Bill Sharman died Friday at age 87. He was a basketball hall of famer as both a player and a coach in the NBA (here's a link to his obituary). But a lot of that was so long ago that you may not know much about Sharman (who is pictured above as he looked in 1971).
So in his memory, let me tell you one story to let you know what kind of man he was.
When I was seven years old, living in Austin, Texas, I wrote a letter and sent it off with an eight-cent stamp, to a place I had never been and a man I had never met.
The first word was “Congratulations,” which I had to ask my Mom how to spell.
It went on for a few sentences, in a second-grader’s painstaking print. It praised the coach of the Los Angeles Lakers for his team’s victory in the 1972 NBA Finals. I liked the Lakers mostly because of their uniforms.
The coach – and the letter’s recipient -- was Bill Sharman.
That team turned out to be legendary. It included Wilt Chamberlain, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and my own personal favorite player, Harold Hairston. I liked Hairston mainly because his nickname was “Happy,” and I knew if I ever became a pro athlete that’s what I would be.
I didn’t ask for anything in the letter and expected no reply. But a few weeks later, an envelope from California graced our mailbox.
I opened it. There was a sweet, handwritten letter from Sharman.
And a single sheet of white typing paper that contained the autographs of every Laker player on the squad.
Wilt the Stilt. Goodrich. West. Hairston. A mustachioed reserve named Pat Riley. All of them.
I loved that sheet of paper.
I studied it to see which player had the best handwriting and which ones included their jersey number. I showed it around. I marveled over it.
And, of course, I lost it.
I told that story in The Charlotte Observer in 2002 -- 30 years later -- as part of a column about the power of autographs. Sharman’s son-in-law in Florida saw the column. He told Sharman about it.
Sharman, by then a special consultant to the Lakers in California, dug through his files. He found a picture of that 1971-72 team and signed it. He found a copy of the original set of team autographs from that season, which he Xeroxed for me.
Then Sharman stuffed all that in an envelope and sent it to me along with another handwritten note that concluded, “Thanks for bringing back some very nice, exciting memories!”
I didn't lose that one.
RIP to Bill Sharman -- who cared enough to make the day of someone he had never met.