HANG TIME WEST – The reminder came every time he spoke, and still it was hard to imagine.
Bill Sharman, a hard-edged coach? Not a chance. Not such a gentle man who exuded warmth and kindness.
Yes, across the board.
But that voice. Decades later, it was part worn-out rasp, part gurgle of a man straining to be heard and most of all it was a reminder of how much Sharman had given for the game. As coach of the Lakers during the historic 33-game winning streak in 1971-72, he literally screamed himself permanently hoarse. Doctors told him he could do lasting damage if he didn’t rest his voice, Sharman refused to back off and risk an end to the magical run, and so he paid the price.
He was tough, he was endearing, and he was forever. Sharman died Friday morning at age 87 at his home in the Los Angeles suburb of Redondo Beach, six days after suffering a stroke, as more than a basketball great who joined his good friend John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens as the only people to make the Hall of Fame as a player and a coach. He was the man who touched the NBA – and, indeed, all sports – like few others.
Commissioner David Stern was one of the first in the hoops world to voice his condolences Friday.
“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,” 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.”
Roommate of Bob Cousy, teammate of Bill Russell, great shooter as guard, seven-time free-throw champion, one of the important weapons of the Celtics dynasty. Coach of the team with the record winning streak and eventually an NBA title. Lakers general manager who called tails to win the 1979 coin flip for the No. 1 draft pick that became Magic Johnson. Deep roots in both rivals and appreciated by each side. Baseball hopeful who spent five years in the Brooklyn Dodgers system, was called up to the majors late in 1951 and was on the bench when Bobby Thomson hit the Shot Heard ‘Round The World to send the New York Giants to the World Series.
“Bill Sharman with the basketball at the free throw line was a sports work of art,” Jim Murray, the late, great Los Angeles Times columnist, wrote of Sharman in retirement in 1994. ”Ruth with a fastball, Cobb with a base open. Dempsey with his man on the ropes. Hogan with a long par three. Jones with a short putt. Caruso with a high C. Hope in a ‘Road’ movie. Shoemaker on the favorite. Sinatra with Gershwin.
“When it was Sharman at the line, the next sound you heard was swish! It was as forgone as the sun setting.”
Sharman, an eight-time All-Star with the Celtics, also coached the Utah Stars to the 1971 ABA championship. In later years in semi-retirement, he was a regular at the Forum and then Staples Center as a Lakers consultant, filing reports to the front office in a nod by owner Jerry Buss of what Sharman meant to the franchise. (For all the massive player contracts he signed, keeping Walt Hazzard, after his stroke, and Sharman on the payroll long after necessary may have been the ultimate sign of Buss’ generosity.)
“Bill Sharman was a great man, and I loved him dearly,” Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak said in a statement. “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. My love and sympathy go to (wife) Joyce and Bill’s family.”
Said Jeanie Buss, Lakers president and Jerry’s daughter, in the same statement: “Today is a sad day for anyone who loves and cares about the Lakers. As our head coach, Bill led us to our first championship in Los Angeles, and he was an important contributor to the 10 championship teams that followed. For the last 34 years, his importance to Dr. Buss and our family, and for the last 42 years to the Lakers organization, cannot be measured in words. His knowledge and passion for the game were unsurpassed, and the Lakers and our fans were beneficiaries of that. 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. On behalf of our organization, the Buss family, and the entire Lakers family, I send my condolences, prayers and love to Joyce and the Sharman family.”
As the tributes continued to come Friday, Jerry West, one of the stars of the 1971-72 team said “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” and called his former coach “the epitome of class and dignity….” There will be a lot of those reactions in the days ahead and probably into early next week and the season openers from Boston to Los Angeles. Sharman was that well-liked. He was that unique in NBA — and sports — history.