Bill Sharman

 

 

 

http://www.celtic-nation.com/interviews/bill_sharman/bill_sharman_page1.htm

 

THE PERFECTIONIST

By:  Michael D. McClellan

 

His legacy stretches end-to-end across the vast expanse and rich tapestry that is the National Basketball Association, from the cramped gyms and bare knuckle brawls of the 1950s, to the satellite radio, Internet-connected spectacle that the league has become today.  It is a legacy defined by a relentless pursuit of perfection, be it the countless hours spent grooving perhaps the greatest free throw motion the sport of basketball has ever known, or the innovative coaching techniques that later helped his team win an NBA-record 33 consecutive games.  He is a member of the ultra-elite Gang of Three, joining John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens as the only men honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.  He has played a key role in winning 15 championships in three leagues spread over 50+ years of service, ten of them with the two greatest franchises in basketball history.  He has been an All-Star Game MVP, and he has been honored as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History.  He has shared the court with the incomparable Bill Russell, impressed his cage magic upon the Lakers’ very own legendary Magic, and dispensed his championship coaching vision upon the enigmatic Wilt Chamberlain.  His name is Bill Sharman, and few have done it better or longer than the sweet shooting guard with the rugged good looks and the insatiable appetite for perfection.

 

Born in Abilene, Texas, on May 25th, 1926, Sharman spent much of his childhood playing with his older brother and coping with the adversity brought on by The Great Depression.  It was a hardscrabble existence, one in which his parents worked tirelessly to feed and clothe their two young children.  During the early 1930s, the family moved from Texas to Porterville, California in search of a better life and a chance to escape the Dust Bowl conditions that had ravaged much of the Southern Plains.  Once settled in Southern California, Sharman quickly found sports of all kinds to his liking; he was a natural athlete with uncommon coordination, excelling on the baseball diamond and the basketball court.  He had an innate understanding of how to play whatever game struck him at the time, and, with the outcome on the line, he proved himself equally adept at handling the pressure that came along with the big shot or the clutch at-bat.

 

By his junior year at Porterville High School, Sharman had gravitated to – and excelled in – five different sports.  He was so good at basketball and baseball, in fact, that he was able to pursue these dual passions while on full athletic scholarship at the University of Southern California.  Sharman, in many respects, was ahead of his time; he lifted weights and cross-trained vigorously, this in an era when such fitness regimens were hardly a part of the basketball-baseball landscapes, and he obsessed about things such as diet and nutrition.  He was also an aggressive, fearless competitor who rarely backed down from a challenge – or a confrontation.  Jerry West, then a rookie during Sharman’s 11th and final season in the NBA, once hit seven straight jump shots against Sharman, who retaliated with a wild punch that didn’t connect.  West struggled from the field the rest of the game.

 

By 1950, Sharman was an All-American forward at USC, scoring 1108 points in 81 games for a then school-record 13.7 per-game average.  He was selected as the 1950 Trojan team captain and Most Valuable Player, and a season earlier was voted the team’s Most Inspirational Player.  He was also the Pacific Coast Conference MVP two years running.  His talents were coveted by the fledgling NBA, which needed star power to ensure its place among the Big Three of American sports, but Sharman was also generating interest on another front – Major League Baseball.

 

The lure of the National Pastime led Sharman to sign a minor league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Ironically, he saw baseball as his ticket to a career in professional athletics.  It was far more popular on a national scale, with a bigger fan base and extensive media coverage, while pro basketball lagged behind its college equivalent in terms of public support.  To the casual sports fan of the day, the NBA was a league concocted by hockey owners looking for a way to fill their arenas on a consistent basis.  Major League Baseball, on the other hand, was an established league with a rich history that the new basketball league simply couldn’t match.  So Sharman toiled in the Dodgers’ farm system during the summer of 1950, chasing a dream that he hoped would lead directly to the World Series, convinced that he had left his storied basketball career behind him on the USC campus

 

The NBA’s Washington Capitols believed otherwise.  The team drafted Sharman later that year, burning a second round draft choice on a player that, they hoped, would eschew baseball in favor of the sport in which his was most gifted.  Sharman listened to the team’s offer, and then signed a contract.  He was suddenly a two-sport athlete, a year-round player who would change uniforms nonstop until 1955, when it became clear that a Major League baseball career wasn’t going to materialize.

