Midway through his sixth NBA season (1955-56), Bill Sharman invented the gameday shootaround, a development that eventually earned the enmity of countless players and coaches yet irrevocably revolutionized the way the game was played.
At the time, the 6-1 Sharman started beside Bob Cousy in the Boston Celtics backcourt. On his way to the Hall of Fame, Sharman was already celebrated for his sharpshooting, feisty defense and diligent work ethic
“I was always very nervous the day of a game,” he explained. “I’d just pace around the house or the hotel room until it was time to go to the arena. There was a high school gymnasium in the neighborhood where I lived in Boston, so one morning at about 10 o’clock, I decided to go over there just to dribble around and take a few shots. This was just about a year after the new basketball was introduced, one that was made of some kind of rubber compound, had a pebbled skin and didn’t have any raised laces. There was a slightly different feel to a totally round basketball that I wasn’t yet completely comfortable with. Anyway, during the game that night, I felt much looser and quicker than I ordinarily did, and I had a much better shooting touch, too. So I returned to the gym the next time we played at home. After awhile, I developed a routine for myself. I’d only take the kind of shots that I’d normally take during a game, and I kept shooting until I made five in a row from each spot. When my teammates noticed how much better I was playing, some of them started coming to the gym with me.”
Sharman reports that during his first five-plus NBA seasons, he was an 86 percent free throw shooter. In the five-plus seasons after instituting his personal morning “shoot,” his marksmanship increased to 92 percent.
Sharman thought he had ended his playing career when he retired from the Celtics after the 1960-61 season, but he eagerly accepted an offer to become the player-coach of the Los Angeles Jets in the newly formed (and short-lived) American Basketball League. The rookie coach immediately instituted a 10 a.m. shootaround as part of the team’s gameday routine.
“The players said I was crazy,” he recalled. “They especially objected to having a shootaround after playing the night before. They thought they’d be too stiff, too tired and liable to hurt themselves. But what actually happened was that the players were forced to get out of bed early and break a sweat, which avoided that loggy feeling that they often started a game with. They also developed the visual image, positive reinforcement and most importantly, the muscle memory of the ball going through the hoop.”
After winning the first-ever ABL championship the league folded shortly thereafter, and Sharman wound up coaching two moderately successful seasons at Cal State-Los Angeles (10-12 followed by 17-8). “I couldn’t fit the shootaround into the program because of classes.”
However, in the summer of 1966, he was invited to return to the NBA as coach of the San Francisco Warriors. Rick Barry, the team’s high-scorer and most notorious ego-maniac, resisted and ridiculed Sharman’s shootarounds. “As the season progressed,” Sharman said, “I had to schedule the shoots on a limited basis, mainly because the players complained so much and I was a little insecure. When the players said that shootarounds were no fun at all, I told them that winning is fun, and that lazing around in bed and losing isn’t.”
In any event, the Warriors fought their way into the championship round before losing to the Philadelphia 76ers in six games.
Next up for Sharman was a stint in the American Basketball Association where he won another championship. His reward was a five-year contract to coach the Los Angeles Lakers. If Jerry West immediately endorsed the idea of the shootaround, Wilt Chamberlain wasn’t quite as enthusiastic.
“I don’t get to bed until three or four in the morning,” Wilt told Sharman, “and I rarely have a good night’s sleep anyway. The point is that I don’t like getting out of bed early. But I like you, Bill, so I’ll give your shootarounds a try. If it helps the team, I’ll go along. If not . . . Then we’ll see what happens.”
What happened was that, early in the season, the Lakers set a still-standing record of 33 consecutive regular-season wins en route to a championship.
Since NBA coaches are inclined to copy whatever game plans have proved to be successful, morning shootarounds have been a staple of virtually every team’s gameday routines.
So what actually transpires in these shoots?
All players report for work on time and in their practice gear. Some teams insist that certain players get taped, other leave this to each player’s discretion. First on the agenda are some stretches, then light jogging followed by more intensive running — usually a full-court five-man weave. Some shooting drills are next, succeeded by dummying through several offensive and defensive sets — with an emphasis on correcting whatever miscues have come up. Lastly, a thorough scouting report on that evening’s opponent, with a walkthrough of their sets and tendencies. Lastly, a convening of the squad for the head coach to deliver reminders, suggestions, warnings and/or a pep talk as the situation requires.
“Bill’s introduction of the morning shootaround revolutionized basketball,” says Phil Jackson. “Because of Bill’s innovation, come game-time the players were sharper and the teams were better prepared. Bill brought a new sense of discipline and organization to the NBA that significantly upgraded the quality of play.”
Even so, coaches have tweaked Sharman’s procedure. The most radical being Stan Albeck’s arranging for the 1985-86 Bulls shoots to be held in the late afternoons before the actual games. However, since Chicago won only 30 games that season, Albeck was fired and his shoot strategy was kaput.
But several current coaches are seriously considering whether or not morning shootarounds are worth the trouble. What with all the traveling from one time zone to another, and with nearly every player nursing some kind of nagging injury as the season grinds along, the shoot might no longer be a staple of NBA action.
Indeed, during Brian Shaw’s tenure coaching the Denver Nuggets, the shootaround was eliminated. Hmmm. Did that move have anything to do with Denver’s 20-39 mark when Shaw was canned?
Anyway, it says here that the morning shoot is too useful to be dispensed with — and for all the reasons that Bill Sharman originally stated.
Still, the most unusual of the thousands of NBA shootarounds that have taken place was established by Doug Moe when he coached the Nuggets throughout the 1980s.
Elston Turner had played with the Dallas Mavericks for three seasons before he signed a free-agent contract with Denver in 1984. He knew that Moe was a free spirit, but ET was still surprised when he reported for his first shoot under his new coach.
“The guys were wearing all kinds of mismatched outfits,” Turner recalls, “their college sweat shirts, Bermuda shorts, whatever. And there was Doug, sitting at courtside smoking a cigar and yakking with one of the players. So I went over to Doug and asked him what he wanted me to do.”
“It’s a shootaround, right?” said Moe. “So go shoot around.”