The Lakers were only halfway through a season that would become the most miserable in L.A. franchise history — a mere 30 wins, the fewest since the team managed to record 25 during their final year in Minneapolis before needing to get out of town.
But this was less than three years removed from the NBA championship in this city. How could the euphoria dissipate so quickly?
Sharman already had a view of the bigger picture.
When owner Jack Kent Cooke hired him prior to that historic ‘71-’72 season, Sharman had been primed for a long-term rebuilding process. The careers of three future Hall of Famers — Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Elgin Baylor — were close to ending. By the ‘74-’75 season, all of them were gone, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s arrival was an endless summer away.
If not for Sharman, who both as a competitor as well as one of the nicest people you’d ever want to be around, that fiasco of a performance could have much more demoralizing.
Sharman wouldn’t allow it.
As a Lakers ball boy during that “Wonder Years” period of middle-school awkwardness — no wonder the team had job openings, just apply to trainer Frank O’Neal and wait for a quick return call — I was fortunate enough to have some access to how this transition was going to take place. It came mostly from the perspective of looking up to a locker room full of players, some of whom had no idea they’d be far more famous in the coming years later, while others may still not have figured out their best years were behind them.
After hearing about Sharman’s passing at his Redondo Beach home on Friday, I went to the garage and uncovered a game program full of autographs from that patchwork team. West, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston were the title-roster holdovers. Their scribbles were next to Connie Hawkins, Cazzie Russell and the Chick Hearn-dubbed “Big E,” Elmore Smith. Bench players Pat Riley, Stu Lantz, Stan Love and Kermit Washington were included.
Sharman’s signature found a nice, clean spot in the top left corner. It was as comforting to see now as he was back then during that whole period of transition.
Remarkably, Sharman set a tone of optimism without much of a voice to convey any of it. He yelled himself hoarse during that first season, and now had something of a raspy whisp of what his vocal chords once produced. He conducted practices with a bullhorn just to be heard.
That hardly seemed fair. The man who was going to call the shots for the franchise’s on-court future had to relearn how to speak again, through forced breathing exercises. His grace displayed under this setback only made you want to help him more, just with simple requests to deliver a note to a player’s wife in the Forum Club or leave the rack of basketballs out longer on the court in pregame warmups before pulling them back into the locker room so certain players could get more reps.
It made being around Sharman, especially in his later years, an exercise in listening closer to what wisdom he may have been trying to impart.
One of the more interesting situations came when I played in a charity golf tournament with Sharman at Riviera Country Club some years ago, and were in the same group with retired baseball manager Sparky Anderson.
I was close enough to listen to Sharman strain his voice and talk about his love of baseball with Anderson, who cranked his head as far as he could to overcome his own hearing deteriorating. It almost looked like a vaudeville routine watching them communicate.
My father-in-law, who grew up in the Northeast and watched Sharman during his Boston Celtics’ All-Star playing days, had a 70th birthday a few years ago. I thought I could arrange a golf outing for him with Sharman. I left a message on Sharman’s phone.
The next day, my machine included the faint sound of Sharman, saying he was sorry for not being able to play because of shoulder ailments. If I could have kept that sweet apology on my phone forever, I would have.
One of most enjoyable part of looking back at Sharman’s life was finding about how many places he’d been and the paths he could have taken if not ending up as a Basketball Hall of Famer as a coach, player and human being. One who was honored in a pre-game moment of silence before USC’s football game Saturday, and notably missing from a group of Trojan basketball players honored in the third quarter as part of the school’s 125 year athletic celebration.
I remember telling Magic Johnson just after he became part of the Dodgers’ ownership group that had a new connection with Sharman, who had been part of the franchise back in Brooklyn in the 1950s — even ejected from a game before he even played in one.
“Wow, I didn’t know that,” said Johnson, wanting to find out more. “Bill’s one of my all-time favorite guys.”
He was one of everyone’s all-time favorites, in you were honest about it.
Consider that Sharman’s five-year minor-league record as an outfielder and third baseman in the Dodgers’ organization included two seasons at Triple-A St. Paul where, in 270 games, he hit 27 home runs and drove in 135 with a .293 average. But in 1955, at age 29, he gave up that dream ironically the same year that Dodgers won their only World Series in Brooklyn.
Seems Sharman’s off-season winter job was already pretty well established. He had put in five years in the NBA by that time, amassing some 4,600 of his career 12,665 points.
Larry Stewart, the former Los Angeles Times writer and one of Sharman’s long-time friends, call tell you more stories. Like how Sharman may have considered tennis his most favorite sport – as a 16-year-old he went to the national AAU championships in Kalamazoo, Mich., and lost in the final, the first time he ever lost a tennis match. He rode a bus for five days just to play in two matches.
At Porterville High, where Sharman played five sports, he was the Tulare County B Class shot put champion, edging out Gene Mathias of Tulare Union High. Gene was a brother of former Olympic decathlon gold-medalist Bob Mathias.
On the golf course, Sharman was automatic – he might not have been able to hit the ball off the tee more than 200 yards in his later years, but the shots were down the middle every time. It was almost a pleasure to hand money over to him for another lost bet on the course.
Where did that competitive fire come from someone who could also be one of the sweetest people to be around?
“I asked him that once, and he said he wasn’t sure what made him that way,” said Stewart, “but he said he first realized he was very competitive while playing marbles in grammar school. Apparently, he was unbeatable. Remember, you got to keep the marbles you were able to knock out of the circle.”
Sharman said he remembered his mother asking “why I had coffee cans full of marbles in my bedroom,” he said of that time when the family was living in Lomita.
In sports, they still use that tired cliché about “winning all the marbles.”
Considering how much he accomplished in his life, it wouldn’t be a surprise of that phrase originated from someone who knew Sharman.