Cousy to Russell to Sharman and score
In the twilight of my years, just as so many before me, I do a great deal of reflecting. Much of it has to do with the people and places that have been part of my passing parade. This past week, a man I knew well, admired and liked, Bill Sharman became part of that passing parade.
There have been and will be many accolades and speeches highlighting his achievements as a Hall-of-Fame NBA player and coach. All rightly deserved! However, he was much more than that to we who had the privilege of getting to know and work with him on a personal level.
As a kid growing up in Cambridge and later Newton, Massachusetts, I was there when the BBAA first embraced the Boston Celtics. In those days, they weren’t very good. In 1949, they became an NBA team.
But we kids who loved Basketball were thrilled that our trainer at Cambridge Latin School, Red Linsky, was also the Celtics Trainer. This meant that whenever we wanted, Red would sneak us into the games at Mechanics Building, Boston Arena, or the original Boston Garden. The Mechanics Building and the Garden are long gone. The Arena, America’s oldest existing ice skating venue, has been renamed the Mathews Arena and is part of Northeastern University.
In 1951, the Celtics saw the beginning of two- thirds of a dynasty. It came in the form of two men: Bob Cousy who came from the Tri-City Blackhawks and Bill Sharman who originally was drafted by the Washington Capitols.
In 1956, when Bill Russell was drafted out of the University of San Francisco, the legendary Celtics domination began. They were formidable and almost unbeatable.
Cousy’s behind- the- back passes awed everyone. To the casual observer, Cousy was the most exciting player. But to the basketball Professional, it was Sharman who was the meat and potatoes of the team.
Having scrimmaged against Cousy in college, I too thought he was the most magnificent and audacious player of all time. I once told my pal Dr. Ernie Vandeweghe that when Cousy faked left, I was in the right balcony; when he faked right, I was in the left balcony.
Ernie who played on New York Knicks championship teams while going to medical school, would only laugh with the explanation that when the Celtics came to town, he and Carl Braun, his teammate, would flip a coin stating that the loser had to take Sharman.To them, Cousy was easy to handle, but Sharman with his grit and drive could make them look silly.
I really got to know Bill during that magical season of 1971. He had been hired by Jack Kent Cooke to coach his Los Angeles Lakers. At the same time, I was hired in an Executive capacity to work right alongside Mr. Cooke.
Bill had a daunting task. The Lakers were an amalgamation of superstars that featured three future Hall-of Famers, but they had never won a championship as a team. Bill did an outstanding job to the point where the Lakers not only won their first championship since moving to L.A., but also set an NBA record of 33 straight wins, which still stands.
Moreover, in that year, Gail Goodrich, even with a pulled stomach muscle, led the team in scoring, Jerry West led in assists and Wilt Chamberlain led the team in rebounds. Bill had molded all three into a team. In Bill’s eyes either Jerry, or Wilt could have led the team in scoring. But under Bill that was not their role.
That was in the pros, I asked my long time friend Ira Laufer, a New Jersey native, who scrimmaged against Bill for two years as a member of the same USC team what kind of person was he in college. Ira was kind enough to give me a little insight to Bill as a fellow student and teammate.
Coming from the East Coast, Ira still shot all his long shots with two hands. Bill thought it was unique and wondered how Ira did it, thinking maybe he should change. Ira told him emphatically to forget about it, as his one hand shot was incredible.
Despite the fact that USC didn’t have a great team, Bill became an All-American and Pacific Coast Conference Player of the year. His work ethic knew no boundaries. As a player in college, he would enjoy a morning shoot-around on game days. At the time, this was unheard of. He felt it relaxed him.
He initiated this morning shoot -around with the Celtics. Today, it is a standard part of most NBA team’s pracrti and even on off days, you could find him along with other Celtics working out at the old Huntington YMCA.
Here, he would invite anyone who was there to join in. My pal Eddie Fraktman who played for Colby College at the time and myself sometimes were among those lucky enough to participate.
As Ira told me, in college he was as humble and unassuming as he was great. Years later, when I worked with him, I found nothing could be truer. He was most giving and unselfish.
The one drawback to the magical 1971-72 season was his fervent, animated coaching style and his constant shouting. He strained his vocal chords to the point he could only whisper. His voice never really returned.
However, upstairs among the Angels when they have a pickup game, his whispering will give him stature. By the way, Bill also played for the old Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. He was that good!
Bill thanks for all the memories.