Few players are remembered for their shot accuracy as vividly as Bill Sharman is. Sharman helped to define the NBA through his quick, efficient playing and sniper-like accuracy. He was one of the first guards to score above a .400 in field goal percentage in NBA history and still remains possibly the most accurate free-throw shooter of all time with a .883 percentage from the line. His record of seven seasons leading the league in free-throw shooting stands unbroken to this day. Even more remarkable is the fact that he continued to shine as a player while part of arguably the greatest team of all time, winning four championships during his tenure at guard. His coaching history is no less impressive; he won six championships while involved as either coach or manager of the Los Angeles Lakers. If there was one thing Bill Sharman knew how to do, it was win.
One Tough Guy
William Walton Sharman, born May 25, 1926, showed promise as an athlete from a young age at his home in Abilene, Texas. Shortly before high school, he moved to California, where he would earn a solid reputation as a baseball player, basketball player, scholar, and a fighter. Sharman was feared and respected by everyone he met. Jerry West would later recall how Sharman had almost knocked him out in the middle of a game. After shooting and connecting over Sharman’s head a few times, Bill got angry. He took a swing at West, who was only a rookie, while he was shooting. "Bill was tough. I'll tell you this, you did not drive by him. He got into more fights than Mike Tyson. You respected him as a player," West would say after Sharman’s retirement.
After he moved, he was accepted into the University of Southern California in 1946, where he continued to excel. Sharman would become an All-American for basketball and be named the Pacific Coast Most Valuable Player during both his junior and senior years.
As an avid fan of both sports, Sharman was indecisive as to which path to follow. Almost immediately after graduation, he signed a minor league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. When the 1950 NBA draft came around a couple months later, Sharman was picked up by the Washington Capitals. Still unable to decide, he pursued both sports until 1955. Sharman hadn’t broke into the major leagues yet and didn’t want to wait any longer. He abandoned baseball and concentrated solely on his blossoming NBA career.
Sharman got off to a decent start playing for the collapsing Capitals with an average of 12.2 points a game. When the team was abandoned after the season’s end, the Fort Wayne Pistons seized the opportunity to take a risk on the young, inexperienced player. Their gamble never paid off, as Boston Celtics coach Red Auerbach negotiated a trade deal before the season would begin. Boston would receive both Sharman and Bob Brannum in return for the draft rights to Charlie Share. It proved to be an exceptional move.
After a relatively mediocre first year, Sharman began to shine. He led the league in free-throw percentages with .850 and was fourth in field-goal percentages with .436. His 16.2 points a game were also enough to earn him the sport as the sixth best scorer in the league (although it may not seem high by today’s standards, the absence of a shot-clock violation depressed scoring averages dramatically). Next season, he put up similar numbers, again leading the league in free-throws and also improving his field-goal average to .450, the second best in the league to his teammate Ed Macauley. Both seasons Sharman was named to the All-Star team.
The development of a shot-clock rule magnified Sharman’s role on the team. He used his pinpoint accuracy to save the Celtics with his beautifully long shots. During his third straight All-Star appearance, Sharman earned the MVP award by scoring ten points in the fourth quarter and leading the Eastern Division to a win. An average of 18.4 points per game rounded out Sharman’s résumé.
On Top of the World
During the 1955-1956 season, Sharman came to be recognized as the best guard in basketball when he was named to the All-NBA First Team, where he would remain for four years. He led the Celtics in scoring with 19.9 points a game while continuing to lead the league in free-throw shooting and placing in the top five in both scoring and field-goal percentage. With Sharman and Cousy dominating the backcourt, all Boston needed was a big man and a solid rebounder to become a league power. In 1956 their prayers were answered with the addition of Bill Russell. The new, well-balanced Celtics led the NBA that season with a record of 44-28.
