The passing of Bill Sharman at the age of 87 today (Oct. 25) has already generated a lot of stories about his accomplishments as an athlete and coach. What I am writing here is personal. He was one of my best friends and undoubtedly the nicest person I have ever known.
I first met him via a phone call in December of 1969. It was my first week working on the night sports desk at the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the first week of my 40-plus years as a sportswriter and editor in Los Angeles (which included 30-plus years at the Times).
Back then Bill Sharman was the coach of the ABA’s L.A. Stars and had to call the Times and Herald and maybe another newspaper or two after Stars games to give us game details and quotes and make sure we had the box score.
My line was ringing, so I picked up the phone and heard, “This is Bill Sharman from the Stars. Can I give you some of the details from our game tonight?”
I couldn't believe I was actually talking to the Bill Sharman. I had idolized him from afar since learning as a child that his hometown was Porterville. My hometown is Strathmore, sort of a suburb of Porterville in California’s Tulare County. Strathmore is essentially a one-intersection town located six miles to the north of Porterville on Old Highway 65.
After Bill identified himself on the phone, I told him I was from Strathmore. Probably something he didn’t hear every day. The population of Strathmore when I lived there was less than 1,000.
After I finished taking notes for a story I would be writing, Bill invited me to come to a Stars game so we could meet face to face. I accepted his offer and was blown away after meeting him. I recall thinking that it seemed almost unreal that anyone, let alone a sports legend, could be that gentlemanly and humble.
That thinking never changed during our long friendship. We were golfing buddies. He often invited me to sit with him at Laker games. My wife Norma and I often dined with Bill and his wife Joyce and other friends. When our daughter Jill graduated from UCLA in 2000, he came to our home for the post-graduation party. Bill and Joyce were there when Jill got married in 2007.
In 2004, I was there in Springfield, Mass., when Bill was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame as a coach in 2004. (He was inducted as a player in 1976.)
Later in 2004, I arranged a surprise birthday/Hall of Fame celebratory party for him at Phil Trani’s restaurant in Long Beach. The restaurant was jammed with more than 200 people, including some of the biggest names in sports. Even the president, George W. Bush, sent a congratulatory letter.
After that night, Bill gave me a framed photo of the two of us and signed it, saying: “Sincere best wishes to a great writer and a great friend.” The photo hangs in the family room of our Arcadia home.
Bill Sharman was a great athlete, a great coach, a great person – but most of all he was truly a great friend.