolades as a coach and an athlete, he was probably the most gentle and nicest person I ever met,” said Worthy, the former Lakers great drafted by the franchise as a result of a shrewd move Sharman orchestrated three years earlier for the rights to what would be the No. 1 overall pick. “Every day, he always saw the bright side of things. You can tell on three fingers the people that no matter of profession you’re in that they touched lives. He touched lives in sports and outside of sports and the community.
“He was an intangible force. To me, the Lakers never had a mystique like Boston had the mystique. But there was something about Bill Sharman where if you saw him in the locker room, he had a mystique. He had a silent angel feature about him.”
Williams Walton Sharman, born on May 25, 1926 in Abilene, Tex., played basketball and baseball at Narbonne High in Harbor City while his family lived in Lomita in the early 1940s. They moved to Porterville in the San Joaquin Valley, where Sharman also excelled in tennis, track, football and boxing, winning 15 varsity letters. The Sharman family had planned to attend the first Porterville Hall of Fame ceremony at the Bill Sharman Gym on Saturday.
After two years in the Navy, he scored 1,108 points in 81 games for USC, setting a school record of 13.7 points a contest. The 1950 team captain and MVP was also the 1949 Most Inspirational Player. Sharman’s No. 11 was retired by USC a few seasons ago, and he was inducted into the inaugural USC Athletics Hall of Fame class in 1994 as well as being a member of the Pac-10 Hall of Honor.
The Trojans @USC_Athletics twitter account acknowledged Sharman’s passing, calling him “perhaps the greatest all-time @USC_Hoops player.”
His two years of baseball at USC (’49 and ’50) led to him signing a contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. His claim to fame was being called up by the team – and immediately being ejected from his first game without even playing in it, when the umpire banished the entire bench. Sharman was also in the Dodgers dugout to see first-hand the New York Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit his “shot heard ‘round the world” to clinch the 1951 pennant.
“Our hearts are heavy with the passing of former Brooklyn Dodger and Los Angeles icon, Bill Sharman,” the Dodgers’ official Twitter account said Friday, including a photo of him as a Dodger player. Tommy Lasorda’s Twitter feed added: “My deepest condolences to the Sharman family today. Bill was a great athlete, a great friend, and above all else, a great human being.”
Sharman is survived by his wife Joyce, daughters Nancy and Janice and sons Jerry and Tom. He is also survived by six grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.
Staff writer Mark Medina contributed to this report.