Bill Sharman

Los Angeles Lakers former coach Bill Sharman before the start of the press conference held by the Magic Johnson foundation at the Staples Center. (Jayne Kamin-Oncea / US PRESSWIRE / November 7, 2011)

Bill Sharman, a Hall of Fame basketball player and coach who guided the Lakers to their first National Basketball Assn. title in Los Angeles in record-setting fashion, has died. He was 87.

Sharman, who coached teams to championships in three professional leagues and also played professional baseball, died Friday at his home in Redondo Beach, said his wife, Joyce. He had suffered a stroke last weekend.

He collected 15 championship rings as a player, coach, general manager, team president and special consultant, serving in all capacities but player in more than 35 years with the Lakers. As a coach, he introduced the bane of night-owl players everywhere, the morning shoot-around on game day.


Fiercely competitive, he played alongside Bill Russell and Bob Cousy in Boston, coached Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar with the Lakers, worked under mercurial team owners George Steinbrenner and Jack Kent Cooke and made the trade that enabled the Lakers to draft Magic Johnson.

Sharman was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame as a player in 1976 and as a coach in 2004, joining John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens as the only men honored in both roles. In 1996 he was selected as one of the 50 greatest players of the NBA's first 50 years.

His 1971-72 Lakers, featuring Chamberlain, West and Gail Goodrich and considered one of the greatest NBA teams ever assembled, won a staggering 33 consecutive games, a U.S. professional sports record, on the way to the championship. But Sharman sacrificed his voice by overusing it that season after he had been diagnosed with laryngitis, and he never fully recovered.

Cousy, his Celtic teammate, once called Sharman "the best athlete I've ever played with, or against," and Wooden, his friend, wrote in a recommendation letter, "If Bill Sharman isn't in the Hall of Fame as a coach, no one should be."

As a player, the 6-foot-1 Sharman was a high-scoring guard and hard-nosed defender — "He got into more fights than Mike Tyson," West once remarked — but probably will be remembered most for his uncanny free-throw shooting. He made 88.3% of his free throws, seven times leading the league in free-throw percentage.

"Bill Sharman with the basketball at the free throw line was a sports work of art," Jim Murray, the late Times columnist, wrote in 1994. "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."

Sharman made the transition to coaching when he was hired in 1961 as a player/coach with the L.A. Jets of the American Basketball League. They folded midseason, officially ending his playing career, and he led the Cleveland Pipers to the ABL title in 1961-62, earning lifetime respect from Steinbrenner, the team's fledgling owner.

"You always were a winner and you're still a winner," the owner of the New York Yankees wrote in a letter to his old coach after Sharman's election to the Hall of Fame in 2004.

The ABL folded, and Sharman coached Cal State L.A. for two seasons and the NBA's San Francisco Warriors for two years, then in 1968 he became coach the L.A. Stars of the new American Basketball Assn.

In the 1970-71 season, Sharman guided the relocated Utah Stars to the ABA championship.

But he posted his crowning achievement in coaching a year later.

Hired by Cooke to coach the Lakers in the summer of 1971, he inherited a title-starved team that was considered past its prime after years of frustrating near-misses.

The Lakers had moved from Minneapolis to Los Angeles in 1960. Seven times between 1962 and 1970, the team had reached the NBA Finals without winning, losing to the Celtics six times in the championship series.

But under Sharman's guidance, the Lakers produced a season for the ages. He encouraged a team game, emphasizing balanced scoring and tireless defense. And he let them run.

Only once did they fail to score more than 100 points, and they averaged 121 points a game. They defeated the Golden State Warriors by 63 points in one game, then the widest margin in league history, and for more than two months, from early November to early January, they did not lose, their 33-game winning streak finally ended by the Bucks in Milwaukee, 120-104.