Who was the only coach to win championships in three professional leagues? Yup, it’s William Walton Sharman, the innovator who won titles in the ABL in 1962, the ABA in 1971 and of course the NBA with the Lakers in 1972. He is also credited with instituting the “shootaround,” a light workout session the morning before a game—a practice commonly used today.
A two-sport star at USC, Sharman signed a minor league baseball contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1950. Later that year the Washington Capitols drafted him in the second round of the NBA Draft, so for the next five years he played both sports. He gave up baseball in 1955 and went on to become perhaps the greatest shooter of his era. He ranks among the top free-throw shooters of all time with a .883 lifetime average and he lead the league in free-throw shooting for a record seven seasons.
Sharman played the majority of his NBA career with the Boston Celtics, leading them to four championships, and teaming with Bob Cousy to form one of the most formidable backcourts in league history. Early in his rookie season, 1960-61, Jerry West was matched up with Sharman, who by then in the final year of his career. West hit seven straight jumpers over him and after the last one dropped through the hoop Sharman tried to punch him.
“Bill was tough,” West once told the Los Angeles Times. “I’ll tell you this, you didn’t drive by him. He got into more fights than Mike Tyson. You respected him as a player.”
After coaching two years at San Francisco University, he left for the ABA and was Co-Coach of the Year with the Los Angeles Stars (sharing the award with Denver’s Joe Belmont). In 1970-71, the franchise moved to Utah and Sharman coached the Stars to the championship over the favored Kentucky Colonels. Thus, the stage was set for his arrival in Los Angeles, where he inherited one of the greatest teams in NBA history.
Even though Elgin Baylor retired nine games into the 1971-72 season, the Lakers had Wilt Chamberlain at center, Jim McMillian and Happy Hairston at forward and West and Gail Goodrich at guard. As a former player, Sharman seemed to know all the right buttons to push to get the most out of his super-talented team, which won an NBA-record 33 games in a row from November 5 to January 7. The Lakers went 69-13—still the second best regular-season mark in league history behind that of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, who finished 72-10. The Lakers beat the New York Knicks in five games in the finals for the franchise’s first championship since moving to Los Angeles. To top it off, Sharman became the Lakers’ first NBA Coach of the Year.
No one could’ve predicted that the Lakers would never again hoist the trophy in Sharman’s tenure. The Lakers made it back to the finals in 1972-73 but lost to the Knicks in five games. Chamberlain retired and West saw limited action in 1973-74 when the Lakers lost to Milwaukee in the conference semifinals. The team combined to win just 70 games in Sharman’s last two seasons and failed to qualify for the playoffs for only the second and third time in franchise history.
Despite the arrival of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom the Lakers acquired in a trade with Milwaukee, Sharman stepped down as coach after the 1975-76 season and became General Manager—a position he held until 1982. After that he served as club president until 1988, the year the Lakers won the last of their “Showtime Era” championships.
Sharman is one of only three men to be inducted into the Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach (the others being John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens) and in 1996 he was named to the NBA’s “50 Greatest Players” list.
“I’ve been around a lot of coaches but none like him,” West said. “He’s a different type. A remarkable guy. He doesn’t miss thing. He has the ability to get the most out of people. He always sees a bright spot even when things are darkest.”
High praise indeed from the man Sharman once took a swing at.
Sharman died at age 87 on Oct. 25, 2013, after suffering a stroke.