Remember Bill Sharman for the streak, not the squeak
If he had one, Bill Sharman would be the voice of the Lakers past.
In a perfect world, newspapers would be doing frequent interviews. Television would sit him down after every Lakers game, splash makeup on his still-rugged 85-year-old face, and get his take. As John Wooden became in his later years, Sharman should be our guru, our link to greatness past, our voice of reason when sports seem otherwise.
Sharman remains clear and vibrant today — except for the vocal utensil.
The platform for his greatness, and the destruction of his vocal cords, took place 40 basketball seasons ago. It is an anniversary to celebrate, and in one sad way, to regret.
Bill Sharman was the shooting guard in the Celtics backcourt with Bob Cousy, on the Celtics teams of Bill Russell. He was a poster boy for the era. He played for USC, served in the Navy, played pro baseball and basketball at the same time.
His athletic greatness had no limits. In addition to his skills in basketball and baseball, he was nearly unbeatable as a tennis player, football player, golfer. You put a round ball in his hand, any size, and he would master what to do with it. For Sharman, there were so many sports and so little time.
Born in Texas, he wound up in Porterville, Calif., where the high school gym is named after him.
When he was hired as the Lakers coach, his ability wasn’t questioned, just his heritage. He was a Celtic, and the Lakers had suffered enough at the sight of green jerseys and ugly cigars. He even brought along Celtic teammate K.C. Jones as an assistant coach, prompting a memorable quote from colorful and spendthrift owner Jack Kent Cooke.
Cooke said, “We never had an assistant coach before, except, of course, Chick Hearn.”
The 1971-72 season was to be a landmark for both the Lakers and the NBA. It would be the season of the 33-game winning streak, the 69-13 record, and an NBA title, the team’s first in Los Angeles.
Now, appropriately, a documentary film is being made. Its only obstacle is that the NBA is releasing none of its film footage during its current labor impasse. Talk about a disconnect — we are at war with our current players, so we won’t release film from our past.
Nevertheless, the effort inches forward, and it brought a handful of aging sportswriters to a table at Phil Trani’s Restaurant in Long Beach last week. The topic was Sharman and the 33-game winning streak. The stories began and the cameras rolled. An hour passed in a minute.
Sharman had taken over a team of incredible talent. Also, incredible baggage.
Jerry West was among the greatest players ever, as well as one of the more emotional. He was coming off a knee injury. Wilt Chamberlain was in the same greatness level as West, but could be moody and quirky. Elgin Baylor, also in that greatness group, was nearing the end of his career and had knees that were a challenge to walk on, much less play basketball.
The talk around the table was how Sharman made these chocolate chips into chocolate syrup, how the parts he blended became the NBA record 33 consecutive victories and how that may belong in stature next to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
Stories were about how he got West to become the point guard — a high-scoring one, to be sure — with Gail Goodrich the backcourt shooter; of how he helped Baylor through the reality that his wonderful career was in its twilight and that Jim McMillian would serve the team better as a starter (leading to Baylor’s retirement); of how Happy Hairston became a rebounding animal.
Also, how Wilt became Mr. Team Player and facilitated success with rebounding and outlet passes.
Among Sharman’s innovations, including his role in the addition of the three-point shot, was the morning shootaround. He had done it on his own as a player and felt it would make his team looser and stronger. As legend has it — legend that Sharman himself has modified over the years — the first time the team got on a bus for a morning shootaround, Wilt was a no-show. When someone knocked on his hotel room door, Wilt responded, “Tell Bill Sharman, I only play once a day. Does he want me at 10 in the morning or 7:30 at night?”
Eventually, Wilt came around, often showing up in his beach shorts so he could play beach volleyball afterward. And eventually, the wisdom of Sharman’s morning session took the form of a 33-game streak.
During the filming, Sharman, still a Lakers consultant, sat at a side table, smiling at the memories, yet able to add his own only with gestures and a forced, sort of squeaking, articulation.
Joyce Sharman, his wife of 30 years — their anniversary is Nov. 1 — says that the voice problems began during the 33-game streak. Sharman was told to tone the yelling down and didn’t. So much was at stake, she says.
Later, one medical attempt was made by crushing one of his vocal cords. That only helped for a while. Later, when doctors could treat this condition with Botox injections, there was nothing left of the crushed vocal cord to inject.
In 1988, Sharman was ordered to rest his voice for the entire year.
“I had to do all the talking for him,” Joyce says. “And as he will tell you now, I have never stopped.”
The commemorative documentary of the ’71-72 season and 33-game streak will be made. The NBA needs to make the old film available.
We need to see as much of Bill Sharman as we can, because, sadly, we can’t hear him.
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