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Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Remembering Bill Sharman, Star Player and Coaching Innovator

Bill Sharman, who is one of only three people elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach (the others are John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens), passed away on Friday October 25 at the age of 87. Sharman led the Washington Capitols in scoring (12.2 ppg) as a rookie in 1950-51 before spending the rest of his 11 season NBA playing career with the Boston Celtics. He annually ranked among the league's elite in a host of categories, including scoring (seven top 10 finishes), free throw percentage (10 top 10 finishes, with a record seven times as the league leader), field goal percentage (six top 10 finishes) and assists (three top 10 finishes). An eight-time All-Star, Sharman played a key role on four Boston championship teams (1957, 1959-61). He was selected to the NBA's Silver Anniversary Team (10 retired players honored in 1971) and the in 1996 he was recognized as one of the NBA's 50 Greatest Players.

After retiring as an NBA player, Sharman became one of the sport's greatest coaches, starting out in 1961 as a player-coach with the L.A. Jets in the short-lived American Basketball League (ABL). The Jets went out of business in the middle of the season and Sharman ended his playing career, joining the ABL's Cleveland Pipers strictly as a coach. Sharman led the Pipers to the 1962 ABL title, much to the delight of an owner who would later become very used to capturing championships--George Steinbrenner. Sharman then coached for a couple seasons at Cal State L.A. before being hired as the coach of the NBA's San Francisco Warriors in 1967. During his two season stint in the Bay Area, Sharman developed a concept that is now ubiquitous in the league: the morning shootaround. In a 2004 ESPN.com article, Charley Rosen explained how Sharman refined this idea:

Sharman pinpoints the origin of the shootaround to the beginning of the 1955-56 NBA season. "I was always very nervous the day of a game," he says. "I'd just walk around the house until it was time to go to the arena. There was a high school gym in the neighborhood, so one morning at about 10 o'clock, I decided to go over there just to dribble around and take a few shots. That night, I felt much looser and quicker than I normally did, and I had a much better shooting touch, too. So I went back to the gym the next time we played. After a while, I developed a routine for myself. I'd take the kinds of shots that I'd normally take during a game, and I kept shooting until I made five in a row from each spot. After a while, some of the other Celtics started coming to the gym with me."

Sharman reports that during his first five seasons in the NBA, he was an 86 percent free-throw shooter. In the five seasons after instituting his morning "shoot," his marksmanship increased to 92 percent.

After his playing days were history, Sharman became the coach of the Los Angeles Jets in the American Basketball League and established the shootaround as part of the club's game-day routine. "Everybody said I was crazy," Sharman remembers. "They especially objected to having a shootaround after playing the night before. They thought the players would be too stiff and too tired and liable to hurt themselves. But what actually happened was that the players were forced to get out of bed and break a sweat, which avoided that logy feeling that they often started a game with. They also developed the visual image and the positive reinforcement of the ball going through the hoop." 

In 1968, Sharman returned to L.A., this time as the coach of the L.A. Stars in the newly founded American Basketball Association (ABA). The Stars moved to Utah for the 1970-71 season and Sharman led the franchise to its first--and only--title.

Sharman jumped back to the NBA for the 1971-72 season, taking over a talent-rich L.A. Lakers team featuring arguably the greatest center, greatest forward and greatest guard in the sport's history (Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West respectively). Degenerating knees forced Baylor to retire after just nine games but the insertion of Jim McMillian into the starting lineup in Baylor's place proved to be the final piece to the championship puzzle: the Lakers roared to a 33 game winning streak--setting a record that still stands--en route to posting a 69-13 record that was not surpassed until the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls went 72-10 (the Bulls also went 69-13 in 1996-97). The Lakers romped through the playoffs, winning 12 of 15 games to capture Chamberlain's second title and West's lone championship.

The 46 year old Sharman seemed to have a glorious coaching future in front of him but in fact his career on the bench was already almost over; he developed some problems with his vocal cords in 1972 and a series of treatments only provided temporary relief before his speaking voice was reduced to a high pitched squeak that made it impossible for him to shout instructions from the sidelines. Sharman retired as the Lakers' coach in 1976, moving into a front office position with the team. If Sharman had been able to stay on the bench then he may very well have been the coach of the Showtime Lakers in the 1980s instead of Pat Riley.

Great players sometimes struggle as coaches because it is difficult for them to relate to players who do not possess superior talent and relentless drive but Sharman excelled as a coaching communicator and innovator. West once said of Sharman, "There's a right coach for the right team and the right personnel. And Bill was certainly the right coach for us."

Perhaps Wooden put it best in his letter of recommendation to the Basketball Hall of Fame: "If Bill Sharman isn't in the Hall of Fame as a coach, no one should be."

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posted by David Friedman @ 11:29 AM

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