LOS ANGELES – Bill Sharman effortlessly straddled both sides of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry, winning championships and making friends from Boston to Los Angeles during a unique basketball career.
Even when he struggled to speak in his later years with a voice worn out from passionate coaching, Sharman remained a beloved mentor and a hoops innovator who saw great success from almost every perspective in more than a half-century in the NBA.
Sharman, the Hall of Famer who won multiple titles both as a player for the Celtics and a coach for the Lakers, died Friday at his home in Redondo Beach, the Lakers announced. He was 87.
Sharman played major roles on both sides of the rivalry as a smooth shooting guard, a disciplinarian coach and a successful executive from the Celtics dynasty’s founding years to the Lakers’ Showtime heyday and beyond. He is also credited with pioneering or promoting now-standard basketball concepts such as the shootaround, pregame scouting reports and extensive use of assistant coaches.
“Bill Sharman was, without a doubt, one of the greatest human beings I have ever met, and one of my all-time favorite individuals, both as a competitor and as a friend,” said Jerry West, who played for Sharman and worked alongside him in the Lakers’ front office. “He was the epitome of class and dignity and, I can assure you, we find few men of his character in this world.”
Sharman won four NBA titles during an 11-season career as a shooting guard in Boston, teaming with Bob Cousy in one of the most potent backcourts in league history. He was widely considered one of the greatest outside shooters of his era, and he’s still ranked as one of the NBA’s best free-throw shooters.
Sharman then spent the past four decades with Los Angeles as a coach and executive. In his first season on the bench, he coached the 1971-72 Lakers to a championship with 69 victories — then an NBA record — and a 33-game winning streak, the longest in pro sports history.
“Be it on the court as a star player for the Boston Celtics, or on the sidelines as the guiding force behind the Lakers’ first NBA championship in Los Angeles, Bill Sharman led an extraordinary basketball life,” NBA Commissioner David Stern said. “More than that, however, Bill was a man of great character and integrity. His loss will be deeply felt. On behalf the NBA family, our thoughts and condolences go out to Bill’s family.”
Sharman was elected to the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1976 and a coach in 2004, joining only John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens with that double distinction. In 1996, he was selected as one of the NBA’s 50 best players of its first 50 years.
“Bill Sharman was a great man, and I loved him dearly,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said. “From the time I signed with the team as a free agent in 1981 when Bill was general manager, he’s been a mentor, a work collaborator, and most importantly, a friend. He’s meant a great deal to the success of the Lakers and to me personally, and he will be missed terribly.”
William Walton Sharman was born May 25, 1926, in Abilene, Texas. He grew up in the Los Angeles area and in the San Joaquin Valley before becoming a star guard at Southern California, where they retired the jersey of the shooter known as “Bullseye Bill” in 2007.
Sharman also excelled in baseball, getting drafted by the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. A year later, the minor leaguer was called up to the Dodgers in time to be in the dugout at the Polo Grounds when the Giants’ Bobby Thomson hit his famed “Shot Heard ‘Round the World,” the homer that beat Brooklyn for the 1951 NL pennant.
He played his first NBA season with the Washington Capitols in 1950-51, but Red Auerbach landed him for Boston after the Capitols folded. Sharman became an eight-time NBA All-Star with the Celtics, averaging 17.8 points and 3.9 rebounds per game in his 11-year career.
The outside shooting specialist excelled after the NBA introduced the shot clock in 1954, and the arrival of Bill Russell and Tom Heinsohn in 1956 propelled the Celtics to the franchise’s first title — the first of four NBA crowns in the next five years for Sharman.
Sharman also played baseball during the NBA offseason for five straight years, but never made it as a major leaguer.
After Sharman retired from the Celtics in 1961, he briefly played and coached in the defunct American Basketball League. When he returned to coach the NBA’s San Francisco Warriors in 1966, he began warming up his players for the evening’s game with a morning shootaround, now standard procedure for most basketball teams.
Sharman moved to the ABA in 1968, coaching the Stars franchise in Los Angeles and in Utah, where he won the 1971 ABA championship. Sharman then took over the Lakers, who had reached seven NBA finals without winning a title since moving from Minneapolis to the West Coast.
With Hall of Fame talents Wilt Chamberlain, West and Gail Goodrich in the lineup, the Lakers immediately clicked under Sharman. They went two months without losing a game during his debut season, setting a record with their 33-game winning streak before steamrolling through the playoffs to a championship, the first of 11 for the Lakers in Los Angeles.
Sharman was tough, fining and disciplining players to keep their attention. He also developed a permanent rasp in his voice, a problem he blamed on years of yelling from the sideline.
“Bill was the best coach I have ever had, and I will miss him greatly,” said Pat Riley, a backup on that team who became the Lakers’ coach during Sharman’s tenure as their general manager.
Sharman was named the NBA’s coach of the year in 1972. Although he kept the Lakers competitive, the retirements of Chamberlain and West precipitated a rebuilding process in 1975 with the arrival of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
Sharman retired from coaching in 1976 to become Los Angeles’ general manager, presiding over owner Jerry Buss’ front office as a GM and team president through the Showtime era. In 1979, Sharman won the coin flip — calling tails — that allowed the Lakers to draft Magic Johnson, who credited Sharman for improving his free throw shooting as a young player.
“Dr Buss always wanted people to know Bill Sharman was the architect of the Laker(s) of the 80’s,” longtime Lakers coach Phil Jackson tweeted. “He will be missed greatly by all who knew him.”
He had been a special consultant for the Lakers for the past 23 years. He stayed active with the Lakers throughout his final years, regularly showing up at team functions to the delight of fans and friends. Sharman had a stroke about one week before his death, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“His knowledge and passion for the game were unsurpassed, and the Lakers and our fans were beneficiaries of that,” Lakers President Jeanie Buss said. “Despite his greatness as a player, coach and executive, Bill was one of the sweetest, nicest and most humble people I’ve ever known. He was truly one of a kind.”
He is survived by his wife, Joyce; their daughters, Nancy and Janice; and sons Tom and Jerry from a previous marriage. Funeral arrangements are pending.