Saturday, October 26, 2013

Bill Sharman, 1926-2013

Bill Sharman might have been the best shooter in basketball history.  He was also one of only two men to be involved in both a Boston Celtics NBA Title and a Los Angeles Lakers NBA Title.  He was also one of only two men to coach an NBA Champion and an ABA Champion.

And I'll bet over half of you have never heard of him.  Which is unfortunate, because he died yesterday.

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William Walton Sharman -- was born on May 25, 1926 in Abilene, Texas, and grew up in Porterville, California.  After serving in the U.S. Navy during World War II, he went to the University of Southern California on the G.I. Bill.  Traditionally, USC is known for football, and their arch-rivals, the University of California at Los Angeles, is known for basketball.  But Bill Sharman played at USC, before UCLA ever reached what we would now call the Final Four, and was better than any player UCLA ever produced, except for Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) or that other William Walton.

Upon graduation, he played both baseball and basketball professionally.  Like actor Chuck Connors (The Rifleman, Branded), he was in uniform for both the Celtics and the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Also like Connors, his time in a Dodger uniform was brief: While Connors got into just 1 game for the Dodgers, before being traded to the Chicago Cubs (and sent to their Los Angeles farm team, leading to his off-season job as a stuntman and then an acting career), Sharman's time at Ebbets Field didn't even amount to that. 

He was a September callup in 1951, as the Dodgers were sputtering and their arch-rivals, the New York Giants, were on a hot streak that would end in the Bobby Thomson Game (see the October 3 entry).  On September 27, with his not yet having gotten into a game, home plate umpire Frank Dascoli threw the entire Dodger bench, Sharman included, out of the game for arguing.  The Dodgers lost the game to the Boston Braves, 4-3.  (Only 2,086 people came out to see this Pennant-race game -- it was a Thursday, but at least it was a night game.)

To this day, 62 years later, Bill Sharman remains the only player ever thrown out of a Major League Baseball game without having gotten into one.

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But it is for basketball that he will be remembered.  He was drafted by the Washington Capitols, having caught the eye of their coach, Red Auerbach.  But when Auerbach was fired, and became head coach of the Boston Celtics in 1951, he got the Caps to put Sharman in a trade.  The Caps went out of business not long after giving up both Auerbach and Sharman.  Had they kept both, basketball history would be very different, and it might be the Washington Capitols, rather than the Boston Celtics, that is the NBA team that everyone learned to love to hate.  (And when the NHL came to town in 1974, the team would have had to be called something other than the "Capitals" with an A.)

Like Bob Cousy and Ed Macauley, he was a star for the Celtics before they were Champions.  They were worse than a team that "couldn't win the big one": They couldn't even get into the big one.  But when Macauley was put into a trade package for the rights to draft Bill Russell, basketball history was changed.

The Celtics won the NBA Title in 1957, '59, '60 and '61, and reached the Finals in '58.  Sharman, 6-foot-1 (even then, short for a pro basketball player), was one of the first players to regularly shoot better than 40 percent.  He led the NBA in free throw percentage a record 7 times, and his mark of 93.2 percent in 1959 remained the NBA record for 18 years.  He still holds the record for consecutive free throws in the Playoffs, with 56. He played in 8 NBA All-Star Games.

Celtic fans like to talk about "the ghosts of the Boston Garden," just as Yankee Fans do about Yankee Stadium and Canadiens fans do about the Montreal Forum.  I've even seen footage of fans walking around the old Boston Garden dressed in sheets, pretending to be ghosts, and it wasn't even Halloween (which usually predates the start of the NBA season by a few days, anyway).  But that's a bit ironic, since, until Dennis Johnson died in 2007, the only Celtics with their numbers retired (or equivalent honors dedicated) who had died were Auerbach (coach-general manager), Walter Brown (founder-owner), Johnny Most (broadcaster), and Reggie Lewis (died while still active, and never won a title).  Since then, Macauley has died, and now, so has Sharman.

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Sharman began his coaching career in 1966-67 with the San Francisco Warriors, and in his first season, he led them to the Western Conference title.  It is a mark of underachievement that, despite being in one of the nation's biggest markets, and a good one for producing basketball talent (especially the Oakland side of San Francisco Bay, where the Golden State Warriors play now), they have only been to 1 Finals since (winning it all in 1975, their only title since moving west from Philadelphia in 1962).  So it's also a mark of Sharman's coaching skill that he could overcome this.

