[Former Boston Celtic great Bill Sharman DID make the cut for the NBA’s 75th anniversary team. (The top item that appeared in my Google search gave me a bum steer—and didn’t list him!). But Sharman also had a profound influence on the brand of basketball on tap during the NBA’s 75th season remains indisputable. A quick example. Most people think the ABA is the source of today’s obsession with the three-point shot. And that’s true. The ABA did it. But where did the ABA cook up the idea for the three-point “home run”? Bill Sharman. He was a valued consultant very early in the ABA’s formative meetings, and Sharman remembered from coaching in the American Basketball League that the ill-fated circuit used something called a three-point line. Sharman liked the innovation and encouraged his ABA friends to give it a whirl. He said all the 20-plus-foot bombs raining down on the court would open up the game, speed up the action, and carve out a special niche for the little guys to excel. Man was he right.
Despite Sharman’s major contributions to the pro game, his memory is starting to fade just nine years after his passing. That’s a shame. That’s also why it’s about time that we take a look back at Sharman the Player in this long, but well-written, retrospective. It’s from the great Dick Kaplan, better known for his poetics on fielding baseballs.
Kaplan’s article appeared in the February 1965 issue of SPORT Magazine. That’s four years after Sharman hung up his Chuck Taylor’s. It’s also not long before he took his inevitable leap into pro coaching, which he helped change for the better, followed by his front-office duties for the Los Angeles Lakers. As an evaluator of talent and trades, Sharman had a Midas Touch second to none.]
Al Cervi glanced up at the Madison Square Garden clock, then look down his bench. “Cooz,” he said, “get in there for Bill.”
Bob Cousy slid off his warm-up jacket and reported to the scorer’s table. He knelt in front of it, waiting for a chance to enter the game. The date was January 18, 1955. The event was the fifth annual East-West All-Star Game of the National Basketball Association.
With 10 minutes left, the East, coached by Cervi of Syracuse, trailed the West, 75-74. The East backcourt combination—Bill Sharman of the Boston Celtics and Dick McGuire of the New York Knicks—seemed to be faltering. Especially Sharman. The great Boston guard had scored five points in the first half, but only one foul shot in the second. His famous shooting touch seemed to have fled.
As Cousy knelt, watching and waiting, Sharman took a pass from McGuire and drove across the keyhole, moving from left to right until he received a momentary screen from center Neil Johnston of the Philadelphia Warriors. That moment of freedom was all Sharman needed. Ten feet from the basket, he scored on a quick one-hand jump shot.
“East field goal by Sharman,” boomed the Garden public address announcer. “East leads, 76-75.” Cousy still knelt in front of the scorer’s table.
Andy Philip regained the lead for the West with a long outside shot, and now McGuire was bringing the ball down. Again, he fed Sharman. Again, Sharman sliced down the middle. Again, he found a hiding place behind Johnston’s bony barricade. And again, he spun a soft jump shot into the basket.
“East field goal by Sharman,” droned the public address man. “East leads, 78-77.” Cousy still knelt by the scorer’s table, but now Cervi was improvising, changing his strategy quickly to take advantage of Sharman’s hot hand. “Not for Bill,” Cervi shouted to Cousy. “Go in for McGuire.”
Cousy did, and seconds later, Sharman sank a foul shot. Then he pumped in a jump shot and a push shot. The East went on to win the game easily, 100-91, as Bill packed 15 points into 18 minutes of play, 12 of them pressure points. The writers covering the game had already voted Jim Pollard of the West as the game’s most valuable player, but they took another poll and gave Sharman the MVP award.
That game is as good a way as any to remember William Walton Sharman—doing what he did supremely well during his 11 years in professional basketball. Bill Sharman was not the smoothest, flashiest guard in the NBA; Bob Cousy was. And at 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, Sharman scarcely overpowered people physically. Yet for four consecutive years, he was a first-team All-League selection—and the highest scorer on a championship team known for its high scoring. He was the first backcourt man in NBA history to average more than 22 points per game—before the 24-second clock accelerated the pace up of scoring and cheapened the value of each field goal—and he was also the greatest foul-shooter basketball has ever known.
