R.I.P. Bill Sharman – Celtics, Lakers Champion, A Remarkable Life

Hall of Famer Bill Sharman who was a player on the early Celtics championship teams, and then was a coach and executive with the Lakers for several more championships, died today at the age of 87.

He had a truly remarkable life, one deserving of being told in detail. I had recently written up an outline of his life, in hopes of putting together a future project. Here is part of that draft, which should give you a quick idea of how incredible this man’s life was.

Few men saw more basketball than Bill Sharman. As a player, he was an integral part of the early days of the Boston Celtics dynasty, teaming with Bob Cousy in what was the best backcourt in the NBA. As a coach, he led the Los Angeles Lakers on a 33-game winning streak, and an NBA title in his first year with the team. As an executive, he oversaw the acquisition of players such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and James Worthy, loading up the franchise for the great battles of the 1980’s against his former Celtics team.

Born in Abilene, Texas in 1926, Sharman’s family moved to California, where he became a star athlete for high schools in Lomita and Porterville. At the age of 18, in the midst of World War II, Sharman joined the Navy, where he served a two-year stint in the Pacific.

Out of the Navy, Sharman went to Southern California University, where he starred for the Trojans both on the basketball court and on the baseball field. A two-time letter winner, Sharman was signed by the Brooklyn Dodgers, with whom he spent five minor-league seasons, earning a call-up in September of 1951. Sharman never appeared in a Major League Baseball game, but earned the distinction of being thrown out of one without ever appearing in one, as on September 27th, the umpire ejected the entire Dodgers bench after an argument over a call at home plate. Sharman was on the Dodgers bench for Bobby Thompson’s “Shot heard round the world” which won the National League pennant for the New York Giants over the Dodgers on October 3rd, 1951.

Following his hoops career as USC, Sharman had also been drafted in the second round by the Washington Capitals of the NBA. Sharman was leading the team in scoring as a rookie at 12.2 points a game in the 1950-51 season when the franchise folded after 35 games.

A dispersal draft was held and after refusing to report to the Fort Wayne Pistons who had won his rights, the Pistons traded him to the Boston Celtics. The previous year, the Celtics had ended up with Bob Cousy in a separate dispersal draft transaction, and now Sharman and Cousy would be the Celtics starting backcourt for the next decade.

Sharman averaged 17.8 points per game in his career, peaking at 22.3 ppg in the 1957-58 season. The arrival of Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn in 1956 made the Celtics into champions, and Sharman would be an NBA champion four times before his career with the Celtics came to a close at the end of the 1960-61 season.

The NBA was expanding into Chicago the next season, and team were required to submit four names for the expansion draft. With young guards Sam and K.C. Jones waiting in the wings, Sharman’s name was among those the Celtics submitted. Sharman though, took a coaching job with the Los Angeles Jets of the new American Basketball League, an outfit started out of spite by Harlem Globetrotters founder Abe Saperstein after he felt the NBA went back on a promise to award him an NBA team in Los Angeles.

The short-lived league was noteworthy for being the first to introduce the three-point shot, as well as for hiring the first African-American coach in professional sports history. Sharman took the job with the idea of becoming a player-coach, something Celtics owner Walter Brown strongly objected to, and the NBA threatened legal action due to its “Option Rule.” Sharman eventually had his way, and played in 19 games for the Jets. The team was doing quite well, with a 24-15 record, before it folded on January 10th, 1962. Sharman was not out of work for long, getting hired by the Cleveland Pipers of the ABL in February as head coach by young owner George Steinbrenner. Sharman led the Pipers to the first (and only ABL Championship.)

The next fall, Sharman took over the Cal State-Los Angeles basketball team, coaching there until 1964. He then went into broadcasting for a couple of years. In 1966, he was hired as head coach of the San Francisco Warriors, where he led a squad of players that included Rick Barry, Nate Thurmond and Al Attles. He took them to the NBA finals in his first season, where they lost to the Philadelphia 76ers.The next season, the Warriors finished third in the West, and were swept by the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals.

Sharman was back in Los Angeles that fall, this time with the Los Angeles Stars of the ABA. After fifth and fourth place finishes in LA, the Stars moved to Utah in 1971, where Sharman led them to 57 wins and and the league championship, where they defeated the Kentucky Colonels, led by rookie star Dan Issel.

The Los Angeles Lakers had moved from Minneapolis in 1960. In Minnesota they had been the league’s first dynasty, winning five league titles in the early days of the NBA. Since moving to Los Angeles though, there had been nothing but heartache, as the Lakers made it to the NBA finals eight times, only to lose each time, seven times of which had been to the Boston Celtics.

Even though Sharman was under contract to the Stars for four more seasons, the Lakers wanted him to replace Joe Mullaney as head coach. After a few weeks of posturing and threatening from the two teams and leagues, Sharman became head coach of the Lakers.

His first season was nothing short of spectacular, as the Lakers ran out to a record-breaking 69 wins in the regular season, including a 33-game winning streak. The Lakers then beat the New York Knicks four games to one in the NBA finals to win their first championship in Los Angeles. Sharman had now coached in three professional leagues, and won championships in each of them.

He then became GM of the Lakers, and drafted Magic Johnson in 1979, he remained GM until 1982, when he became President of the Lakers. He held that post until 1988 when he retired, having won NBA titles as a player, coach, GM and Team President. He remained a team special consultant the rest of his life.

Sharman was inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1976 and as a coach in 2004, one of only three men honored twice.