Bill Sharman couldn’t come to the phone for an interview.
His voice has been shot ever since he blew it out shouting and coaching his Los Angeles Lakers to a record 33 straight victories in their banner 1971-72 season. His hearing was equally gone after a lifetime spent in NBA arenas that roared his name as a player from Boston to Inglewood.
No matter. Sharman wouldn’t go down quietly. Sharman had his wife, Joyce, type out a few quotes for a reporter calling from his hometown. Sharman shared about being inducted into the Porterville High Athletic Hall of Fame, added a few home-made memories of long ago, and said he couldn’t wait to drive over for this weekend’s ceremony at Sharman Gymnasium.
“I am honored to be included in the (PHS) Hall of Fame,” said Sharman, sounding as if this is no different than the two times he made the Naismith Basketball Hall of Game -- first, as a Celtics all-star guard, then as title-winning Lakers coach.
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Joyce emailed his quotes to me Oct. 16. We talked about getting together when they got into town Friday, and maybe finding the house where he shot free throws into the dark as a teenager. The old iron hoop was still standing, last time they checked. Sharman can’t remember the address, but maybe he would find it if we drove around long enough.
Three days later, Sharman suffered a stroke, cancelling his trip to Porterville for Saturday’s induction ceremony. On Friday, Sharman died at age 87, making his enshrinement a posthumous one.
The reports said he died at his home in Redondo Beach. The reports didn’t quite have it right. Sharman’s home is Porterville, and it always has been. He hasn’t lived here since he graduated with Porterville High’s Class of ’44, but his heart never left.
Just look at the words of the last interview Sharman ever gave.
“Porterville was such a friendly town when I was there … a lot of nice people,” he told Joyce to write. “I always feel like I am going home.”
William Walton Sharman was born in Abilene, Texas. His childhood was spent in Lomita, but his prominent high school years were lived in Porterville.
Sharman was an instant star. He earned 15 varsity letters as the have-all guy in basketball, baseball, football, track, tennis and boxing. Vacations were spent breaking his back in the fields under the hot Valley sun.
“I used to work on a farm in the summers,” Sharman said. “It was more of a quiet and simple life back then.”
This was before he became an All-America basketball player at USC (he’s in the Trojans' Hall of Fame, too). This was before he played ball for the 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers who saw the Bobby Thompson’s Giants win the pennant.
Sharman went on to become an eight-time All-Star guard in 11 seasons with the Celtics. In 1971, he took a Lakers team long on talent but short on rings, and birthed a championship dynasty in 35 years as a coach, general manager, club president and special consultant.
Through it all, Sharman always found his way back home. He’d golf with old friends, eat at familiar restaurants, drive around town to remember old sights -- all the way down to the house that he called home here.
“He showed me the last house he lived in with his parents, and the basketball hoop is still there,” Joyce said over the phone. “It doesn’t have a net or anything, just a rim. I don’t think the people who live there even know what it means. Bill would tell me how he would just stay out there and play and play and play, practice and practice, shoot and shoot until they told him to come in.
“That’s where Bill got his start.”
Sharman never forgot. He found it fitting that his last Hall of Fame would be where he first starred in basketball. So does Joyce, saying his life had come “full circle.”
Who knew a small-town Hall of Fame could mean so much to such a big-time Hall of Famer?
“I have always been proud to be from Porterville,” Sharman said, before having Joyce dispatch his words back home one last time.