 

Basketball, on the other hand, proved far more rewarding.  Sharman averaged a team-high 12.2 point-per-game during his rookie season with the Capitols, this at a time when NBA games were low-scoring affairs, the shot clock still four years away from changing the game forever.  Washington would fold 31 games into the regular season, and Sharman landed in Fort Wayne following the dispersal draft.  But Sharman never played for the Pistons.  He was traded, along with Bob Brannum, to the Boston Celtics in exchange for the draft rights to Charlie Share.  It was the first of many shrewd transactions by head coach Red Auerbach, who needed a player to help ease the scoring burden shared by Bob Cousy and “Easy” Ed Macauley.

 

In 1951-52, his first season with the Celtics, Sharman concentrated on fitting in with his new teammates.  Cousy and Macauley were clearly the stars, averaging 21.7 and 19.2 points, respectively, and both players proved it by averaging more than 40 minutes-per-game.  Sharman, by contrast, averaged just 22 mpg, but still managed to score 10.7 points per game and shoot .859 from the free-throw line.  Boston finished in second place in the Eastern Division with a 39-27 record, but the lack of a dominant center cost them in the

 

division semifinal series against New York.  It would prove to be a recurring theme for the pre-Bill Russell Boston Celtics – a better than average team, but not good enough to win it all.  Still, the pieces were slowly coming into place, and Sharman was a perfect compliment to Cousy in the Celtics’ backcourt.

 

A season later, Sharman earned Auerbach’s complete trust and found himself rewarded with a more integral role in the Celtics’ fast-break attack.  He averaged 16.2 ppg while playing increased minutes, and captured the first of seven league free-throw crowns.  He was also selected to his first All-Star Game.  The Celtics advanced to the Eastern Division Finals where, for the third straight season, a New York Knick team dispatched them from the playoffs.

 

1953-54 was a near repeat of the previous season.  Boston’s original Big Three produced big numbers, with Macauley leading the league in field goal percentage, Cousy leading the league in assists, and Sharman leading the league in free-throw percentage.  All three were All-Star Game players for the second consecutive season.  Cousy, for his part was named All-Star Game MVP.  Still, the Celtics remained one of the smaller teams in the league, potent on offense but unable to compete with the elite teams on the glass.  Auerbach’s selection of junior-eligible Frank Ramsey offered hope, but only in future seasons.  The Celtics again fell in the Eastern Division Finals, this time 0-2 to the Syracuse Nationals.

 

A new era dawned with the 1954-55 NBA regular season, as the 24-second shot clock placed a new premium on scoring from the perimeter.  Sharman found the new pace to his liking, as his average increased to 18.4 ppg and he once again found himself in the NBA All-Star Game.  This time it was his turn to garner MVP honors – thanks to a brilliant fourth quarter performance that propelled the East to a 100-91 victory over the West at Madison Square Garden.  His third consecutive free-throw crown capped a season of personal highs, proving him to be nearly perfect from the foul line, and his top-ten finish in field goal percentage raised the bar for guards throughout the league.  Another Eastern Division Finals loss, again at the hands of the Nats, ended the Celtics’ season in frustration.

 

 

Auerbach drafted tough man Jim Loscutoff prior to the 1955-56 campaign, and the rookie joined a Celtics team with Sharman in his prime.  Sharman’s 19.9 ppg average was a career-high.  His free-throw crown was his fourth in as many years.  He was again an All-Star, and for the first time in his career he was chosen for the All-NBA First Team.  Despite the breakout season, a semifinals loss to the Nats convinced Auerbach that changes needed to be made if the Celtics were to compete for an NBA Championship.  He would have to break up the nucleus of the team – but who would go?  Cousy was arguably the Celtics’ best player, and easily its most popular.  Sharman was now his All-NBA counterpoint in the backcourt.  That left Macauley, the lithe big man who could do wonderful things on the offensive end of the court, yet found himself wildly overmatched against the game’s goliath’s when it came time to rebound and defend.  So Auerbach and owner Walter Brown concocted what would become the biggest trade in NBA history, offering Macauley and the rights to Cliff Hagan to the St. Louis Hawks for the right to draft Bill Russell.

