As an athlete, he accomplished so much that he was practically a one-man trivia game: Who was both a California high school tennis champ and a bonus baby for the Brooklyn Dodgers? Who was the USC basketball player who was twice named an All-American and never missed a free throw either season? Who, while playing for the Boston Celtics, set a National Basketball Assn. record by making 55 consecutive foul shots? Who led the NBA in free-throw percentages for seven seasons, a feat never duplicated, and was elected to the league's first team four times? Answer to all the above: Lakers president Bill Sharman, who set us reminiscing this week by announcing his retirement from basketball.
What was most memorable about Sharman on the court was his intensity. He lacked Bob Cousy's grace, he couldn't jump, he didn't dunk and he had no great speed, but he compensated with such ferocious concentration that he could intimidate anyone who got in his way. A sportswriter once called Sharman "a bulldog in a crew cut," and another, in reporting a shark attack on Sharman while he was vacationing in Acapulco, suggested that he probably escaped by elbowing the shark.
Although one of the greatest Celtics, Sharman easily made the transition to coach, general manager and finally president of the team that has been their chief rival for more than a quarter of a century. In 1971-72, when Sharman coached the Lakers to a championship, they won 33 consecutive games on their way to a 69-23 record, still the best in NBA history. Sharman damaged his vocal cords by trying to be heard above the Lakers' fans during that amazing season, and his voice never recovered, even after he left coaching for the front office.
He also has distinguished himself as an executive, helping build the Laker organization into a formidable operation. And, more genial than in his playing days, he has continued to inspire affection from those who love basketball as much as he does. In Boston, where one seldom hears a kind word about anyone associated with the Lakers, the number on Sharman's jersey, 21, still hangs from the rafters of the Garden; he remains a hero to Bostonians. And here, in Los Angeles, there are many who believe Bill Sharman, whether in Celtic green or Laker gold, embodied the best in basketball and will miss him very much.