“Sharman,” said coach Red Auerbach of the Celtics, “is the greatest shooter from the backcourt the game has ever seen.”
“Sharman,” said Eddie Gottlieb, former owner of the Warriors, “must be listed with the all-time greats, if only for his shooting ability.”
What made Sharman’s shooting so remarkable was its purity. He shot with almost robot-like precision, his style so polished and precise that it seemed like an illustration for a book on how to play basketball. Strangely, for all his reputation as a never-miss, he was not considered a particularly dangerous [long] outside shooter. Unlike Cousy, who could wreck you with seemingly reckless one-handers from near midcourt, Sharman’s maximum scoring range was about 20 feet; he rarely attempted a shot from beyond that perimeter. Inside it, he was almost invincible. His career field-goal percentage was 42.3, making him the deadliest shooting guard of his era.
Perhaps the best description of Sharman’s shooting style was given in 1956 by sports announcer and former NBA star Bud Palmer. “Few people may notice it,” Palmer reported, “but one of Bill’s greatest assets is his big hands. He seems to caress the ball every time he handles it. Bill also has great fingertip control which, in the act of shooting, allows him to retain control of the ball at a point where most players have already let it go. This is known as ‘full extension.’ Those extra seconds Bill controls the ball give him a better line to the basket. He almost seems to hate to let go of the ball, and when he does, he has perfect follow-through.
“Like most pros, Bill puts backspin on the ball. The reason is that it helps the trajectory to the basket and cuts down air current resistance. Sharman has a very soft shot, too; it seems to hit the rim with the impact of a snowflake.”
Sharman himself thinks that good shooting is part natural ability, part hard work. He began shooting baskets in his backyard at the age of six. But his own “method” swims against the mainstream of current coaching.
Most basketball coaches instruct their players to aim for the front rim. Sharman disagrees. And he’s documented his novel-approach in a new book called Sharman on Shooting. “I tell kids to aim for the back rim,” he says, “ideally, a spot in the middle of the rim farthest away from you as you shoot. Why? Well, I’ve found that most shots are missed ‘short,’ because players get tired. Their shots start bouncing off that front rim. But if you shoot for the back rim, you get three factors working for you:
“First, most players shoot with backspin. If a backspinning ball hits the front rim, it skids away. But if it hits the back rim, the English practically forces it into the basket.
“Second, if you overshoot and miss the back rim, you still have a chance for a cheap basket. The ball can bank in off the backboard. And if you undershoot the back rim, why, you have two points a lot of the time.
“Third, the rim of the basket has an 18-inch diameter; the basketball, about nine inches—go measure it if you don’t believe me. So, if you shoot for the near rim, you have a nine-inch margin for error.”
This may sound scholarly and complicated, but Bill did it all in the wink of an eye. Bob Cousy used to marvel at Sharman’s shooting speed. “All he needs is a half-inch of daylight on a ‘pick’ for his quick jumper,” Cousy would say. “Bill just goes straight up and has near-perfect synchronization with his soft shot, never playing the backboard.”
Bill’s ability to connect on that unstoppable jumper was an important part of the Celtics’ play pattern—a pattern that enabled the team to become the Yankees of basketball. Boston’s opponents would know what was coming, but could not stop it. The pass would go from Cousy into the pivot. Sharman would cut by, usually from left to right, get behind a pickoff and shoot. If the screen failed to materialize, or if the defender thought past it, Bill would go to the baseline and use more of a fallaway jump shot. He had such faith in his jump shot that he often used it instead of a layup.
Some rivals miffed by their failure to stop Sharman’s deceptively simple shots, sniffed that he was the worst of all basketball pariahs, a “gunner.” Once upon a time, that was a fighting word to Bill. He felt it was unfair, inaccurate, and ignorant. He still doesn’t like to be called a gunner, but he will accept the description—with important modifications.