 

The arrival of Russell, along with fellow rookie Tommy Heinsohn, vaulted the Boston Celtics to a special place among the NBA elite.  Sharman’s 21.1 ppg led the team, earned him a second consecutive All-NBA First Team nod, and cemented his reputation as one of the best shooting guards of his generation.  He was again the league leader in free-throw percentage.  He was an All-Star for the fifth consecutive season.  And, for good measure, he was able to add a monumental achievement to his growing cache of awards and accolades:  Bill Sharman, world champion.  The Celtics, with Russell leading the way, finished the 1956-57 regular season with a 44-28 record and a first place finish in the Eastern Division.  From there, the team purged itself of years of playoff disappointment, reaching the 1957 NBA Finals and winning Game 7 in thrilling fashion.  That double-overtime win against the Hawks not only gave Boston its first title, it launched arguably the greatest dynasty in the history of professional sports.

 

Dolph Schayes ended Sharman’s grip on the free throw crown a season later, and an ankle injury to Bill Russell cost the Celtics a second consecutive NBA title.  Still, Sharman turned in another impressive season-long performance; he helped the Celtics clinch the NBA's best record, at 49-23, while shooting .424 from the field and averaging a career-best 22.3 points-per-game.  He was again an All-NBA First Team selection.  He was also an All-Star.  Baseball was suddenly a distant dream, something that he no longer pursued professionally, and he found himself leading the NBA into a bold new era, one that lifted his sport out of the periphery and into the national consciousness.

 

Sharman averaged 20.4 ppg the following season, his ninth in the league, and he reclaimed his spot as the best free-throw shooter in the league.  He was an All-NBA First Team selection for the fourth and final time in his illustrious career, and he was once again an NBA All-Star.  More importantly, the Celtics were once again world champions, sweeping the Minneapolis Lakers 4-0 and capturing the league crown for the second time in three years.

 

Sharman’s final two seasons in Boston ended with championship rings and crowded parades, as the Celtics dispatched the Hawks on both occasions.  It was also a time of change, as both Cousy and Sharman began to share playing time with two other future Hall of Famers, Sam Jones and KC Jones.  The fabled Celtic Dynasty was in full bloom.

 

Sharman’s 1961 retirement allowed him to return to California, where he was hired to serve as player-coach of the Los Angeles Jets of the American Basketball League.  Sharman appeared in 19 games for the Jets, but retired as a player when the franchise folded at midseason.  He chose to remain in the ABL that year, accepting an offer to coach the Cleveland Pipers.  Ironically, the Pipers were owned by George Steinbrenner, who would later go on to fame as the owner of baseball’s New York Yankees.  Under Sharman's direction, the Pipers won the ABL Championship.  He was named the league’s Coach of the Year.

 

The ABL folded shortly after that 1961-62 championship season, but Sharman was clearly hooked on coaching.  He had played for the fiery Auerbach, one of the best coaches in history, and he had spent much of his time learning what had made Auerbach successful.  So it came as little surprise that, in the summer of 1962, Sharman jumped at the opportunity to become the head coach at Cal State-Los Angeles.  He enjoyed modest success, guiding the team to a 27-20 record over two seasons, before leaving to become a broadcaster.  Two seasons later, Sharman found himself being courted by the San Francisco Warriors.  The timing was perfect.  He felt reinvigorated by the prospect of guiding an NBA franchise, and immediately signed on as the team’s head coach.  The NBA, however, had become a vastly different place than the one he joined in 1950.  He found the modern NBA player difficult to motivate, and unwilling to embrace his regimented approach to conditioning and planning.

 

While Sharman’s two years at San Francisco did not produce a championship, they were highly successful nonetheless.  The Warriors finished 44-37 that first season, and the team finished first in the Western Conference.  Spurred by the play of young stars Rick Barry and Nate Thurmond, San Francisco dispatched both the Lakers and the Hawks to reach the 1967 NBA Finals.  Huge underdogs against the juggernaut Philadelphia 76ers, Sharman nonetheless matched wits with head coach Alex Hannum and stretched the series to six games.   The Sixers, winners of 68 regular season games and loaded with talent such as Wilt Chamberlain, Hal Greer, Chet Walker and Billy Cunningham, closed out the series 125-122 on San Francisco’s home court.  The Warriors would reach the Western Finals a year later, where they would suffer an 0-4 sweep at the hands of the Los Angeles Lakers.

 

After compiling an 87-76 record in San Francisco, Sharman accepted a lucrative offer to become head coach of the Los Angeles Stars of the American Basketball Association.  He led the Stars to a 43-41 record in 1969-70 and was named ABA co-Coach of the Year.  (Along with Denver's Joe Belmont.)  The franchise relocated to Utah a year later, where Sharman guided the team to the 1971 ABA Championship.

