Bill Sharman with the basketball at the free-throw line was a sports work of art. Ruth with a fastball, Cobb with a base open. Dempsey with his man on the ropes. Hogan with a long par three. Jones with a short putt. Caruso with a high C. Hope in a "Road" movie. Shoemaker on the favorite. Sinatra with Gershwin.
When it was Sharman at the line, the next sound you heard was swish! It was as foregone as the sun setting.
Before Sharman, a perfectly acceptable free-throw percentage was .700 or so. And those marks were made by the elite shooters of the game.
In 1956-57, he threw in a .905 percentage. Two years later, it was .932. Two years after that, it was .921.
In the playoffs one year, it was .966. Sharman made 57 of 59 free throws. He once threw in 56 in a row.
He was the first to sink an average of nine out of 10 free throws over a season. Bear in mind, this was a time when seven for 10 was All-Star stuff, a time when Wilt Chamberlain, for example, was deadlier from the floor than from the line. One year, Wilt shot .422 from the line and .649 from the floor, despite being double-teamed.
Sharman never shot worse than .800 from the line. One year, he missed only 18 foul shots all season. You fouled him at your peril.
If that had been all he could do, his position would have been secure. But he was the first guard in the game to put up a field-goal percentage better than .400. His season marks included .456, .450 and .438. For the rest of the league, Billy Sharman with the basketball was like Billy the Kid with a gun.
He was one of the keys of the great Celtic teams of the 1950s and '60s. With Bob Cousy, he formed one of the top backcourt duos of all time and they might even have unwittingly set the tone for the modern distinction of "point" guard and "shooting" guard. Cousy ran the floor, Sharman ran the basket.
Cousy played the game of basketball at a high emotional pitch, but Sharman played the low-key, calculating game of the riverboat gambler. He had a reputation of never losing his cool. He was quick, sure-handed and slick enough to draw more than 3,000 fouls in a career in which he should have been the last person in the building anyone wanted to send to the line.
In point of fact, Sharman was kind of moonlighting as a basketball player. He really wanted to be a baseball player. The money was far better in those days. He was in the Dodger chain and showed great promise--he batted .294 with 16 home runs at St. Paul in the American Assn.--but he was an outfielder and all he had to do was beat out Duke Snider, Carl Furillo, Andy Pafko and/or Jackie Robinson from time to time.
As good as he was on court, Sharman was even more successful as a coach. He was coach of the year in three leagues. His style was the same as it had been on court--competent but unobtrusive. When he had a Laker team that included Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, Sharman didn't spend much time at the blackboard. That team won 33 consecutive games and won once by 69 points.
As skilled as he was and as hard as he worked, Sharman's career came to a close on an occupational hazard no one foresaw--he lost his voice.
For a guy who shouted as little as he did--Sharman's teams ran on their own adrenaline--it was incomprehensible. But you can't run a team by notepaper and sign language. His mysterious malady, which only lately, 20 years later, is permitting him to communicate, ended his coaching career.
But the Lakers were loath to lose a man with Sharman's depth of experience. He served first as general manager, then as president and now is a special consultant.
What they additionally wanted was his luck. Some guys go through life with a cloud over their head. Sharman goes through with a halo over his.
Consider even his apparent ill fortune--a place on a roster behind some of the great Dodger players of all time. It actually steered Sharman into the sport where he belonged, basketball.
With the Boston Celtics, he arrived in the era when they were the New York Yankees of basketball. Bill Russell, the Jones boys (K.C. and Sam), Tom Heinsohn, Cousy, Jim Loscutoff, Satch Sanders. And Bill Sharman. He got used to winning right away.
So, the Lakers have a super-important assignment for their special consultant next week. They have found something their old coach also does well--call a coin flip. Win a draft lottery.
Sharman does everything well--tennis might well have been his best sport. But he is uncanny at calling coin flips.
Consider 1979. He had to win a flip to decide whether the Lakers got Magic Johnson or Sidney Moncrief or somebody.
Sharman called heads. On reflection, that may have been the most important call in the history of the franchise. Try to imagine the Lakers without Magic Johnson. Showtime would have been in Milwaukee.
We dissolve a few seasons to another flip of the coin, the one that decides whether the Lakers get James Worthy or Fat Lever or somebody.
Sharman wins that toss, too.
The Lakers need Sharman next week when the NBA's drafting procedures call for extracting a lucky ball from a tub full of them in order to determine the order of selection.
As usual, Sharman is the guy you want with the ball.