“If gunner means shooter,” he says, “I guess I was a gunner. The reason the word used to bug me is that people would mean I was a selfish guy who wanted to hog the ball. Look, Red Auerbach gave each of us a major responsibility. Russell had to rebound. Cousy set up the plays. Loscutoff screened. Ramsey was the swingman. Heinsohn and I shot. I was never a good ballhandler. I played forward in high school and college, and I never got to bring the ball down or do much feeding. But on the Celtics, we had the greatest passer in the world—Cooz. I could concentrate on shooting. A shooter is paid to shoot. He helps the team by shooting. So, I shot.”
As a star shot-maker, Bill got special attention from the best defensive players the opposition had: Richie Guerin of the Knicks, Paul Seymour of the Nationals, and Bob Davies of the Royals. Since each of these men knew how heavily Sharman relied on getting good position within his shooting zone, he had more than his share of bruises and angry words. Compactly built, with muscular arms, wide shoulders, strong legs—and a combative spirit—Bill did not back away from trouble.
“You have to show them you’re not going to let them push you out of the league,” he once said. “I could name some players who were pushed out of this league because they wouldn’t fight back.”
Sharman fought back, and before long had a reputation for being as quick and accurate with his fists as he was with the shots. As a result, a lot of stories have cropped up about his fighting ability—some of them accurate, most of them exaggerated. One tale stands out; it is so funny you wish it were true. It goes this way:
One night, Sharman and Ron Sobie of the Knicks were bumping and shoving each other for position. After one hard collision, so the story goes, Sobie turned and said, “Sorry, Bob.” To which Sharman is supposed to have replied, “Who’re you calling Bob? My name is Bill.” At which point Sobie reportedly socked what’s-his-name right in the jaw.
This anecdote recurs in Sharman-iana, only sometimes the opponent is Richie Guerin of the Knicks. Sharman, who would like to forget his fights, swears he cannot remember this particular Bob-Bill bit. “The nearest I can get to it,” he says, “is that once the Celtics were playing an exhibition game against the Lakers in some small New England town. The announcer introduced me as ‘Bob Sharman,’ and Hot Rod Hundley of the Lakers got on me pretty good. He said, ‘You really must be big around here, Sharman, they barely know your name.’ A few minutes later, though, the announcer introduced Hot Rod as ‘Red Hundley,’ so he kept his mouth shut after that.”
Bill does, however, distinctly remember squaring off with Guerin. It happened after Richie unintentionally clipped Sharman with the back of his head. Sharman rushed Richie, fists clenched, but Guerin beat him to the punch with an overhand right high on the head. Alas for the Knicks, he swung well but not wisely. Richie not only got hit back, but later discovered that he had broken his thumb on Sharman’s skull.
There were other scuffles, too. Sharman does not deny busting Andy Philip’s nose as a reprisal against what he felt was overly energetic guarding. And he most assuredly did knock 6-foot-10 Noble Jorgenson into the stands after Jorgenson kept clouting him on the head, thinking it was the ball.
Despite all this careful attention, nobody really stopped Sharman. He had some wonderful scoring nights: 42 points against Baltimore in 1952, 41 against the Lakers in 1957, and his high of 44 against the Knicks, also in 1957. And in 1958, he took 19 shots one evening and made 16 for a shooting percentage of 84.2—against the Knicks, who else?
But 84.2 percent wouldn’t satisfy Sharman when it came to shooting fouls. Because if there was one thing that he did better than making field goals, it was making fouls. Consider:
Bill led the NBA in foul shooting seven times between 1953 and 1961. During the 1958-59 season, his percentage was an incredible 93.2—the all-time league record. He sank 342 out of 367 foul attempts. Sharman also holds the second (92.1) and third (90.5) best marks. His career average, 88.3, set still another NBA record.
On four different occasions, Bill went off on long foul-shooting accuracy streaks. In 1956-57, he established the league’s regular-season record by sinking 55 in succession. Then, under playoff pressure in 1959, he made 56 straight. Twice he had 50 in a row, and once, after missing his 51st attempt, he proceeded to make 29 more for a total of 79 out of 80.
Sharman believes that his very [unique] skill from the line made him even better. “When I was a sophomore at USC,” he says, “I had a perfect season shooting fouls. I made 18 out of 18. It was the first time that had ever been done in the Pacific Coast Conference, so the Los Angeles newspapers made a big story out of it. Suddenly, everybody was watching my foul shooting, and I began to work even harder on it.”