 

The following year, Sharman signed on to become head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.  It was a move that didn’t sit well with Boston Celtic patriarch Red Auerbach, who had defined his coaching career by beating the Lakers on the NBA’s biggest stage.  Sharman also had the audacity to enlist another Celtic legend, KC Jones, to work as his assistant coach.  Auerbach grudgingly came to accept the moves, which he viewed as treason, in part because Sharman and Jones had played such big roles in building the Celtic Dynasty.

 

 

It was during this period in his coaching career that Sharman introduced a revolutionary new approach to game-day preparation.  The morning shoot-around, now a universally accepted practice by basketball programs everywhere, was the product of Sharman’s desire to have his players primed to excel at tipoff.  Within three years, nearly every NBA franchise had adopted the practice

 

Losers of seven NBA Finals since moving to Los Angeles in 1960, the Lakers appeared poised to finally end the drought.  The enigmatic Chamberlain was still a dominating presence in the paint, and sharp-shooting Jerry West was in the best shape of his career.  With Gail Goodrich, Happy Hairston and Jim McMillan also in the mix, Sharman sensed that this team might have ingredients needed to win a championship.  His players would prove his intuition right; from November 5th, 1971 until January 7th, 1972, the Lakers would win an NBA-record 33 consecutive games.  Finishing the season at 69-13 – then the best regular-season record in NBA history – Los Angeles stormed through the playoffs and crushed the New York Knicks in the 1972 NBA Finals.  Sharman was recognized for his efforts by being named the 1972 NBA Coach of the Year.

 

New York gained a certain measure of revenge, beating Sharman and the Lakers 4-1 in the 1973 NBA Finals.  Los Angeles’ aging roster continued the team on its slow, downward spiral, and Sharman resigned as head coach following the 1975-76 regular season.  He then moved into the post of general manager, drafting Magic Johnson and presiding over two additional NBA titles.  (1980 and 1982.)  In 1982, Sharman moved into the role of club president.  The Lakers would win three more titles during that span (’85, ’87, and ’88), becoming the first team to repeat as NBA champions since the 1969 Boston Celtics.

 

Sharman retired from the daily grind of management following that 1988 NBA title, staying on as a special consultant to the team.  By then his legacy was secure.  The sweet-shooting perfectionist had engineered a Hall of Fame career as a player for the most decorated franchise in NBA history, and he had followed that act by turning the Lakers into champions six times over.

 

Celtic Nation is honored to bring you this interview.




CELTIC-NATION
You were born on May 25th, 1926, in Abilene, Texas.  Please tell me a little about your childhood; how did the world events of the day shape your life, and what sports did you play growing up?

BILL SHARMAN
Being raised in the 1920s and 1930s, it was hard not to be shaped by the events of the Great Depression.  Times were very tough.  During a big part of the Depression, my folks worked hard to provide for the family and also to avoid being poor.  I grew up with one brother, who was five years older than myself, and we did our best to help out any way that we could.  We had chores – we helped out in the garden, and with the yard work, and whatever else that was needed.

Sports played a very big part of our lives.  They provided a great outlet from the problems of the day, and we played a sport of some sort throughout the year– baseball, basketball and football come to mind.  We were always outside, weather permitting, on a field of some sort.  Either that, or shooting baskets against our barn.  Those were very special times with many fond memories!


 

CELTIC-NATION
You were the captain of your high school team, as well as its leading scorer.  What memories from this period stand out after all of these years?

BILL SHARMAN
During my high school days I was very active in sports.  I went to Porterville High School in Porterville, California, and during my junior and season years I earned letters in five different sports – basketball, football, baseball, tennis, and track.  It was during this time that I gained a true awareness of my passion for sports – although, at that time, playing professional ball of any type was not a part of my imagination.


 

CELTIC-NATION
From 1944-46, you served your country as a member of the U.S. Navy.  Please tell me about this period in your life.

BILL SHARMAN
After I graduated from high school in 1944, I immediately enlisted in the U.S. Navy.  They sent me to signalman school, and then later assigned me to the USS Oceanus Naval warship.  I saw active duty in the Pacific Ocean aboard the Oceanus, which itself stayed active until the war was over.


