Born: May 25, 1926
Died: October 25, 2013
Position: Shooting Guard
Washington Capitals (NBA): 1950-’51
Boston Celtics (NBA): 1951-’61
Los Angeles Jets (ABL): 1961-’62
Ask folks for a list of great shooting guards from NBA history and you will likely get Michael Jordan. Then Kobe Bryant. Perhaps, Jerry West and Reggie Miller. Maybe…. maybe Sam Jones. But Bill Sharman? He would likely never crop up despite in many regards being the man who prototyped the shooting guard position.
Bill Sharman started out his NBA career at the age of 24 with the Washington Capitals in the 1950-51 season. At this stage in his life, Sharman appeared more likely to enjoy a lengthy pro baseball career than a prolonged NBA life. In 1950, he appeared in just over 120 minor league baseball games batting .288. The next year, Sharman was called up by the Brooklyn Dodgers. Although he never played a game from the Dodgers, he was ejected from one, making him the only player in Major League Baseball history ejected from a major league game without ever appearing in one.
By that point in September 1951, it was still unclear whether Sharman’s basketball career was more promising than his baseball hopes. Tje Capitals folded midway through the 1950-51 season leaving Sharman without a basketball employer. Sharman, however, showed promise averaging 12 points in 31 games. Not exactly the stuff that would leave teams around the league scrambling for Sharman, but enough for someone to take a flier on him.
Sharman wound up on the Boston Celtics for the 1951-52 season thanks to Red Auerbach’s keen eye for talent and a little help from his friends. Auerbach had coached the Capitals earlier in his career and some of his associates still with the club gave him the tip on what a gem Bill could be. Sharman turned out to be the first of many diamonds Auerbach found in the rough.
Initially a bench player, Sharman was bumped into the Celtic starting five, playing alongside point guard Bob Cousy and center Ed Macauley. The trio blossomed into the NBA’s most feared offensive machines. Sharman handled the hot outside shooting and was one of the few guards of his era to consistently connect on over 40% of his field goals. His scoring average steadily increased from 11 points per game in 1951 to 20 points per game in 1956. By the end of the ’56 campaign, Sharman would be awarded with four All-Star selections, two All-NBA 2nd Team picks, and his first All-NBA 1st Team honor.
From the free throw line, Sharman was absolutely deadly. Over a nine-year span (1953 – 1961), Sharman led the NBA in free throw percentage seven times and topped off in 1959 with 93.2% free throw shooting. On the defensive end, Sharman was a pest to opponents and had a reputation for starting and finishing many scuffles and fights.
The Celtics original Big 3 of Sharman, Macauley, and Cousy routinely got Boston into the playoffs during the early and mid-1950s, but never could break through into the Finals. The Celtics sacrificed Macauley in a trade to secure the more defensive-minded Bill Russell. Russell’s presence, along with another rookie in Tommy Heinsohn, boosted Boston to the NBA’s best record in 1957.
A slew of championships soon followed for Sharman and the Celts. Four titles in the next five seasons, to be exact.
And with all the influx of talent, Sharman got deadlier with age. He retired at age 34 in 1961, but his career-high in points per game came at age 31, his career-high in FT% at age 32, and his high in FG% arrived at age 33. By his last season, Sharman was splitting shooting guard duties with Sam Jones, the heir to his two-guard slot. In Sharman’s final playoff run, he averaged just 26 minutes a night thanks to the time share with Jones, but what he lacked in quantity of minutes he made up for with quality. He let loose for 17 points a night that postseason while shooting 51% from the field (the best mark amongst players that playoff season) and 89% from the line.
After leaving the NBA, Sharman played briefly for the Los Angeles Jets of the upstart American Basketball League (ABL) in the 1961-62 season before pursuing a lengthy career as a coach and executive in the NBA and the ABA. Some of his successes in the coaching realm included an NBA title, an ABA title, five total Finals appearances between the two leagues, a Coach of the Year Award in each league, leading the 1972 Lakers to a record 33-straight wins and a then-record 69 regular season wins, and introducing the strange concept of “shootarounds” before games.
Moving on to become Lakers GM in the late 1970s and early 1980s after losing his voice, Sharman helped construct the early stages of the Showtime Lakers and stuck around through the dynasties end. All said and done, Sharman had a direct hand in winning 11 championships in professional basketball’s highest levels.
His longevity and resilience was in large part thanks to his training regimen that was unheard of in an era where weight-lifting was frowned upon and smoking was a regular game day occurrence.
“He drank shakes he claimed gave him energy. He always had vitamins in his suitcase. He drank tea on the afternoon of games. He did calisthenics in front of his locker before games, as the rest of his teammates sat there and thought he was a wacko. He ran on days he wasn’t practicing, sometimes jogging behind a car driven by his wife. And on the morning of game days he would go to a local high school gym and shoot by himself, his way of preparing for the evening’s games.”
– from Bill Reynolds’ Rise of a Dynasty
This regimen helped sustain Sharman through an 11-year playing career and his lengthy coaching and executive roles. And yet his genuine greatness as a person trumps all of these basketball accolades. He was a fantastic teammate and raised money for charity till the day he died. And way back in 1950 when he started playing with the Washington Capitals, Sharman would give a ride to practice for his teammate Earl Lloyd. Given that Lloyd was black, that Sharman was white, and that D.C. was segregated, the gesture was a handsome one. In fact Lloyd’s recollection of Sharman is the best way to summarize both the man and player Sharman was:
I’ve been asked, of all the players from those days, if there was one I admire most. Let me tell you, it was Bill Sharman… He was my friend, and think of what that meant at the time. Of course, when that Washington team folded, he’d end up in Boston and I’d be in Syracuse, and we were fierce competitors on teams that were fierce rivals. But the respect never went away. To this day, we’re glad when we get the chance to see each other.
Remember, Washington was in the South in the back-of-the-bus days. Here’s a guy, when he found out I didn’t have an automobile and was riding the bus to [training] camp, who told me he would pick me up every day at Georgia Avenue and Columbia Road in Washington. And he did.
Bill Sharman… truly is – and will always be – a class act.
4x Champion (1957, 1959-’61)
4x All-NBA 1st Team (1956-’59)
3x All-NBA 2nd Team (1953, 1955, 1960)
8x All-Star (1953-’60)
All-Star Game MVP (1955)
Regular Season Career Averages (711 games):
Playoff Career Averages (78 games):