In 1968, the American Basketball Association lured him away, and he became the head coach of the Los Angeles Stars.  They moved to Salt Lake City for the 1970-71 season and became the Utah Stars, playing at the Salt Palace, which later became the home of the NBA's Utah Jazz.  (This was the second building with the name, and it has now been demolished, and replaced with a third, which is used only as a convention center.)

Sharman was the first pro coach to have his players do a pregame shootaround.  Whether that was the key, I don't know.  I do know that, led by Zelmo Beaty, the Stars won 57 games and went through the Playoffs beating the Dallas Chaparrals (now the San Antonio Spurs), the Indiana Pacers and, in the Finals, the Kentucky Colonels.

That made Jack Kent Cooke, the future Washington Redskins owner then owning the Lakers, take notice, and he threw a pile of money at Sharman, who came home to L.A. and took over the Lakers.  Nobody could coach the Lakers: They were a team of big stars, prima donnas: Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Elgin Baylor.  They had lost in the NBA Finals in 1962, '63, '65, '66, '68 and, having picked up Wilt, '69 -- all to the Celtics. When they reached the Finals again in '70, and found that the Celtics had finally gotten old, and the New York Knicks would be their opponents, they figured this was their chance.  But they lost again.

But early in Sharman's first season, Baylor got hurt, and retired.  The very next game, the Lakers started a 33-game winning streak, still the longest in the history of major league sports.  (The Philadelphia Flyers of 1979-80 had an unbeaten streak of 35, and the 2003-04 Arsenal squad went 49 games without losing, but those streaks included ties.) The Lakers set a new league record with 69 wins, and beat the Knicks in the Finals, finally getting their first NBA Championship.  (To compare: The Rams had won the NFL Championship for L.A.'s first title in 1951, while the Dodgers had brought the city World Series wins in 1959, '63 and '65.) Sharman got the Lakers to the Finals again in 1973, but this time they lost to the Knicks.

He remained head coach of the Lakers until 1976, and remained in their front office until his death yesterday.  As a result of that employment, between the Celtics and the Lakers, he received 15 NBA Championship rings.  That's not a record, although I don't know if anyone other than Auerbach (16) has beaten it.

Sharman's Number 21 was retired by the Celtics.  He was named to the NBA's 25th Anniversary Team in 1971 and its 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players in 1996, attending the ceremony at which the players were introduced at the 1997 All-Star Game.  (All but Pete Maravich were then still alive, and of those 49, all but West and Shaquille O'Neal attended.  Why they didn't is a story for another time, but West comes off a whole lot better than Shaq does.)
 
Of the 10 men named to the 25th Anniversary team, only Bob Pettit, Dolph Schayes, and Sharman's Celtic teammates Russell, Cousy and Sam Jones are still alive.  (The others, besides Sharman, were Paul Arizin and Joe Fulks of the old Philadephia Warriors, George Mikan of the Minneapolis Lakers, and Bob Davies of the Rochester Royals, the team now known as the Sacramento Kings.)  Of the 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players, Sharman's death leaves 44 still alive, including the following men he either played with or coached: Russell, Cousy, Jones, West, Baylor, Kareem (in Sharman's last year as Laker coach, 1975-76), Nate Thurmond and Rick Barry.  (John Havlicek was also one of the 50GP and is still alive, but just missed being a teammate of Sharman's.)  Sharman is one of 3 men to have been elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.  The others are John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens.  (The Basketball Hall does not differentiate between a person's collegiate and professional contributions.) Of our major-sport halls of fame, only College Football also does this.  (So there is no one elected to the Baseball, Pro Football or Hockey Halls of Fame as both a player and a manager/head coach.  Hardly any would be, anyway.) 
For the record: The other man to be involved with a Celtic title and a Laker title, and the only one to play on both, was Clyde Lovellette, who played with the Lakers when they won their last title in Minneapolis in 1954, and won with the Celtics in 1963 and '64.

And the other man to coach an NBA Champion and an ABA Champion was Alex Hannum, who won in he NBA with the St. Louis Hawks in 1958 (beating Sharman's Celtics) and the Philadelphia 76ers in 1967 (beating Sharman's Warriors), and in the ABA with the Oakland Oaks in 1969.

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