 

CELTIC-NATION
You played collegiate basketball at the University of Southern California, and in 1950 you were honored as a First Team All-America by the Helms Foundation, The Sporting News, the International News Service, and Colliers.  What was it like to be recognized as one of the best basketball players in the country?

BILL SHARMAN
You are correct; following my senior season at USC, I was fortunate enough to be selected to most of the All-American teams.  It was at that point that I thought I might be drafted, and that I might be lucky enough to play professional sports.

 



CELTIC-NATION
You were selected in the second round of the 1950 NBA Draft, the same draft that produced Earl Lloyd, a fellow teammate and fellow hall-of-famer.  Mr. Lloyd became the first African-American to play in a NBA game with the Washington Capitols.  Please tell me a little about Mr. Lloyd.

BILL SHARMAN
Yes, I was drafted by the Washington Capitols of the NBA – and it was truly a great honor to be selected.  That same year, I also signed a contract to play minor league baseball in the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm system.  I spent the summer of 1950 in the Dodgers’ Class A league, playing for their team in Colorado.  When the season was over, I reported to the Capitols’ training camp in Washington, DC.

At that time I didn’t realize that one of my teammates – Earl Lloyd – would become the first black player to play in an NBA regular season game!  It was a pleasure to get to know him.  I used to drive by and pick him up on the way to practice, and it wasn’t long before we were able to develop a close, lifelong friendship.  And little did we realize back then that we would both be inducted into the basketball Hall of Fame!

 


CELTIC-NATION
The Washington Capitols folded after your first season in the league, and you became the property of the Fort Wayne Pistons.  Red Auerbach engineered a shrewd trade, acquiring yourself and Bob Brannum in one fell swoop.  Please tell me a little about your first season in a Celtic uniform.

BILL SHARMAN
At that time I was still hoping for an active career in professional baseball.  Basketball was something that interested me, but deep down I was convinced that baseball was going to be the sport where I would succeed.  Little did I realize that basketball would become my lifetime career!

I remember missing most of my first Celtics training camp.  As a result, I started the regular season as a substitute off of the bench.  This was the case for the first month or so.  My big break came when I substituted for Bob Donham in a game in Baltimore, and I responded by scoring 42 points.  After that, I became the starting guard alongside of Bob Cousy.  I was the starter for the rest of my ten years with the Boston Celtics.

CELTIC-NATION
You were the MVP of the 1955 All-Star Game.  Please tell me a little about that experience.

BILL SHARMAN
Winning the MVP award in the 1955 NBA All-Star Game, which was held in Madison Square Garden, certainly ranks as one of my all-time career highlights – and remains somewhat unusual in the way that it happened.  As I recall it, the game was very close going into the fourth quarter – and I had only scored 5 points at the time.  But I got hot during the middle of the period, and then scored 10 points near the end of the game.  That was a big reason that we won, and why I was voted  as the All-Star Game Most Valuable Player.

Unbeknownst to me, there was also a lot of irony surrounding what had happened – and Al Cervi, the coach of the East during that game, didn’t talk to me about it until many years later.  He said that he had tried to substitute for me during the fourth quarter, because the game was close and I hadn’t been particularly effective up until that point.  However, before any of the action on the floor was stopped, I had managed to score a couple of quick baskets!  So he decided to call the player back from the scorer’s table – I believe that it was Dick McGuire – and let me finish out the game.  Had there been a dead ball foul or anything to stop the clock, I would have come to the bench and watched the rest of the game with everyone else!


 

CELTIC-NATION
After several seasons of modest success, the Celtics traded “Easy” Ed Macauley to the St. Louis Hawks for the rights to Bill Russell.  The trade provided immediate dividends, as the Celtics won the 1957 NBA Championship.  Please tell me about that thrilling seven game series win over the Hawks.

BILL SHARMAN
It seems like the trade the Boston Celtics made to acquire Bill Russell was probably the biggest and most prolific deal ever made in the history of the NBA.  The Celtics won 11 championships because of Russell, and the St. Louis Hawks won their only championship with Ed Macauley and Cliff Hagan, whom they received in the deal.

