By Mitch Chortkoff
Bill Sharman was one of the toughest men I've ever known. Also one of the nicest.
When he became a Hall of Fame player with the Celtics stories were told that he used to help old ladies across the street from Boston Garden, then get into three fights during the game.
"He never stood still on the court," said Bob Cousy, his Celtic backcourt partner. "So he was impossible to guard. And in an era when few guys played defense, he did."
It was a different era then. A much rougher game. At 6-foot-1, Sharman hd to protect himself from NBA bullies.
He did that very well, then he set a league record for free throw accuracy and converted Cousy's passes into field goals.
Sharman, who died last week at 87, was employed by the Lakers for the last 40 years and will be remembered as one of the most influential people in franchise history.
He coached the 1972 Lakers to their 33-game winning streak which has yet to be matched and their first NBA championship in Los Angeles.
He was the general manager who drafted Magic Johnson.
He's one of only three men to make the Hall of Fame as both a player and a coach. The others are John Wooden and Lenny Wilkens.
I covered the 1972 Lakers when Sharman arrived from an ABA championship with the Utah Stars.
Another Laker newcomer that season was center Wilt Chamberlain, who had a reputation of being rough on coaches.
When we went to training camp in Honolulu I learned how Sharman operated.
He didn't demand things like many coaches do. He made suggestions. He got what he wanted but made it seem like it was the players' idea.
"Wilt, I was thinking you might concentrate on defense," he said."What do you think?"
The men talked and soon I realized the Lakers had a special coach.
They played a half-court game in training camp, and members of the losing team had to run laps.
Chamberlain's team won but he chose to run anyway.
Wow, I recall thinking, this is sure different.
As the years progressed I had many occasions to observe Sharman, the gentleman. Players respected him and gave their best for him.
"Bill was a great man and I loved him dearly," said current general manager Mitch Kupchak.
Sharman eventually became a consultant and a voice of reason in a volatile profession.
When the Lakers were going to fire coach Paul Westhead Sharman talked them into waiting awhile before doing it.
Jerry Buss valued Sharman and kept him on the payroll to the end.
The Lakers gave Sharman a championship ring in 2010 and he and wife Joyce set up an auction for it, with all proceeds going to charity.
'We sometimes played tennis during training camp in Palm Springs," a Laker official told me. "Sometimes I'd get off to a good start but Bill would eventually win the set. It happened a few times and then I realized he was letting me win a few games. That's the gentleman he was. But he was also a fierce competitor and his generosity went only so far."
Before turning pro Sharman played basketball at USC. He became an All-American and still ranks among the school's top 25 scorers.
Buss, Chamberlain, Chick Hearn and Sharman are gone now. I'll think a lot about the joy these men brought to Laker fans.