The Bill Sharman Interview
Michael D. McClellan
Monday, March 20th,
His legacy stretches end-to-end across the vast expanse and rich tapestry that is the National Basketball Association, from the cramped gyms and bare knuckle brawls of the 1950s, to the satellite radio, Internet-connected spectacle that the league has become today. It is a legacy defined by a relentless pursuit of perfection, be it the countless hours spent grooving perhaps the greatest free throw motion the sport of basketball has ever known, or the innovative coaching techniques that later helped his team win an NBA-record 33 consecutive games. He is a member of the ultra-elite Gang of Three, joining John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens as the only men honored by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. He has played a key role in winning 15 championships in three leagues spread over 50+ years of service, ten of them with the two greatest franchises in basketball history. He has been an All-Star Game MVP, and he has been honored as one of the 50 Greatest Players in NBA History. He has shared the court with the incomparable Bill Russell, impressed his cage magic upon the Lakers’ very own legendary Magic, and dispensed his championship coaching vision upon the enigmatic Wilt Chamberlain. His name is Bill Sharman, and few have done it better or longer than the sweet shooting guard with the rugged good looks and the insatiable appetite for perfection.
Born in Abilene, Texas, on May 25th, 1926, Sharman spent much of his childhood playing with his older brother and coping with the adversity brought on by The Great Depression. It was a hardscrabble existence, one in which his parents worked tirelessly to feed and clothe their two young children. During the early 1930s, the family moved from Texas to Porterville, California in search of a better life and a chance to escape the Dust Bowl conditions that had ravaged much of the Southern Plains. Once settled in Southern California, Sharman quickly found sports of all kinds to his liking; he was a natural athlete with uncommon coordination, excelling on the baseball diamond and the basketball court. He had an innate understanding of how to play whatever game struck him at the time, and, with the outcome on the line, he proved himself equally adept at handling the pressure that came along with the big shot or the clutch at-bat.
By his junior year at Porterville High School, Sharman had gravitated to – and excelled in – five different sports. He was so good at basketball and baseball, in fact, that he was able to pursue these dual passions while on full athletic scholarship at the University of Southern California. Sharman, in many respects, was ahead of his time; he lifted weights and cross-trained vigorously, this in an era when such fitness regimens were hardly a part of the basketball-baseball landscapes, and he obsessed about things such as diet and nutrition. He was also an aggressive, fearless competitor who rarely backed down from a challenge – or a confrontation. Jerry West, then a rookie during Sharman’s 11th and final season in the NBA, once hit seven straight jump shots against Sharman, who retaliated with a wild punch that didn’t connect. West struggled from the field the rest of the game.
By 1950, Sharman was an All-American forward at USC, scoring 1108 points in 81 games for a then school-record 13.7 per-game average. He was selected as the 1950 Trojan team captain and Most Valuable Player, and a season earlier was voted the team’s Most Inspirational Player. He was also the Pacific Coast Conference MVP two years running. His talents were coveted by the fledgling NBA, which needed star power to ensure its place among the Big Three of American sports, but Sharman was also generating interest on another front – Major League Baseball.
The lure of the National Pastime led Sharman to sign a minor league contract with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Ironically, he saw baseball as his ticket to a career in professional athletics. It was far more popular on a national scale, with a bigger fan base and extensive media coverage, while pro basketball lagged behind its college equivalent in terms of public support. To the casual sports fan of the day, the NBA was a league concocted by hockey owners looking for a way to fill their arenas on a consistent basis. Major League Baseball, on the other hand, was an established league with a rich history that the new basketball league simply couldn’t match. So Sharman toiled in the Dodgers’ farm system during the summer of 1950, chasing a dream that he hoped would lead directly to the World Series, convinced that he had left his storied basketball career behind him on the USC campus.