I had the unique perspective of playing for the Boston Celtics in those years leading up to the trade for Russell.  I know, firsthand, how we struggled underneath the basket, and how other teams in the NBA would pound away at us – especially in the playoffs.  We just didn’t have any size.  We couldn’t intimidate our opponents.  We were a good offensive team, but we just didn’t rebound especially well.  All of that changed with Russell.  He gave us the piece that had been missing, the piece that put us over the top.  Macauley was a fine player in his own right, but he just wasn’t very big.  He was thin and he couldn’t put on weight, no matter how hard he tried.  [Team owner] Walter Brown loved him, but he knew that the Celtics weren’t going to win a championship unless something changed.  Ed was from St. Louis, and he had a very sick son that needed constant medical attention.  So, when Red and Walter Brown approached Ed about the trade to St. Louis, he was very receptive to the possibility.  He could live in St. Louis all year long, and be there to help take care of his son.  It really worked out the best for all parties involved.

The series between the Celtics and the Hawks was very special for me.  It was my first championship, and the seventh game – played in the Boston Garden – went into double-overtime.  The Hawks had Macauley and Hagan, and they also had the great Bob Pettit.  I remember that Bob Cousy and myself struggled to hit shots in that game, which was uncharacteristic of us.  It was just one of those days where we were both out of synch, so we had to find other ways to help the team.  And I remember Bill Russell and Tommy Heinsohn, both rookies that season, having great games.  Tommy scored 37 points and pulled down 23 rebounds.  Russell rebounded and had several big blocks.  It was a great win, and a thrill to be a part of it!


 

CELTIC-NATION
You just mentioned the late Walter Brown.  Please tell me a little about him.

BILL SHARMAN
Walter Brown was one of the nicest, kindest people that I have ever known.  He was a true sportsman, and a true gentleman.  He invested just about every dollar he had to help keep the NBA from going under – and I was also told that he even lost money during some of those championship years, just to help keep the league and its players happy.  Plus, he was one of the key founders of the NBA, and without him the league might have gone under during the early stages.
 

 

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
You are still regarded as one of the greatest free throw shooters of all-time.  What was the key to your success at the foul line?

BILL SHARMAN
Hard work and proper technique.  It all began when my father nailed a basketball hoop on one of our barns in the backyard.  And that’s where I’d be most of the time, at least when I didn’t have other family functions or duties which needed my attention.  Also, I was very fortunate to start shooting the basketball with the basic fundamentals at a very early age – and, not coincidentally, that’s when I found my love and passion for basketball.  That, along with a lot of hard work, training, and proper coaching as I grew older.

When I played for the Boston Celtics and we went out onto the court, the first thing I did was get to the free throw line and I’d shoot until I made three or four in a row.  If I couldn’t do that, then I wasn’t going to walk away from the foul line.  It was that important for me to establish a consistent shooting motion.  I wanted my mechanics to be as close to perfect as possible.  And then, at halftime, I‘d go out and repeat the process.  The image of the ball going into the hoop was very powerful.  It gave me confidence that, in a game situation, I could step to the line and repeat what I had practiced.  It really helped me.

Today, I just don’t see the same commitment to converting free throws.  In my opinion, the focus has gone to the other aspects of the game – especially dunking.  Players tend to concentrate on the flashy moves or the powerful dunk, and they don’t spend the time needed to become a very good free throw shooter.  In fact, I see players today who come out for the pre-game shoot-around and don’t practice free throw shooting!


CELTIC-NATION

In Boston, your backcourt mate was the incomparable Bob Cousy.  Please tell me a little about Mr. Cousy.

BILL SHARMAN
I’ve often said, and I’ll say again, that Bob Cousy was the ultimate playmaking in the NBA during his era.  He initiated many new passes and dribbles that would later be copied by most of the great players in the league for many years to come.  He was also one of the main reasons that basketball became so popular in America – and the entire world!


 

CELTIC-NATION
Please tell me about the great Red Auerbach.  What was it like to play for him, and what impact did he have on your coaching career?

BILL SHARMAN
Red had a very big influence on my coaching.  He was ahead of his time in many respects, because, when I played for him, the fast break wasn’t really used to attack opposing defenses.  This was especially true in the years leading up to the shot clock.  During those years, the pace of a game was much slower.  Red became a disciple of the fast break after playing college ball for [former George Washington University head coach] Bill Reinhart.  He took it a step farther.  He ran the fast break all of the time, pushing the ball up the court in order to find a defensive guy out of position.  The goal was to find a weakness in the defense and to get the quick pass and the easy shot – usually a layup.  It became a very big weapon.

