Bill Sharman passed away on October 25th at the age of 87. His basketball resume is simply dazzling: All-American at USC, four-time NBA champion with the Boston Celtics, back-to-back titles as a coach in the ABA and NBA, and one of only three men to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach (along with John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens). Prior to his passing, Jon Teitel got to sit down with Bill’s friend and fellow USC legend Paul Westphal to reflect on the life of a man who succeeded at everything he ever did. We send our condolences to Bill’s wife Joyce and the entire Sharman family as we remember this true legend.
Bill played five different sports at Porterville High School (basketball, football, baseball, tennis, and track) and maintained his strength by lifting weights and focusing on nutrition: what made him such a great athlete, and why was he so ahead of his time with his off-the-court training regimen? All I can say is that if that is what he did, he was extremely dedicated and naturally gifted to excel in so many sports. He obviously was very driven and creative about his ways of training.
In 1950 he was named All-American and conference MVP at USC, what did it mean to him to win such outstanding individual honors? I know there were a lot of great players in that era (like George Yardley), so to be at the top of that class was great.
In the summer of 1950 he was drafted 17th overall by Washington (10 spots behind Yardley), then was picked by Ft. Wayne in a dispersal draft nine months later after Washington folded, and then got traded to Boston three months later. Is it hard for players to come into the NBA and separate the personal side from the business side of professional sports? I do not think there was as much of a culture shock back then because pro basketball players made as much as a schoolteacher!
In Game Two of the 1953 Eastern Division Semifinals he scored nine points in a six-point, four overtime win over Syracuse in the longest playoff game in NBA history (Bob Cousy scored a then-playoff record 50 points, including a free throw at the end of regulation, a 25-footer at the end of the third overtime, and went 30-32 at the free throw line). How does the game change for a player from regulation to overtime? Fatigue can enter into it a bit more, and every play seems to be magnified. You just have to keep making plays.
He played in eight All-Star games and was named the 1955 All-Star MVP (15 points in 18 minutes in a nine point win by the East): how was he able to play his best when facing the best? That is just what he did. He loved to compete so it was natural for him to play his hardest at all times.
In Game 7 of the 1957 Finals he scored nine points in a two-point, two-overtime win over St. Louis (his first of four titles in a five-year span). What did it mean to him to win a title? Every player has a goal of winning a title. I am sure that was his goal every year and winning it was validation.
In Game 6 of the 1958 Finals he scored 26 points but Bill Pettit scored a then-playoff record 50 points in a one point win by St. Louis to clinch the title. Everyone knows about the legendary Celtics-Lakers rivalry, but how epic were those Celtics-Hawks series? I know they were very intense. It was not unusual for those two teams to trade significant players so there was a rivalry where they would go up against each other every year. They did not get as much publicity as the Knicks, but it was intense.
He led the NBA in FT% a record seven different times, set a record with 93.2 FT% in 1959 that lasted for almost two decades, and still holds the record for consecutive free throws made in the playoffs with 56. What was his secret for being a great FT shooter? He was certainly scientific about understanding technique. He also practiced enough to become one of the best free throw shooters of all time.
After retiring he led the Cleveland Pipers to the 1962 ABL title and was named Coach of the Year. How was he able to step right in and win a title in his very 1st year on the sideline? He was a student of the game and was around arguably the greatest coach of all-time when he played for Red Auerbach on the Celtics. He picked up something along the way from all his various coaches so he was very ready to step into that job.
In 1971 he became coach of the Utah Stars, had a 10-point win over Kentucky in Game Seven to win the ABA title, and was named ABA co-Coach of the Year. What was the biggest difference between the ABA and the NBA? A few of the NBA stars were more well-known and established, but beyond that it was just publicity. The NBA had players like Wilt Chamberlain who the ABA could not duplicate, but less tradition equals less publicity.
In 1972 as coach of the Lakers he had an NBA-record 33-game winning streak, a then-record 69-13 regular-season record, won the NBA title, and was named NBA Coach of the Year. How does a coach keep his team focused for 33 straight games, and where does that team rank among the best ever? The team was constructed to complement each other: their strengths fed into everyone else’s and they had very few weaknesses. I think they are one of the greatest teams of all time: they dominated all season and it was a surprise whenever they lost.
In the early 1970s he introduced the game-day shoot-around as a standard practice technique: how did he come up with the idea, and what makes it so effective? He perceived it as a way to improve a player’s shooting via muscle memory. It is just a way to have another practice to improve your skills: today it is more about strategy. He was a driven person who did not want to waste time sitting around a hotel.
After retiring as a coach he became GM and president of the Lakers. How did he like being in the front office as opposed to being on the court or sideline? At some point it is a natural evolution for anyone. He would have loved to keep coaching but he knew the sport and was the right person to lead the Lakers into the next generation.
He is one of only three people to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as both a player and coach, and in 1996 he was named one of the NBA’s 50 Greatest Players. When people look back on his career, how do you think he should be remembered the most? When most people discuss him they mention what a gentleman he was at every level, and when you couple that with his success he should be remembered as someone who excelled with dignity and class.