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and when Bill’s streak was broken the following season, he discovered the high price of glory. “People thought something was the matter with me. I suppose they expected me to make every shot.”
Bill Sharman was born in a town famed for straight shooting—Abilene, Texas—on May 25, 1926. When he was two years old, however, his family moved to Porterville, California, in the state’s lush Central Valley. In high school, Bill was a superb all-round athlete—a 15-letterman. He was captain and fullback on the football team; high scorer on the basketball team; an outstanding pitcher and first baseman on the baseball team; Central California tennis champion; a shot putter, discus- and javelin-thrower, and hurdler on the track team; an excellent weightlifter—and an amateur boxer who never lost a fight.
Occasionally, Sharman’s sports got in each other’s way. For example, one spring day in 1944—his senior year at Porterville High—Bill won the shot put and discus in a morning track meet and ran third in the hurdles; won the San Joaquin Valley tennis title early in the afternoon; and pitched Porterville to a baseball victory to finish the day.
Bill’s career gears began to shift during five days in May 1944. His week went like this:
May 25: his 18th birthday.
May 26: graduation from high school.
May 27: won a big tennis tournament.
May 28: married Porterville cheerleader Illeana Bough.
May 29: was drafted into the US Navy.
Sharman served as a signalman on the destroyer repair ship Oceanus and was en route to the Philippines when Japan surrendered. Right after VJ-Day, he got to play some basketball, leading a Navy team to victory in an interservice tournament held in the Chinese port of Shanghai. Bill scored 36 points in the championship game.
When he came home after eight months and got his discharge, Sharman enrolled as a pre-dental student at Southern Cal in the fall of 1946. The G.I. Bill of Rights helped—and so did an athletic scholarship—but with a wife and infant son to support, it wasn’t enough. Both he and Illeana earned extra money by playing bit parts in Hollywood spectacle movies.
“It was worth $15.56 a day, Screen Actors Guild scale, when we worked,” Illeana Sharman says, “but we could never spot ourselves in a movie after it came out. We were always part of a big mob scene.” (Actually, Bill did have speaking roles in a few movies, among them The Egyptian and The Bob Mathias Story. He also served as Stewart Granger’s stand-in in a forgettable jungle epic called Green Fire. The job called for Sharman to be chased through the underbrush by a leopard. “They told me the leopard was tame,” he recalls, “but I wondered if they had told the leopard. He had teeth this long.”)
It was easy to spot Bill at USC, though. As a basketball player, he made the All-America team in his senior year, 1950. His 15.4-point college scoring average doesn’t impress by today’s standards, but Sharman played on a ball-control team that took only sure shots and kept the score down. Even so, he broke the conference single-season scoring record held by the great Hank Luisetti of Stanford.
As a baseball player, Sharman showed major-league potential. He played right field for Southern Cal and led the Trojans to the Pacific Coast Conference championship as a junior. The following year, he was leading the league in home runs and runs-batted-in when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers for $15,000 ($12,000 bonus, $3,000 salary) and immediately was dispatched to Pueblo of the Class-A Western League.
At the time, Sharman considered baseball his primary sport, yet with considerable foresight, kept basketball in the picture. Ordinarily, professional baseball contracts stipulate the man cannot play another sport unless the baseball club agrees to let him. But Sharman, aware that he was also the No. 1 draft pick of the Washington Capitols of the old Basketball Association of America, insisted that the Dodgers waive their right to rule out basketball.
Sharman had a good rookie season with Pueblo, batting .288. But after the season was over, he decided to try basketball and reported to the Caps. In midseason, however, the Washington franchise folded for lack of patronage. Bill’s contract was assigned to the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons, but he went back to California to rest up for baseball.
The Boston Celtics got the negotiation rights to Sharman from Fort Wayne, in exchange for 6-foot-11 center Chuck Share, and their salary offer of $12,000—remarkable for a relatively untried player—persuaded Bill to come with them for the 1951-52 season. The Celtics already had a great young playmaker in Bob Cousy, and now they had the executioner who could turn Cousy’s passes into baskets.