It really helped having a guard like Bob Cousy to push the ball up the court and make the outstanding pass.  And Bill Russell, he was the one who really got it going.  He would grab a big rebound and make the outlet pass, or he would block a shot to one of his teammates, and then he would take off down the floor and make sure that he was in on the action.  Having those two really made it work.  The rest of us ran the floor, got into position to take the shot, and helped things along.

I should mention that conditioning was a very big part of what made Red’s fast break so successful.  The Celtics were always the most well-conditioned team in the league.  We were running from the first day of training camp, and it continued until Red was convinced that we were in better shape than everyone we played.  That’s why the Celtics were always able to get off to a good start.


 

CELTIC-NATION
Those Celtic teams were famously close-knit.  How did Red foster such a positive environment?

BILL SHARMAN
Professional basketball was much different at that time.  Red didn’t have to contend with free agency, and he was able to set the rules for the team to follow.  If a player didn’t buy into Red’s philosophy, then that player wasn’t in Boston for very long.  He would find himself playing for another team.  Red brought in guys that had talent, but they also really cared about winning and getting along.  It was like a family.  We were with each other so much that it wouldn’t have worked out if we weren’t close.  We were together for five or six months out of the year.  We would go barnstorming in the preseason.  We had so much fun and made many great memories!  Even today, I count some of my best friends as those that I played with in Boston.  Bob Cousy, Frank Ramsey, Tommy Heinsohn – we won titles together, which was very special, but we’ve also remained lifelong friends.  That makes it even more wonderful.


 

CELTIC-NATION
You won four championships as a player with the Boston Celtics.  Does one of them stand out above the others?

BILL SHARMAN
That first championship in 1957, against the St. Louis Hawks.  It was special because it was the first, and because some of us had struggled with the team in the years leading up to that moment.  It was a great thrill to win it in the Boston Garden, in front of the home fans, and to do it in that dramatic, double-overtime Game 7.  It was such an exciting time for us all!

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Following retirement, you became the head coach of the ABL Cleveland Pipers, owned by none other than George Steinbrenner.  Here is what Mr. Steinbrenner had to say about you:  ‘I gave Bill Sharman his first head coaching job with the Cleveland Pipers.  He and I were on the same page from day one.  He believed in baiting the referees and he believed in winning.’  Please tell me a little about Mr. Steinbrenner.

BILL SHARMAN
I honestly didn’t know much about him when I got the job.  I did know that he had a reputation for being difficult – I had heard he was tough on people.  Fortunately, we were having a good year and he was very charming.  If you lose, I don’t see him as being the type who is charming [laughs].  I enjoyed my experience working for Mr. Steinbrenner.  We were able to win the ABL championship that year, and I was named Coach of the Year.  It really motivated me to pursue a career as a head coach.

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
As a coach, you were truly an innovator.  You are widely credited with implementing the game day shoot-around, something that is practiced universally today.

BILL SHARMAN
The idea started when I was a player with the Boston Celtics, because I tended to be high-strung – I was very impatient from a competitive point-of-view, you might say.  Anyway, it just seemed to me like each game day would take a week to arrive, even though it might only be a day or two.  Maybe it was because I was always so full of nervous energy!

So, I'd go to an empty gym – usually at a high school in Needham, which is where I lived during the season, and just shoot.  I noticed that I felt better afterwards, and that I had much more confidence during the game on those nights.  That’s when I started charting my shooting percentages from the field and also from the free throw line, and, to my surprise, I discovered that I was more effective when I shot baskets on the morning of a game.  Just look at the proof:  My first five years in the league, I shot about 86 percent from the free throw line.  The second five, with loosening up during the day, I shot 92 percent.

 



CELTIC-NATION
After winning four championships with the Celtics as a player, you won an NBA championship (and earned Coach of the Year honors) with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972.  What was it like to coach the great Jerry West, and what did it mean to you to win a title as coach of the Lakers?

BILL SHARMAN
Coaching Jerry West was a dream come true.  I had played against him when I was Celtic – he was a rookie during my last year in the league – and I knew that he was going to be something special.  He had a brilliant basketball mind, and he had all of the physical tools to be a star.  So, for me, it was an honor to actually coach someone who had the ability and who wanted to win so badly.

You have to remember, Jerry was approaching the end of his career, and he wanted a championship very badly.  He had been to the NBA Finals on many occasions, only to be turned away by Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics.  Seeing Jerry finally win that championship after all of those years of frustration – that was a very special moment, and one that I will never forget.