Sharman averaged 21.8 points a game and .903 from the foul line in what many consider his career season before heading to the playoffs. His five years in a row leading the league in foul shots is still untouched. Boston rolled over their former antagonist the Syracuse Nationals without losing a game. In the finals, they were heavily favored against the St. Louis Hawks. The series went to a full seven games, ending with a breathtaking double-overtime affair regarded as one of the most dramatic games in NBA history. Boston won the game, and the NBA championship, with no room to breathe, still fighting in the final seconds.
Energized by his victory, Sharman averaged his career-high 22.3 points a game. His free-throw dynasty, however, came to an end when Dolph Schayes averaged .904 to Sharman’s .893 (he would regain his crown the next year, averaged a career-best .932, second all time best season average). Boston would lose the championship in a rematch against an angry Hawks team. This defeat was the only one Boston would suffer for the following nine years.
Early Coaching Jobs
As Boston continued its winning streak, Sharman faded into the background of the team. He was elected into his final, albeit eighth consecutive, All-Star game in 1960 and would retire from the NBA after another season. Sharman played his last professional basketball games as player-coach of the ABL team the Los Angeles Jets, until the franchise collapsed in the middle of the season.
Although done playing, Sharman was far from through with basketball. He coached the Cleveland Pipers to an ABL championship in 1962, but was never given another shot as the league folded the following season. After relatively short stints as a college coach for Cal State-Los Angeles and a sports broadcaster, Sharman returned to the NBA as head coach of the San Francisco Warriors. The players had no idea what they were in for. Sharman played tough, and he coached even tougher.
Unyielding conditioning and austere discipline were the basis of the Warrior’s training camp. A fine system was developed for any disappointment on the court. Although Sharman seemed unreasonable to many of his players, his system worked. His most significant contribution to the coaching world was the development of what he called a “shootaround.” The shootaround was an easy morning practice the day of the game, used in order to prepare both mentally and physically for the contest. Every NBA team, and most college teams, uses the shootaround in their training schedules today.
A Home in Los Angeles
After two years in San Francisco, Sharman moved to take over coaching duties of the American Basketball Association’s Los Angeles Stars. He was named Coach of the Year during his first season after a 43-41 record. The next year, the Stars, who had meanwhile moved to Utah, won the ABA championship with the odds overwhelmingly against them. Unsatisfied with the ABA, he decided to return to the NBA, where he was offered a job as head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers.
The Lakers had made it to the championship seven times since 1960, and had lost every time despite a wealth of talent. With Sharman, the tables were about to turn. He exploded into the NBA coaching scene, winning a record 33 straight games early in the season. The Lakers swept through the playoffs with ease and won their first league title since they had moved to California.
The next few seasons were mediocre, with playoff runs that ended too soon. In 1976, Sharman gave up coaching to become the team’s General Manager. With a keen eye for talent, he played an integral part in obtaining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Irvin “Magic” Johnson. The Lakers won two more championships in 1980 and 1982, largely as a result of Sharman’s influence. He became the club president in 1984, and enjoyed victories in 1985, 1987, and 1988 as the team created the finest dynasty since the Boston Celtics’ dominance that Sharman had contributed to. After the 1988 season he retired for good, but kept his hand in Los Angeles affairs as a special consultant.
"I've been around a lot of coaches but none like him. He's a different type. A remarkable guy. He doesn't miss a thing. He has the ability to get the most out of people. He always sees a bright spot even when things are darkest."
Awards and Honors:
NBA record-holder for most career seasons leading league in free-throw shooting (7)
NBA record-holder for most consecutive seasons leading league in free-throw shooting (5)
Four time NBA Champion with the Boston Celtics
Four time All-NBA First Team
Three time All-NBA Second Team
Eight consecutive years as NBA All-Star
NBA All-Star MVP (1955)
Eight lifetime career championships as coach (6 in the NBA)
NBA 25th Anniversary team (1970)
NBA 50th Anniversary team (1996)
Elected to Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame (1976)
Points per game: 17.8
Field goal percentage: .426
Free throw percentage: .883