Cousy remembers Sharman’s first game vividly. “He got 19 points, 17 in the last period. He threw in eight shots in a row. It was the best shooting I’d ever seen.”
Meanwhile, things weren’t going nearly so well in baseball. Between 1950 and 1955, Sharman rattled around the Dodgers’ minor-league farm system—Pueblo, Elmira, Fort Worth, St. Paul, Mobile. Wherever he went, Bill played well, but there seemed to be no room at the top. The Dodgers were well provisioned with good outfielders (Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, and Andy Pafko) and had plenty of fine young players.
“I wouldn’t have minded if they had traded me,’ Sharman says. “I know the [Washington] Senators once tried to buy me. But Brooklyn wouldn’t sell me—or bring me up.”
Bill did finally make it to the Dodgers. Hardly anybody recalls it, but he was with the club the day Bobby Thompson hit his pennant-winning home run in 1951. “I was with Fort Worth,” Sharman says, “and toward the end of the season, Buzzie Bavasi, the Dodger general manager, called me. He said he was bringing me up for a look. ‘I know you’ve always wanted to play in the majors,’ he told me. ‘Well, we’ve got a big lead, and after we clinch the pennant, Charley Dressen will let you play. He wants to rest Snider for the World Series.”
But when Sharman arrived, the Dodgers’ 13 ½-game lead over the Giants had melted to eight. Bill laughs when he thinks of how frustrating it was. “Dressen would come over to me in the dugout and say, ‘Now, Bill, if the next guy gets on, you go up to hit for the pitcher.’ Or, ‘If we get this run in from third, I’ll put you in for defense.’ But that next guy never got on and that run never got home from third—and I never got into a big-league game.”
Still, Sharman does have one rare distinction. To the best of his knowledge, he’s the only man who never played a major-league game, but got thrown out of one. It happened late in 1951. Umpire Frank Dascoli called a Boston Brave runner safe at the plate. It was a very close play and a very big run, so catcher Roy Campanella protested bitterly. Dascoli threw him out of the game. When players on the Dodgers bench kept riding him, Dascoli marched over and imperiously cleared the dugout. “I never opened my mouth,” Sharman says, “but out I went with the other guys.”
As the 1953, 1954, and 1955 baseball seasons passed, it became increasingly apparent to Sharman that he was not climbing the tree that grew in Brooklyn; instead, he was buried in the bushes. In 1955, Bill was assigned to the Dodgers’ top farm team, the St. Paul Saints of the Triple-A American Association. In August, with Jackie Robinson and George Shuba hurt, the Dodgers were using infielder Junior Gilliam in left field. All the while, Sharman was hitting over .300 at St. Paul. Still, no summons came from Brooklyn.
At the end of the 1955 season, Sharman quit baseball. The effect on his basketball playing was immediate and startling. Sharman averaged 10.2 points per game in 1951-52, his first year with the Celtics. But with the physical drain of baseball behind him, his scoring improved sharply: 16.2 points per game in 1952-53; 16.0 points in 1953-54; 18.4 in 1954-55; 19.9 in 1955-56; 21.1 in 1956-57; 22.3 in 1957-58; 20.4 in 1958-59; 19.3 in 1959-60; and 16.3 in 1960-61, his last year as an active player. When he retired, he had a 17.8-point career scoring average and ranked fifth among the NBA’s all-time scorers; as the season began, he was eighth.
Despite the individual brilliance of Sharman, Cousy, and Ed Macauley, the Celtics never won a championship—until the 1956-57 season. Then along came big Bill Russell. He got Boston the ball, and the Celtics won the league title for the first time, beating the St. Louis Hawks, 125-123, in the final seconds of the seventh playoff game, which went into double overtime.
“To me,” says Bill, “that was the biggest charge I ever got out of sports. I remember those last couple of seconds. We led by a bucket when Bob Pettit took a long one-hander. The ball rimmed the basket twice, and all we could do was stand there and watch. Then it dropped out, and we had the championship.”