 

 

 

CELTIC-NATION
Wilt Chamberlain was renowned for his basketball prowess, especially on the offensive end of the floor.  He was also something of an enigma, a player who seemed to disappear in the big games.  As a coach, how were you able to get the best out of Wilt?

BILL SHARMAN
It was a challenge, for sure.  As a coach, I recognized his importance to what the Lakers were trying to do, and I knew that we needed Wilt if we were going to reach our goal of winning a world championship.  This doesn’t take anything away from the other players on the team – Jerry West was one of the best to ever step on the court, and just a magnificent basketball player.  So intelligent!  Gail Goodrich was his backcourt mate, and he was one of the most talent guards in the league.  Both are in the Hall of Fame.  But I knew that, if we were going to win it all, Wilt Chamberlain was going to be the key.  We needed his presence under the basket.  Happy Hairston was going to grab his share of rebounds, but Wilt was still one of the most dominant centers in the league.  So I worked hard at motivating him and keeping him involved – it became a game that we played between ourselves.  I'd just keep asking Wilt questions about strategy until he came up with the right answer.  Then I'd play to his ego; I’d tell him how smart he was, and what a great idea he'd come up with [laughs].  Thinking that every important strategy was his, that he had ownership of the decision-making process, Wilt then went out on the court and played a championship brand of basketball.


 

CELTIC-NATION
And what about those morning shoot-arounds?  Did Wilt and the rest of the Lakers buy into it?

BILL SHARMAN
A lot of players actually liked it – Jerry West and Gail Goodrich in particular.  Jerry really took to the idea.  He said that it made a lot of sense for him, because, like me, he was the nervous sort on games days.  But without naming names, not everyone bought into it.  Surprisingly, Wilt wasn’t one of them.

The summer before the season started, I contacted each player and explained the concept of the game-day shoot-around.  I was able to get in touch with everyone on the team except for Wilt, who was in Europe at the time and didn't get back to Los Angeles until a week before the season started.  So, I asked him to join me for lunch so that I could see him on the idea.  As I recall, I was wearing a sweat suit with no pockets and I had forgotten my wallet!  It was a horrible feeling; here I was – I had invited Wilt out to convince him of something that I felt was very important to the team’s success,  and he was going to have to pay for lunch.  Thankfully, it worked out.  He said, 'Bill, you know I don't like getting up early, but let's try it and if it helps the team.  If it does, then, I'll go along with it.’  And to my recollection, Wilt only missed two shoot-arounds all year long, and both times he was gracious enough to call me.  I think he bought into the philosophy, especially after we started winning.  That was a great selling point.

 


CELTIC-NATION

The Lakers steamrolled the league during that 1971-72 regular season, finishing with a 69-13 record that included a history-making 33-game winning streak, which still stands as the longest winning streak in the history of major American professional team sports.  Please tell me a little about that unbelievable winning streak.

BILL SHARMAN
We were nine games into the regular season, and Elgin Baylor had just announced his retirement from the NBA.  We weren’t concerned with setting records or breaking records at that point, we just wanted to win the game that was in front of us.  That was our solitary focus – getting that first one.  Then, we focused on winning the next game.  Our goal wasn’t to go out and break the record for most consecutive wins – at the time I wasn’t sure what the record was, to be completely honest with you.  I only learned that it was Milwaukee, with 20, after our streak reached 18.  It was special to go for more than two months and not lose a game, but for me it was more special to win the championship.  If we had set the record and then fallen short of our goal, which was an NBA title, then I don’t think the record would have had the significance that it enjoys today.



 

CELTIC-NATION
You are one of only three people, along with John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens, to be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach.  What does this recognition mean to you?

BILL SHARMAN
What a wonderful, wonderful honor.  I'm in such great company to be included with John and Lenny.  It's really something that I will cherish, because being inducted into the Hall of Fame is the greatest honor that this profession can bestow.  I was very humbled when I was inducted as a player, in 1976, and this is makes it all the more special.  I am being recognized for what I have accomplished as a teacher of the game.  I always took great pride in that.


 


CELTIC-NATION

Final Question:  You’ve achieved great success in your life.  You are universally respected and admired by many people, both inside and outside of the NBA.  If you could offer one piece of advice on life to others, what would that be?

BILL SHARMAN
Work hard and be honest, alway
!

 

 

 

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