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BILL SHARMAN, 1926 - 2013

Honed Lakers into champions

October 26, 2013|David Wharton and Jerry Crowe
  • Bill Sharman yells from the bench in his first season as Lakers coach in 1971.
Bill Sharman yells from the bench in his first season as Lakers coach in 1971. (Los Angeles Times )

The Lakers had plenty of talent when Bill Sharman showed up as their new coach in the summer of 1971.

The Hall of Fame lineup included a towering Wilt Chamberlain at center, flanked by Jerry West and Gail Goodrich. What the team lacked -- after years of close misses -- was a championship banner.

A fiercely competitive Sharman changed that.

"There's a right coach for the right team and the right personnel," West recalled. "And Bill was certainly the right coach for us."

Sharman -- who died Friday at 87 -- will be remembered as the man who molded the Lakers into an elite franchise, guiding the 1971-72 squad to a historic 33 consecutive victories and an NBA title, their first in Los Angeles.

It was the crowning moment in a career that saw him achieve fame as an all-star guard for the Boston Celtics, then become a coach who guided teams to championships in three professional basketball leagues.

During his 35 years with the Lakers, he also served as general manager, president and special consultant, making the trade that enabled the franchise to draft Magic Johnson.

His achievements eventually landed him in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach, a dual honor bestowed upon only two other men, Lenny Wilkens and John Wooden.

"If Bill Sharman isn't in the Hall of Fame as a coach, no one should be," his friend Wooden wrote in a recommendation letter.

William Walton Sharman was born on May 25, 1926, in Abilene, Texas, but grew up in Lomita and the San Joaquin Valley, where his father took over a Los Angeles Examiner newspaper distributorship.

Sharman won 15 varsity letters at Porterville High, excelling not only in basketball but also football, baseball, tennis, track and boxing. One day in 1944, he won the discus throw and shot put in a morning track meet, took the San Joaquin Valley tennis title in the afternoon, then pitched the baseball team to victory in the evening.

After a short Navy stint, he was an All-American and Pacific Coast Conference basketball player of the year at USC.

The Brooklyn Dodgers drafted him as an outfielder in 1950 and called him up to the major leagues at the end of the 1951 season. Sharman watched from the dugout as Bobby Thomson of the New York Giants hit the "shot heard 'round the world" that beat the Dodgers in a pennant playoff.

But, much to his regret, Sharman never made it as a major leaguer. Basketball was his forte.

The old Washington Capitols of the NBA had also drafted him in 1950 and, when that team folded, he landed with the Celtics where former teammate Bob Cousy called him "the best athlete I've ever played with, or against."

The 6-foot-1 guard could shoot and play hard-nosed defense. "He got into more fights than Mike Tyson," West once remarked. Sharman made the All-Star team eight times during an 11-year NBA career, averaging 17.8 points and winning four titles. Along the way, his uncanny free-throw shooting earned him the nickname "Bull's-eye Bill."

His 88.3% average from the line still ranks 12th in NBA history and he led the league in that category seven times.

"Bill Sharman with the basketball at the free throw line was a sports work of art," Times columnist Jim Murray wrote in 1994. "Ruth with a fastball, Cobb with a base open. Dempsey with his man on the ropes. Hogan with a long par three. Jones with a short putt. Caruso with a high C. Hope in a 'Road' movie. Shoemaker on the favorite. Sinatra with Gershwin.

"When it was Sharman at the line, the next sound you heard was swish! It was as foregone as the sun setting."

In 1961, the L.A. Jets of the American Basketball League hired him as a player-coach, the start of a career change. After the team folded at midseason, officially ending his playing career, Sharman led the Cleveland Pipers to the ABL title in 1961-62, earning lifetime respect from George Steinbrenner, the team's fledgling owner.

"You always were a winner and you're still a winner," the late owner of the New York Yankees once wrote in a letter to Sharman.

When the ABL folded, Sharman coached Cal State L.A. for two seasons, moved to the NBA's San Francisco Warriors for two more, then took over the L.A. Stars of the new American Basketball Assn. in 1968. The Stars moved to Utah and Sharman guided them to an ABA championship in 1970-71.

It was his second coaching title, and a harbinger of things to come.

That summer, the mercurial owner Jack Kent Cooke hired Sharman to guide the Lakers, a title-starved squad that was considered past its prime.

After moving from Minneapolis to L.A., the team had reached the NBA Finals seven times between 1962 and 1970, always coming up short. Six times they had lost to the Celtics, their hated rivals. Painful to some, perhaps, it took a former Celtic to help them achieve a season for the ages.

In 1971-72, Sharman encouraged his new squad to balance scoring with tireless defense and plenty of running. It was all about surrendering personal glory for shared success.

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