When Sharman quit playing, four Eastern titles and three world championships later, he left the NBA under unhappy circumstances. He announced his retirement, which was all right with Celtic owner Walter Brown, although Brown hated to lose him. But when Bill revealed that he was becoming head coach and general manager of the Los Angeles Jets in the new rival American Basketball League (ABL), Brown exploded. He insisted that the option clause in Sharman’s Celtic contract entitled Boston to his services, whether the team used him or not. He accused Sharman of ingratitude and contract-jumping.
The argument became academic when the ABL collapsed after one disastrous season. Sharman even played a few games for his team in a vain effort to draw fans, but the Jets failed to last out the year, and Bill wound up coaching the Cleveland Pipers to the league championship. In 1963, Sharman was head basketball coach at Los Angeles State, a small, new school. He also made his peace with Walter Brown before the Celtic owner died of a stroke last September.
“I was glad when he invited me to play in last season’s Celtic old-timers’ game,” Bill says. “We had a long talk, and it was just like the old days when we used to live on the same street.”
Today, Bill Sharman is back in the NBA. He gave up his college coaching job to do the color commentary on St. Louis Hawk radio and television broadcasts—actually, he works for the sponsor, the Anheuser Busch brewery. Just to prove that he hasn’t completely changed colors, he’s also televising a weekend series of Celtic games.
Sitting in the broadcasting booth can put pounds on your duff, but with Sharman, it’s not likely. Bill has always been a physical fitness fanatic, applying the same care to his body that he did to his shooting technique. Once, while he and his wife were driving from Boston to California, Bill decided to get in some roadwork. “I’m going to run down the highway as far as I can,” he told Illeana. “You keep on driving. When you’re ready or I’m ready, pick me up.” He then took off while Illeana stopped for lunch.
When Mrs. Sharman started driving again, she went about three miles—but no Bill. Figuring that she must’ve somehow passed him on the road, she made a U-turn and retraced her path. Still, no Bill. Again, she turned the car and headed back in the direction Sharman had originally taken. When she finally overtook him, the car’s odometer showed that he had covered almost 10 miles.
Sharman doesn’t jog 10 miles anymore. He’s 38 years old, but as he checks into a hotel with the Hawks, he looks like one of the players. He keeps in shape doing isometric exercises every day, plays golf whenever his traveling schedule permits, and when he’s in St. Louis, plays squash with Ed Macauley.
Someday, Bill may coach an NBA team. He’s happy with Anheuser Busch and may do some broadcasting and public relations work for the company after the basketball season ends, but players who knew Sharman back when say that the challenge of coaching in the NBA would be irresistible. But he is through as an active player, no doubt about that, although he insists that he had plenty of good basketball left when he retired. “I think I was playing as well as I ever did my last season,” he says. “I mean, considering minutes played and all.”
Still, he has no regrets about retiring. Nor does he have any about the way his baseball career turned out. “If I had it to do over again,” he says carefully, “I suppose I’d still start out by picking baseball. There’s more money in it, a better pension plan—especially when I broke in—and you can play baseball longer. But I don’t think I’d play baseball and basketball the way I did. When you do that, both sports suffer. The only guys who can mix baseball and basketball are pitchers—like Gene Conley or Dave DeBusschere. Pitchers play once every three or four days. But it’s much tougher on a baseball player who has to play every day. The big-league schedule runs 162 games, plus training, exhibitions, and maybe a World Series. The NBA plays 80 games, plus training, exhibitions, and maybe the playoffs. That’s a lot of effort, too much, I think.
“Of course, things turned out well for me. I played with a basketball team that people will still be talking about in 25 years. I feel I was part of something great. Maybe that would’ve happened to me as a major-league baseball player, but it didn’t.”
Meanwhile, another Sharman is on the way up. Bill has three children, two of them daughters. His son Jerry, 18, is a 6-foot-3 guard on the USC freshman basketball team. Jerry was an outstanding high school prospect. “About 30 colleges were after him,” Bill says. But the most demanding challenge young Jerry Sharman will ever face is thrown at him on the cement basketball court behind the family’s home in the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina. There he must play against his dad, one-on-one.
“He’ll be all right,” says Bill Sharman, professionally. The pride gleams through when he points out that as a high school senior, Jerry took 148 foul shots and made when 134—90 percent.
He’s a Sharman.